by Chris McCormack
People 10 years on from my fight with Normann Stadler say what triathlon needs is a rivalry, but when I was doing it, I was the Antichrist! Miss me now, hey?
Kidding aside, rivalries are a necessity for a sport to transcend its own built-in audience and step up into more mainstream consciousness. They draw attention to the sport going beyond head-to-head results to actually create meaning and entertainment value in the clash of two big personalities, because fans become invested in who wins.
It’s difficult to manufacture a rivalry. The most impactful ones arise spontaneously because the two parties are champions in their own right, each trying to pursue a single crown. But there can only be one winner.
I think for great rivalries to occur, there are a few things that need to be in place. Missing any of these, and any budding rivalry a sport seeks to promote merely becomes just another listing of race results.
Rivals don’t have to like each other.
Some rivals get along, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and some don’t, like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Neither direction is right or wrong. It just is.
You can’t put rivalries in a box because the dynamics that arise between two parties may not look the same as that between two other parties, because everyone is different and unique.
Everyone holds Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal up as an example of a “healthy rivalry” because the two of them are friends off-court. So people have created expectations and a restrictive framework about what a rivalry should look like, basing it off what great rivalries of the past have been.
But there is actually no template for what is correct or what will push two competitive, evenly-matched individuals to go at each other with everything they’ve got. Each rivalry takes its own way; once it gets a start and picks up momentum it becomes its own living being, to some degree.
Who are we to define what a rivalry should look like among the world's best athletes? We forget that this sport is their life; they’ve got a lot on the line and sacrificed much to get there. As a spectator, you’re actually watching someone’s life success (or failure). Of course it means a lot more to them than a weekend race would to an age grouper.
When the stakes are that high they take things personally, and sometimes it does get personal. If you don’t like how one athlete behaves, then don’t follow them -- but don’t set rules on how they’re supposed to behave. Yes an athlete needs to be a good sport, but it’s all right for them to be upset, angry, and/or disappointed because that is their reality. They don’t need to hide it.
You look at Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield, Oscar dela Hoya vs. Fernando Vargas: these guys can’t stand each other and they are not afraid to show it.
And that’s why I love boxing. They realise you need to generate interest by driving rivalries. It’s harder nowadays because there’s so much information about other things and focus is diluted. But boxing is amazing at identifying and promoting rivalries. They have what are called promoters because they’re promoting an event and also these athletes.
For example the match-up between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather: they’re two characters, different kinds of fighters. They were both champions and brought so much momentum to the table, calling each other out because they both wanted a fight. And the promoters fueled and fed that rivalry so that everybody wanted to see that fight happen.
Rivalries arise because of authentic differences.
Great rivalries have two very different characters that force people to pick sides and identify with one.
I never wanted a rivalry with Normann Stadler and Craig Alexander, but it just naturally happened because we are such different people who wanted the same thing that it caused friction.
If you get into a room with 100 people, surely you won’t get along with everyone. What more 100 people who are all after the same prize money and palmares? That’s just natural.
But in the old days there was a level of acceptable tension that enabled rivalries to naturally occur. These days, any tension between athletes seems unacceptable, so athletes tend to hide how they really feel and how competitive they really are in order not to ruffle feathers. But doing that short-circuits the natural process of how rivalries form.
What I struggle with in triathlon is there’s this expectation that just because you swim, bike, and run, you have the same personality or likes and dislikes as everybody else who’s in the sport. With everything on record these days on social media there’s a fear attached to behaving differently from everyone else. Athletes think they need to behave a certain way to attract support from the business types who have gravitated to triathlon. They think they all need to put on this show, smile for the cameras, and hide how much they want to beat everyone else. They then become these Instagrammable little robots.
I think that’s wrong because in the same way a high-powered executive is ruthless in business, I had to be ruthless in the sport because this is my business. The same attitude that got them to the top is the same attitude I have, and our commonality is that we are driven individuals who would run through brick walls to get what we want. The difference is, there’s no social media involved when a businessman is manoeuvring into a hostile takeover.
When you show your uniqueness, your personality, and how much you care about the outcome, you give people something to root for (or against). It sets you apart from the rest of the clones. Some people may see themselves in how you work, how you approach things and relationships, how you view life. Conversely, some people may not find you their cup of tea. But that's not a bad thing.
If everyone acts the same, there’s no point of reference, no enemy. Everyone wants to look picture-perfect, then expect to create rivalry around just who wins the race. That’s not what rivalry is about.
Look at the football clubs Liverpool and Manchester. They have branded themselves to stand out and apart from each other, and their respective fans have identified with what makes each team different. (And their fans hate each other even if they don’t know each other!)
Rivalries are much easier in mano-a-mano sports, team sports, and match races because there’s one winner and one loser. In triathlon you can come 2nd, 3rd, 4th… and some people are happy with 3rd.
Not showing this hunger to win softens the importance of these wins, to the detriment of interest in the sport and its athletes. This has happened in triathlon. A few decades ago, Dave and Mark were on the Wheaties box (so was yours truly). We were on major talk shows in the US, with bestselling books written by us or about us. But these days only people in the sport follow the sport; it doesn’t generate interest outside the sport.
Rivals are a legitimate threat to each other’s dominance.
You can’t match Manny Pacquiao up with just anybody -- not least one who talks a big game but gets knocked out in the 5th round -- and call it a rivalry. There has to be a real threat these athletes pose to each other, and some dynamic that brings the interest in the head-to-head battle.
The people you fight make you a champion. The people you race make you great. The people he fought made Muhammad Ali great. If he didn’t have George Foreman, Sonny Liston or Joe Frazier we wouldn’t be talking about him in the same reverential tone. It is the era of personality and stars that ensure that rivalries not only begin but are relevant.
You saw what happened last year when Alistair Brownlee and Jan Frodeno had what looked like a run-in at the Kona finish line. Everyone got so excited because they’ve got history and now they’re moving in on each other again. Guess what: these two athletes do not send each other Christmas cards. They are distinctive personalities who race, think and behave very differently. Outside of triathlon they don’t really have much in common. They are civil to each other but probably are not the closest of peers, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
They both want the same thing, they are both capable of achieving it in their own unique ways and whether they are friends or not is irrelevant to the outcome. This authentic tension is noticeable and this is why the rivalry is a strong one. History, ego, time, passion, ability and personality are all potent mixes in the development of the characters at the centre of any rivalry.
Jan is an intimidating creature. He has such a presence as an athlete, and that momentum is warranted as he is such a big race performer and everybody knows he only comes to race when he is ready. Jan is not one to just make up the numbers. If he is pinning a number on, he is in tiptop condition, and anything less than first is failure.
However, it is in the friendly demeanour he brings to the game where he’s outplayed his competitors. None of these other pros have stepped up because they haven’t realised that his power play is intimidation with results and being everybody’s friend and understanding their process. They not only respect his athletic ability, but also how he is able to soften tension. This makes it even more difficult to find that fighting desire to beat him. He is a nice guy, and subconsciously it can be hard to be athletically cruel to a nice guy. At times this can be the difference between a loss and a win.
But Alistair is one athlete who doesn’t buy into it. He doesn’t need Jan to be his friend. Alistair is obsessively competitive and a complete disrupter to the established normals and/or expected performances. Since he came to the sport, he has been a physical tidal wave that turned the racing on its head, and he was ruthless in his knockout punches of fields. For Alistair, titles or names or championship medals of his competitors meant nothing. In his eyes, he saw himself as the alpha competitor and truly behaved like that in every capacity. His incredible racing resume -- and even more so the way he won races -- was immediately impactful. He probably thinks he’s a better athlete than everyone he faces, and can’t wait to go toe-to-toe with Jan or anyone else, as he sees himself completely as a winner.
These two are polarising individuals. They are both Olympic champions. Alistair dethroned Jan in the ITU the year after Beijing and became the greatest short-course racer of all time. Jan has positioned himself as the king of this sport, but Alistair doesn’t buy into others perceptions or opinions because in his head, he’s the king. The only reason Jan’s on top at the moment is Alistair hasn’t been racing him. Alistair believes that to the core of his existence, and I think any true professional athlete resonates with that way of thinking.
There are many others who may identify with either Alistair or Jan, and that’s what makes it a budding rivalry. It is the very core of their own self-belief that creates the interest in the competition in the first place. It is these exact behaviours that create the perfect storm of interest when mega stars come together.
On the women’s side any rivalry exists off the back of Daniela Ryf having had such success for so long we want to see someone else challenge her, rather than someone standing up to say directly, “I want to kick her ass.” We’re hoping for Lucy Charles, and the current Ironman world champion Anne Haug. But if the Olympics next year get truly cancelled and Katie Zaferes says she’ll go to Kona, that will be interesting.
Rivalries are held in the public eye.
Athletes can and will be competitive with each other behind closed doors. The resulting tensions however never get labelled as “rivalry” because they’re never talked about in public or in the press.
In triathlon we look fondly back at the rivalry of Mark Allen and Dave Scott, but at the time it was quite intense. Dave owned Kona. For years, everybody would keep talking about Mark dethroning Dave, and Mark would kick Dave’s ass all year. But in Kona, Dave would get into his head. There’s this dynamic of champion versus challenger, and they didn’t shy away from that.
While we look at Dave as an elder statesman now, in his day he was the biggest agitator that ever did our sport. Watch the 1987 race coverage and see the way he talked and applied pressure to Mark and called him out. “Mark Allen has had a fantastic season. He’s won races from January all the way to October. But he’d trade all those races to win here this weekend, and I think he feels that pressure.”
There’s nothing better than both athletes jumping on board that rivalry and milking it, like Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. The controversy generates interest not just in the athletes but also in the sport. Even if you don’t understand the technicalities behind the sport, you become invested in seeing one athlete beat the other.
So you say you want to see a rivalry in the sport? Let athletes be the competitive creatures they are. Pick a side, don’t stand in the way, and let the chips fall where they may.
Chris "Macca" McCormack is a four-time triathlon world champion with the biggest winning percentage in the history of the sport. He is a co-founder and partner in Super League Triathlon, CEO of the Bahrain Endurance 13 team, founder and executive director of MX Endurance, and CEO of MANA Sports & Entertainment Group.
For the full podcast interview, head to mxendurance.com/podcast. Sign up for our MX Endurance podcast membership to gain access to exclusive monthly bonus podcasts with Chris McCormack, as well as a wide range of benefits for only $10/month.