Kona Pro Slots – Part 3: Opinion

In this series of blog posts on Kona Pro Slots, I’ve looked at Reverse Engineering The Assignment Algorithm and ideas for Different Approaches – both of these posts have been close to the facts. This post contains my views on the current algorithm, a bit of speculation on what Ironman was looking for and some bigger and smaller changes going forward. The following thoughts are my opinion, and I would love this to be a starting point for a broader discussion of how to get the best, most interesting races in Kona as possible.

On Its Own, the Assignment Algorithm Is Fair

I’ve had a detailed look at potential algorithms for assigning slots in Part 1 of this series. Here’s the graph summarizing the different approaches:

Algorithms4Slots

The algorithm that makes it hardest for the larger group (usually the men) to get both slots is “Hamilton Unassigned” – but it’s quite unfair as their share of slots would always be smaller than their share of starters. The next-best algorithm for the smaller group is the “Jefferson Unassigned”, and that’s the algorithm that Ironman has in all likelihood chosen to use (that’s why it’s highlighted).

I also find it reasonable that Ironman slightly tweaks the algorithm for Regional Championships as they have more fixed slots: If they used the unaltered Jefferson Unassigned, again you’d end up with a situation where the larger group’s share of slots is always smaller than their share of slots. The tweak is not very elegant, but the resulting slot assignment looks quite reasonable to me.

But Only If You Accept Proportional Assignment Based on Starters

Even if the slot assignment algorithm is fair, this doesn’t mean I like the overall system as it’s solely based on the number of starters. At first, this sounds reasonable (after all it has been used for assigning age group slots), but there should be other factors in order to determine the athletes that will likely have the biggest impact on the Kona races. (I have highlighted some of these factors such as Strength of Field or Race Performance in Part 2 of this series.)

I want to note that this discussion is a slippery slope as it can quickly deteriorate into an “X doesn’t deserve to be in Kona” type of argument that isn’t fair to anyone involved (or useful). For example, I think that Carrie Lester’s 8:44 in Arizona should have been good enough for a Kona slot – but that would have to come at the cost of TJ Tollakson who has been working hard to overcome his back problems and it’s great to see him qualify once again for Kona. But it’s hard to avoid this “men vs. women” discussion – after all the women will only get more slots if they “take” them from the men which is hardly the best way of developing our sport.

So Why Is Ironman Keeping the Algorithm Secret?

One of the criticisms leveled at Ironman is that they haven’t made much information about their slot assignment algorithm available – and the quick conclusion by some was that “Ironman must be hiding something”, even going so far as suggesting that there isn’t a real algorithm and that the unassigned slots “always go to the men”. As stated above, that is not the actual procedure (see Western Australia for a counter-example), but not being transparent has led to some confusion and frustration.

To be honest, I’m not really sure why Ironman isn’t making more information available. I can only guess that they want to avoid discussion at race sites about the slots (both for the Pros and the agegroupers) and that they want to be able to change some details whenever they see the need for it. But even in the absence of “official details”, I don’t really see “sinister motives” on Ironman’s side in keeping things private.

Has Ironman Just Been Unlucky With Arizona and Mar del Plata?

On one hand, Arizona and Mar del Plata have been very close to ending up with equal slots. (For Arizona, things shifted between the race meeting and race day, for Mar del Plata just one more woman or one less male would have made a difference.) Based on last year’s numbers Ironman probably expected equal slots: Arizona was 25–22 and Mar del Plata was 16-13, with would have clearly been equal slots.

I think that Ironman was hoping for a more equal distribution of Pro slots than in the past – maybe not providing equal slots but at least a lot closer than under the KPR system. And to a certain degree, that is what’s going to happen: Even if all the currently unassigned slots in the 2019 races go to the men, we will have at least the same number of WPROs with Kona slots as in the past.

On the other hand, the small number of starters pretty much assures that there will be some more “weirdness” in assigning the slots, similar to what we’ve seen in Arizona and Mar del Plata. This is a result of the small number of slots and the small number of racers. The “random” decisions of just one or two athletes can influence how the slots will be assigned, while that is extremely unlikely with around 50 agegroup slots and typically 2000 racers or the even larger numbers of seats and votes in context of elections.

Equal Slots Is the Cleanest Solution to This Conundrum

So what should be done moving forward? For a while there has been a push for equal slots for the Pro men and women in Kona, and I continue to believe that this is the cleanest solution on how to assign slots: When giving men and women the same number of slots we won’t have to debate the merits of this or another slot assignment algorithm. ‘Nuff said!

But I Also Have a Few More Realistic Suggestions

As “Equal Slots” would be a pretty big change for Ironman, I’m not holding my breath for this to happen in the next few seasons. (Though as Rachel Joyce has put it, I’m sure that “equality will prevail eventually”.) While I’m also not a fan of drastic changes without giving the current system to play out a bit more, here are a few ideas for minor “tweaks” intended to make the current system work a bit more smoothly:

  • Announce Slot Distribution at the Pro Meeting
    In order to minimize surprises on race day, the slot distribution could be fixed on the number of Pros that sign in at the Pro Meeting. This would also give Ironman a chance to announce the slots at the Pro Meeting.
    The difference between the number of athletes at the Pro Meeting and on race morning is almost always relatively small – and I’m not sure why someone getting sick in the last few days should have an impact on how the slots fall. I also don’t think that this leaves too much room for manipulation – when someone shows up to the Pro Meeting, the extra burden of putting their toes in the water on race morning is pretty small.
  • Fix the Total Number of Male and Female Slots for the Season
    Looking at the total number of Pro starters in the 2018 qualifying season (September 2017 to August 2018), I get 416 female and 772 male Pro starts. Applying those numbers to 20 unassigned slots (ten for the Regionals and another ten for Ironman races with unassigned slots) would lead to 7 female and 13 male Pro slots (pretty much regardless of the actual algorithm). When announcing the races for the upcoming season, Ironman could assign the slots to the races on the calendar, making it clear long before the races how many slots there will be for each gender.

While minimizing the surprises, implementing either of these suggestions would keep the base “proportional” system in place.  I hope that Ironman will at least discuss tweaking the system for 2020, maybe after we’ve had some more experience with the current system in the first half of 2019.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Newsletter ep. 66: off seasoning & secret $$ – Live Feisty - December 19, 2018

    […] third post in Thorsten’s series on Kona qualifying is his opinions on the topic. I’ve heard from a lot of people with their own ideas for how to fix what feels like a broken […]

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