Some athletes already know Messinia well; the two signature 18-hole courses at the Costa Navarino resort have put the area on the map as one of Europe’s most exciting golfing destinations. Cyclists also love this southwestern region of the Peloponnese, with its varied nature and soft rolling hills.
Now it’s time for triathlon athletes to get to know it. “Ironman 70,3 Greece, Costa Navarino” will take place in Messinia on April 14th. It’s the first Ironman challenge to take place in the country, and the response to the event, which combines swimming, cycling and running, has been massive.
“Let me tell you a quick story,” began Stefanos Theodoridis, managing director of Temes S.A. (the development company behind Costa Navarino), speaking at the press conference for the event in Athens. “A few weeks ago I was in a cab in Hamburg, talking to the driver. He didn’t know what Messinia was, or even the Peloponnese. When I mentioned Costa Navarino however, he said: ‘Costa Navarino? Ronaldo!’”
The driver had heard the rumors of footballer Cristiano Ronaldo’s generous tip for the staff of Costa Navarino. Little surprise, he also knew about the Ironman challenge. “Long story short,” Theodoridis continued, “everyone I’ve spoken to in the last couple of months have heard that story about Ronaldo, and that we’re hosting Ironman in April. It gives you a clue as to how big sports tourism really is”.
Thanasis Papadimitriou, CEO of I.Q.Sports, Ironman 70,3 Greece’s official organizer, and EZ Greece (EY ZHN), the exclusive hospitality service provider for the event, described the response they’ve seen from athletes as overwhelming, right from the start. “We expected to get eight or nine hundred applications, from athletes from maybe thirty countries.”
They were wrong. Ironman 70,3 Greece will be the biggest triathlon, the biggest bike race, and the biggest open water swimming competition ever held in Greece, with some 1500 athletes from 61 countries racing. The spots filled up within five months.
Ironman is a giant; the most famous challenge and title for a triathlete. The original Ironman competition was held 40 years ago in Hawaii, and the original length of the race was double the Ironman 70,3 (140,6 miles, or 226 km) – but today both distances are popular. While the competition is open to everyone, not just professional athletes, being able to call yourself an Ironman requires no small amount of training and dedication.
But perhaps it’s not just the competition itself drawing the participants and their families to Costa Navarino in April. The location, on the largely untouched coast of Messinia, is a draw in itself – many would say as beautiful a destination as the event’s tropical birthplace.
The 1,9 km swimming portion will take place in the Ionian Sea in front of the pristine Navarino Dunes beach; the 90 km cycling portion will take competitors on two laps through ancient olive groves and a pine forest, with amazing views towards the sea; and finally, a half marathon will take them by the famous Voidokilia Beach (aka Omega Beach) and the Gialova Lagoon, a protected Natura 2000 site.
The athletes only have ten minutes to change between activities, and the cutoff time for all portions combined is 8 hours and 30 minutes.
It’s widely held that the triathlon discipline is growing on an international level. So is choosing a healthy lifestyle in general. Petros Tatoulis, regional governor of the Peloponnese, expressed pride over the fact that the region is promoting alternative, health-oriented tourism, mentioning as an example the work being done in marking the many walking paths in the area.
Ioannis Goulios, deputy general secretary of the Greek Tourism Organization (EOT), also pointed out that the sports tourism target group is generally one that’s looking for the “whole package” when they travel. “They want beautiful landscapes, authentic experiences and excellent accommodation”. In other words, all that Messinia provides.
Triathlon athlete Giorgos Stathopoulos is one of the competitors who will be attempting the Ironman challenge for the first time at Costa Navarino. He emphasized the importance of nature as a reason triathletes do what they do. “Sure, triathlon is in my blood as well; my father was one of the first Greeks to complete a full Ironman race, and my brother is even more invested, but I don’t practice for the titles, I do it to get out of the house.”
“It’s a way of life,” he continues, “getting out into nature on a daily basis and moving our bodies is the most important part of it. Having an Ironman challenge take place in Greece is important not just for the one event, but to bring attention to the area… and to the sport! I’m happy that triathlon is finally getting some attention.”
Also at the press conference was beloved Greek athlete Christos Garefis, now 64, who is renowned for competing in a wide variety of sports (including swimming, tennis, sailing – he placed 12th in the 2004 Olympic Games – and triathlon).
He has been an “Ironman” since 1990 and was clearly moved as he received his race number: the no. 1.
Thanking the organizers for the honor, he also took a moment to express how important events like these are not just for tourism, but in order to shift Greek people’s attitude toward sports, saying that changes need to be made, particularly in schools.
The first 50 athletes over the finish line of Ironman 70,3 Greece, Costa Navarino will have their next goal set, as they will qualify to race in the Ironman 70,3 World Championship to be held in Nice, France, in September.
The next goal for the Greek organizers could be a full Ironman 140,6, or hosting more than one challenge per year. Papadimitriou confirmed both possibilities with a smile, using the Ironman slogan: “Anything is possible”.