Triatlon boss: 'We are not going with the begging bowl, we want to deliver something'

Chris Kitchen will finish up as CEO of Triatlon Ireland in the coming months after eight hugely successful years. He tells Brendan O'Brien about the many ups as well as the recent downs brought on by the Covid-19 crisis and what's next
Triatlon boss: 'We are not going with the begging bowl, we want to deliver something'
Chris Kitchen CEO of Triathlon Ireland. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

What was the moment you realised that this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

It was mid-March. I hadn't had a holiday for two years so my wife and I went over to St Lucia. Much to her annoyance I take my laptop with me so I'm not coming back to loads of emails. I was having a chat with our operations director and suddenly realised that we would have to shut the office down. We knew then that this would be a huge problem for TI even if we didn't realise it would go on so long.

That must have ruined the holiday.

It certainly distracted us a bit! We actually caught one of the last flights out of St Lucia on BA [British Airways]. They were shutting down the island the next day so we only got back by the skin of our teeth.

You have worked in IT, been a company owner and even an ice cream van salesman but has anything in your past professional experience been any help in dealing with everything that has happened this last four months?

It's on a totally different scale. I have been through about three recessions and I've had to take difficult decisions in the past in order to keep companies going so that they could carry on but this is very, very different. We are used to working remotely anyway but I have to say that the staff's reaction has been phenomenal.

Triathlon Ireland made huge strides in recent years with increases in membership, events, the number of clubs and your operating budget but what has the financial impact of all this been?

Similar to many sports. It has maybe hit us harder than some actually because we had three distinct funding streams with the funding from Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland making up 30%, almost 40% of it from membership and the remainder from sponsorship and events. Two of those streams dropped through the floor so diversifying income streams as Sport Ireland asked us to do has probably hit us more than some sports that are solely reliable on Sport Ireland for their funding.

We had a drop of something like 85% in membership between March and June, a 98% drop in events income in the same time and a 100% drop in one-day licences that we sell to events so it has been a massive hit for us. We normally sanction 200-plus events a year. We will probably sanction 30-40 this year.

We had built up a big reserve which has given us some resilience and we would have had to make some redundancies and some short-time working arrangements if it hadn't been for those reserves and the wage support scheme from the government. We're hurting. We've cut our expenditure massively and next year is a major year with the Olympics and you would worry about membership as well.

Will TI be looking to access the government's recently announced rescue package for sport?

We will but we don't want to be taking money. We want to do something for it. We are not just going with the begging bowl. We want to deliver something and that may be in increased participation because we have had so many more people in Ireland who have gone out for a run, a walk or a bike. We would like to attract a lot of those people.

When are we likely to see triathlons being held again, bearing in mind that this is a fluid situation?

We cancelled events for March, then April and up to June and it is very fluid. We are now into phase three of the roadmap so we can get events back up and running. We have about 30 on the calendar and four or five major events from the BMW National Series. They will kick off from July 20th onwards with social distancing in mind. We all have to be so sure that there are no spikes in infections so we are very cautious.

We are hoping to get a few open water triathlons up and running from mid-July into August and then September before the water gets too cold. Some of the duathlons that we would have had in March and April are being put back to October. Some events will likely get merged with the costs of carrying on and the social distancing element adds to that cost. It would be nice to have a crystal ball, wouldn't it?

You are vice-president of the European Triathlon Union. How is the roadmap back to training and competition elsewhere?

Most of the European nations now are easing lockdown, even the Italians and the Spanish who are probably two or three weeks ahead of us with the virus and the easing. There has been a massive hit across Europe in terms of events and some of the countries have allowed their elite athletes to have swim training for quite some time. That was a bit of a problem for us until the pools reopened. It still means we are a bit behind some of the European nations.

We are still trying to run the European Championships in Estonia on the 29th of August and then there will be another half-dozen events up to the last one in Portugal in November. We send 300-plus athletes to compete in the European Championships every year because we have five-year age bands in the sport and that has been a major topic of discussion among the countries recently. If you don't have the income from all those people coming then it is very hard to run the event.

You are finishing up as CEO soon after eight years in the role. What are your reflections on the experience?

I was hoping to go out on a real high in September so this has been a real dampener in that sense but it has been absolutely brilliant overall. I've loved it. When I joined we had nine employees and we have built up a team of 22 now and I'm gobsmacked every day at their dedication and commitment to triathlon. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with them.

It has been incredibly rewarding to see them come on. We were just coming out of the last recession when we took a lot of them on. We were getting fully qualified sports scientists applying for admin roles, 60-100 really highly qualified people applying for one job and they are now people delivering major projects and coming up with ideas. It's been great for me.

I'll be very sad to go but it was time. I said it when I first took the job that I would look to do two Olympic cycles, even if this one will go on through to next year now. Meeting targets is what I love and live by and we've been doing that. I'm staying in Irish sport on a consultancy basis and I'd love to keep my interest in triathlon in Ireland in some shape or form as well.

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