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Triathlon-the sport combining swimming, running and bicycling-is surging in popularity, and an increasing number of triathletes are not much past their training-wheels years.

One reason why more adults and kids are getting interested is that in summer of 2000, for the first time, triathlon will be a full medal sport at the Olympics in Sydney. Overall participation around the U.S. is up significantly this year, and sponsors are increasing their involvement.

Said Steve Locke, executive director of U.S. Triathlon, which oversees the sport in the U.S. and its Olympic teams: "As the sport of triathlons becomes more mainstream, people are beginning to understand it's not just about the Ironman events of extreme distances, but something much more accessible to the average person."

And that includes children. Bread marketer Earthgrains Co. has been linking its IronKids brand to triathlon competitions since 1985.

But after hitting a peak with 18 kids competitions across the U.S. in 1994, Earthgrains reconfigured the IronKids Bread Triathlon Series, reducing the number of competitions to a handful and increasing publicity and on-site marketing efforts at each one to emphasize IronKids bread, billed as the only bread specifically targeting children.


This year, six IronKids triathlon competitions are planned, each expected to draw as many as 500 competitors, ages 7 to 14. The final championships, slated for Sept. 12 in San Antonio, will be covered on ESPN.

"With fewer events, we're getting more impact at each one, and participation is really starting to surge again," said Bizzy O'Leary, manager of sports, events and communications marketing for St. Louis-based Earthgrains, which markets 14 different bread brands in about half of the U.S., predominantly in the Southeast.

Earthgrains also made sure to heighten the role of IronKids bread in communities across the U.S. when it refocused event marketing activities four years ago. The triathlon series is now promoted at the point of purchase at many supermarkets carrying IronKids bread as part of Earthgrains' new emphasis on retail channel marketing.

In 1997, Earthgrains created a mobile IronKids Park play center that visits supermarkets, fairs and festivals across the U.S. 43 weeks a year, reaching a total of 45,000 kids with coupons and product samples. SJI, St. Louis, handles the store tour, which complements the IronKids Bread Triathlon Series, Ms. O'Leary said.


"Event marketing has become one of our best ways of driving awareness of the IronKids brand and demonstrating our commitment to health with our products," Ms. O'Leary said.

Nick Radkewich, the 1985 IronKids triathlon champion when he was 14, is now a top contender for the U.S. triathlon team, and IronKids is reaping some additional publicity from this fact.

"We have several former champions who are now international triathlon stars, and they're very supportive of our event and our brand," Ms. O'Leary said, adding that she hopes to develop additional promotional opportunities through him if Mr. Radkewich competes in the Olympics next year.

New sponsors also are discovering the power of linking with triathlons as the sport's popularity grows. Nike and Bally Total Fitness recently came aboard as sponsors of individual U.S. triathlon team athletes; existing sponsors of the team include Lotus software, Polar heart rate monitors, PowerBar, Shimano, Speedo and Timex, said Mike McCarley, communications director at U.S. Triathlon, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Even high-fashion Polo Ralph Lauren is launching a triathlon-theme print campaign this spring starring four U.S. Olympic triathlon team hopefuls it sponsors, while promoting its new RLX technical sports apparel sold through triathlon and running stores. Carlson & Co., New York, handles.


U.S. Triathlon, which sanctions more than 600 competitions annually, said overall participation in triathlons is up this year, along with the number of events planned, while membership in its organization has increased 12% to 18,000.

So far in 1999, U.S. Triathlon has sanctioned 228 triathlon events, including 36 new ones. Last year at this time, there were only a total of 177 events listed for sanctioning, Mr. McCarley said.

The organization also has debuted a new 30-minute regular series called "Triathlete Magazine," airing three times a month on cable's Outdoor Life

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