Fortune

RACING TO BUILD AN ENDURANCE SPORTS EMPIRE

WITH A BOLD BUYING SPREE, CHINESE CONGLOMERATE DALIAN WANDA HAS BECOME THE WORLD’S BIGGEST OPERATOR OF MARATHONS AND TRIATHLONS. NOW ALL IT HAS TO DO IS GET PEOPLE RUNNING AGAIN.
THE NEW IRONMEN Competitors prepare for the swim phase of a triathlon event in Hefei, China. The number of Chinese nationals competing in Ironman events rose sevenfold in 2016.

Sixteen years ago, Andrew Messick was an executive on the rise at the National Basketball Association—and suffering from early-onset middle-aged blahs. Constant travel and long hours had led him to pack on the pounds, leaving him easily tired and plagued with back problems.

That’s when the former high school track athlete and UC–Davis rugby player rediscovered exercise. He started with short bike rides in New York City’s Central Park, then graduated to longer excursions. He taught himself to swim competitively. And by 2005 he had found his obsession: Ironman triathlons. “Ironmans” are the gold standard for amateur endurance athletes: Each consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon—with no breaks.

As Messick trained, his weight fell as low as 170 pounds from a peak of 210, relieving his long-suffering back. Messick, 53, has now done three full-length Ironmans and competes frequently in shorter triathlons. Above all, he says, competing satisfies him emotionally: “It fills an elemental need in people, which is to know, ‘Can I do it?’ ”

Today it’s Messick’s job to persuade millions more people to answer that question. In 2011 he became CEO of World Triathlon Corp. (WTC), which organizes Ironman and other sporting events worldwide. In 2015, WTC was acquired by Chinese mega-conglomerate Dalian Wanda, and this year, Wanda bought the world’s largest organizer of marathons and half-marathons. Messick, who oversees the combined operation, now faces an Olympian challenge: generating demand for such events among China’s rising cohort of middle-class, deskbound consumers.

Like other maturing industries, endurance sports are looking to China for invigoration. Endurance events are a nearly $2 billion market in the U.S.,

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