Saturday, February 21, 2015

Equality at Ironman World Championships

In the interest of full disclosure at the beginning: I am a signatory on the official letter to Ironman's Women For Tri board, advocating for equal slots for professional men and women's fields at Kona.

As you can probably tell from my Twitter feed, I am critical of the triathlon industry as a whole. I'm critical because I care deeply about it; I didn't dedicate a decade to it (and the run industry) because I was chasing money. It's a labor of love.

I got my start in this sport because I remember watching the Wide World of Sports coverage of Kona, watching the men and women's professional field coverage, and thinking that it was astounding that people would do that. And that I wanted to do it someday. Someday became 2010 when Hannah's father died and it through into stark relief that it was damned time to turn my dreams into goals into reality, as you never know when it will all come to an end.

So when I see barriers to entry to the sport like an insistence on "needs" like aero wheels, or wetsuits, or hell, a "budget triathlon bike" for $2800, that bothers me. We can't grow the sport when we're asking people to invest thousands of dollars into one event. It's simply not a sustainable model. There will always be people willing to buy that amount of gear. But we need to make it easier for people to get hooked on the sport and then want to invest in it, rather than asking them to invest that kind of money out of the gate.

That brings us to the lack of equality at the top of the sport.

Before the introduction of the Kona points ranking system, it was pretty easy to get yourself to Hawaii as a professional. However, since the introduction of KPR (which is a genius method of WTC getting more pros to race their events, but I digress), professional slots have been allocated to 50 men and 35 women. Counting champions provisionals, it winds up being a little closer to 55-40.

The argument for that is twofold: first, that there are more male professionals; second, that the men's professional field is deeper in quality.

The quantity argument is, well, indisputable. The simple fact is that as of now, there are more male professional triathletes. The quality argument has been thoroughly debunked by those far smarter than I; for a great reading on the topic, I would suggest this post over on

So, what's the hold-up? We have data over the years showing the success of Title IX in athletic sports, including a six-fold increase in participation at the collegiate level by women versus pre-Title IX levels. In other words: if you build it, they will come.

Ironman Kona is the birthplace of our sport. WTC is the primary stakeholder in the history and future (until proven otherwise). The lack of equality in slot allocation to professional women is a disgrace.

The primary argument that I have seen come is that "well, we use participation numbers to set the age-group slots, so doing it for professionals is only fair." This argument is flawed. Age-group slots are set based upon the field at any given race; if women 35-39 make up 20% of the field at one race, and 10% at another, they get 20% at one event and 10% at another. Those slots are consistently in flux; if more women start racing, they immediately get more Kona slots awarded to them.

At the professional level, this isn't the case. There are a finite number of slots determined by the KPR system. Increases in FPRO numbers do not immediately change the number of Kona slots awarded to FPRO's. It *might* have an impact for the following year, although I have the feeling the "quantity" argument that was highlighted in this letter to professional athletes would come up.

Another argument made is regarding quantity. I know of multiple female athletes who have qualified for their pro cards who have declined or delayed acceptance on it because they wanted to race Kona, and would not make the Top 35 in points. By opening up more slots to equal the numbers to the men, you encourage these women to take a crack at their professional card, opening opportunities to women who otherwise may not break through to an amateur Kona slot.

Furthermore, it creates additional value for sponsors to say that they have more athletes in Kona, whether that is a mainstream brand or the women's exclusive apparel manufacturers. Anything to add exposure to both athletes and the industry in totality is adding value, which will do nothing but create benefits down the road. Also, these women often have compelling stories about their families, or how they trained, juggling their professional, personal, and racing lives. By giving that exposure, you encourage those who are on the couch, who have done nothing but harbor that dream, to potentially give it a shot.

I'm passionate about this because we, as a sport, get so much of this right. We've had equal prize money for men and women. Women get to race the same distance as the men, which is something a lot of other endurance sports don't offer. (Cycling, here's looking at you with a death stare.) Equal slots is the last frontier to make our sport truly an equal harbor for professional men and women.

So, WTC: your move.