After much blood, sweat and tears (literally and figuratively we believe), Sara Gross brings us the final installment of her take on Gender Equality in the sport of triathlon. 

‪When I started this series in January, the first installment was written as a response to Andrew Messick’s email to professional Ironman athletes stating, among other things, that the WTC will maintain the unequal treatment of female pros at World Championship events by offering only 35 spots while their male counterparts enjoy 50. Since then there has been a proliferation of material written on this topic from a variety of angles, the vast majority in support of equality for female pros.


There has been very little response to the “#50womentokona campaign” from the WTC and what we do have by way of a response does not address the request for equality squarely, but rather touches on the issue in an article entitled “Numbers on the Pier: Kona Qualifying Explained” (Read here)

The anonymous article that appeared on on April 1st 2015 argues that “proportional representation leads to equality of achievement and a single standard of excellence,” later stating that “the same holds true in the professional ranks due to the Kona Points Ranking System” and that “arbitrarily increasing Kona representation of female or specific age groups would be unfair since the additional slots would come at others’ expense. It would create a separate, lower standard of performance for the arbitrarily advantaged group, which is antithetical to the spirit of Ironman.”


TriEqual and supporters of the #50womentokona movement are asking for equality for the female pros, and even though its not stated directly, I know from my own interaction with Messick that he feels that allowing 50 pro women to compete would “create a lower standard of performance.” In this, the final installment in my series, I will address the question of why the female pros as a “specific group” should have equality in numbers immediately and why measures should be taken swiftly to ensure that they can compete on a clean and fair race course.


‪Why Equality for Professional Women?

For true gender equality to be achieved, we should look for markers on all levels. The definition of equal requires us to aim for 50% of general participation, 50% of those representing their age categories at the World Championships and 50% of professional athletes to be women. The question is: how do we achieve this?


My perspective has always been that equality should be fought for and achieved on its own merits. I think it’s fair to say that most of the audience here at witsup see the advantages of equality in sport and beyond. In looking for studies that show that companies that put forth a message of equality do better than those that do not, I found research that supports the fact that businesses, corporations and even countries that empower women perform better. While I know we are (mostly) all sold on equality as a concept, I wanted to share some of my findings here.


First off, in the bigger picture, it is clear that gender inequality in the workforce hurts economic growth. There is a strong correlation around the world between gender inequality and poverty and also a strong correlation between a country’s competitiveness and how it makes use of its female talent.


In the business world, better employment opportunities for women contribute to increased profitability and productivity in the private sector. Companies that invest in women’s employment find it benefits their bottom line by improving staff retention, innovation and access to talent and new markets. Both men and women are more likely to remain employed with a business they view as being “fair.”


Some of these points may apply indirectly to the World Triathlon Corporation, but mostly, they just underline the fact that employing and empowering women in every context is good for business. One would think that a large group of educated, talented and extremely athletic pro women would be an asset to a corporation like the WTC.


Equality for the professional women in Kona is achievable RIGHT NOW. The space required on the pier is modest and can be found. So why should we “arbitrarily” create this space for the pro women and not all women in the immediate future? Why not ask for equality for the female age groupers as well? In order to answer this question we need to go back to basics. We need to ask ourselves why we participate in sport, why we watch sport and what we hope to achieve through sport for society, for our children and for ourselves.


‪Why We Tri

First we need to ask ourselves, why do we play? Why is sport important and why do we want to encourage others to join us and participate in triathlon? The obvious answers are that sport provides the opportunity to be physically fit and healthy. It provides community, and helps reduce disease and maintain a healthy weight. Sport helps reduce depression and other mental health problems and gives us a feeling of well-being. From the socio-economic viewpoint, participation in sport reduces medical costs for families and government and helps increase productivity in any population. I think it is safe to say that participation in sport in general and triathlon in particular is good.


Professional sport has an entirely different set of reasons and goals. Professional sport is first and foremost entertainment. Pro triathletes inspire us to reach higher and dream bigger. They provide role models for children and young adults. In Ironman racing, professional athletes are the conveyors of the message “Anything is possible.”


If we encourage people to take up triathlon, not least would be our children, for the reasons outlined above then I think we need to be very careful about what kind of messages we are transmitting through our professional athletes. If the purpose of the pro race is entertainment and inspiration, then we need to make sure the messages of health, fair play and inclusivity for all are transmitted through them. They come first because of the definition of professional sports. It is part-in-parcel with the very raison-d’etre of our pro athletes to use them to send the message that women and men are equal.


‪Long Term Plan

Let’s say then, that one of our long terms goals as a sport are to encourage more people to join us for the reasons outlined above. From there, we might identify some of the under-represented groups and try to figure out how to make triathlon accessible to them. One of those groups is women. As Ironman keeps telling us, only 19% of participants worldwide are female. So how do we change that?


In an email exchange with fellow academic and author of Multisport Dreaming: Triathlon History in Australia, Jane Hunt PhD said the following based on her research: “Truly creating an even playing field is not just about encouraging more women, more non-whites, more working class or more transgender athletes, it’s about removing the barriers that prevent any of these groups from having equal opportunity to participate in Ironman events.” While there are many barriers that women may face when making the decision to participate in endurance sport, one of those barriers is the culture of masculinity that is pervasive in so many sports. Triathlon is privileged in that it does not carry the same historical baggage that plagues other sports, but we can not sit back and think everything is okay just because we are more gender inclusive than cycling or football. We must continue to take measures to make positive change. In order to create inclusivity and diversity we need to change the culture and the messages that our sport portrays from “we are a middle-class white male sport” to “you are welcome here.” This is where professional athletes come in. This is one of their roles.


Many legislating bodies such as the International Olympic Committee, and various governments around the globe recognize the need to send the right message through their athletes and “there are numerous mechanisms now in place that oblige sporting organizations to pursue gender equality.” (J.H.)  Title IX is the most oft-used example of this since its outcomes are difficult to ignore. An increase of over 400% in female participation in post-secondary sport and the 2.8 millions girls now playing high school sport in the US encompass it all. If Ironman was an American University, the current inequality of opportunity for the professional women would not only be wrong, it would also be illegal.


This is not just about creating opportunity from the top down. True changes in cultural happen when opportunities become available that were not previously. If we create a culture of equal opportunity and openness to diversity, then increased participation numbers from underrepresented groups will follow.


‪Achieving Equality for All

The article posted on makes it clear that there is not enough space on the pier to create equality for all female triathletes at this time because in order to do so, those slots would have to come at the expense of the age group men and the WTC are unwilling to do this. If we accept this answer, are we willing to make the professional women wait until equality is possible for all? That’s not the right course of action.


With all this focus on Kona, it seems to be forgotten that “The Pier” is not the only location for a World Championship transition area. Anyone who has been to Kona understands the space constraint, but what about Ironman 70.3 Worlds? What’s stopping the WTC from creating more space there? It would be great to see an increase in transparency and a willingness to discuss all the possibilities and potential problems around the issue of creating equality for all. I think we can agree that gender equality is a human right. And as we have seen, empowered women contribute to the health and productivity of families and communities and help improve prospects for the next generation. Professional triathletes are the means by which the message and culture of equal opportunity can and should be conveyed to current Ironman customers, future Ironman customers and all triathletes. The message is this: We believe that all people should be able to access and enjoy the same rewards, resources and opportunities regardless of whether they are a man or a woman. We aim to have women represented equally at all levels of performance and to prove that we will treat the pro women with the respect they deserve.

Send the message that women are valued and I can guarantee that we will be more likely to participate.



It’s important to “put your money where your mouth is” and as such, many of us who have joined forces for equality have also banded together on the long-term project of creating and ensuring fairness and equality in triathlon. Development and increasing participation are also among our goals and we have a variety of initiatives already on the go from protecting the interests of the pros to grassroots initiatives and more. For more information or to help out go to:


Photos by Delly Carr – Do yourself a favour and follow Delly on instagram


About The Author

Stef Hanson. Chief.

Chief and founder of WITSUP

Serious about what I do, but don’t take myself too seriously

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One Response

  1. Dan

    I’ve just started reading up on this after hearing from Zen, IMtalk. I truly appreciate the analysis both from Sara and tri rating. I know pros need to race to make a living and support their sponsors but wish two things could happen. The sponsors start putting pressure on WTC (publicly would be ideal) and then women threaten to boycott Kona. Bet that would generate some serious news. Wish the best and will support where I can


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