In Part II of my series on Gender Equality in the sport of Triathlon I dig a little deeper into the history of the sport in an attempt to discover how we came to have such a deep-rooted and far-reaching history of equality. I also explore what gender equality has meant to triathlon, if there was any push back along the way and how athletes and leaders dealt with that at the time.

I discovered a long list of wonderful people who have made our sport what it is today. There were so many people to talk to, questions to ask and roads I could have travelled down. At some point I had to stop asking questions and write something and that’s where I find myself today.

Part II will be published in two parts because of the wealth of information and amazing stories I can’t keep to myself.  In Part IIa we hear from some of the athletes who were there from the beginning. I’ll explore how the International Triathlon Union (ITU) made gender equality one of its objectives and how that ultimately helped propel our sport to the Olympic Games.


In the Beginning There Was Equality

The second Congress of the fledgling International Triathlon Union created a “Women’s Committee” in 1990 with the stated purpose of achieving equal opportunity, recognition and reward for all women in triathlon including athletes, coaches, officials and administrators – and all this would happen by the year 2000. A lofty goal, but one that was in line with the zeitgeist of the sport in the 1980’s.  Mark Allen states:

“The sport itself was rogue by nature, born out of sport rebels who didn’t want to conform to what was standard.”   [click here]

…And with that came a tradition of equality that was practically unknown in the sporting world.

One of the most meaningful markers of this equality was the fact that prize money was equal at triathlon events from the beginning. From the very first prize-money race in San Diego in 1982, the money was equal almost everywhere (there are a couple examples to the contrary, such as EmbrunMan in France). At the unofficial Olympic Distance World Championships in Perth in 1987 and Kelowna in 1988 there was equal prize money. When asked, neither Scott Molina nor Erin Baker, could remember a single race where the prize money was not equal.

Ironman Hawaii offered prize money for the first time in 1986. The money was equal despite the fact that there were 23 Pro Women and 86 Pro Men who finished the race that year. Molina tells me that “almost all the men in the sport viewed equal prize money as a fair thing to do as well as a type of affirmative action that would encourage more women to step up to race pro.” Mark Allen commented that: “All it took was one look at what Erin Baker could do to silence anyone who felt like the level of performance in the women’s field was at least as high as the men’s.”

Erin herself says: “To me equality is normal in ever sphere of life. I have fought many more important battles for more important inequalities. It’s not about me or the money or anything else… it’s just NORMAL.” She adds that there were many quality female role models in the sport back then, “Valerie Silk (the owner and race organizer of IM Hawaii 1980-1990), Julie Moss, the Puntous twins, Joanne Earnst. It (triathlon) was bread out of woman who had been athletes in their previous lives and who knew how to train, behave and speak well. I can truly say I found the event to be EQUAL from the start.”

Like Erin says, equal prize money and opportunities for women seemed normal and obvious to race organizers and athletes from the very beginning.


Equality as Mandate:  The ITU takes Triathlon to the Olympics

The admirable level of gender equality in triathlon is in large part due to the work done by the ITU, the international governing body for the Olympic sport of triathlon. When I reached out to get some information about how this came to be I was overwhelmed by the response from many corners. The ITU is heavy with intelligent, dedicated and inspiring women including President Marisol Casado, VP Sarah Springman and Secretary General Loreen Barnett. The story of the formation of the ITU and how they got triathlon into the Olympic Games in such a short period of time is fascinating. The level of gender equality in their organization and the ongoing struggle to achieve more is a matter of pride for these women. The ITU’s dedication to achieving true gender equality on all levels of organization is one of the key factors that got triathlon into the Olympic Games.

From what I gather, the ITU was born in Vancouver, Canada in Loreen Barnett’s basement. Loreen’s home came to be the ITU headquarters for many years to come. It was here in these early meetings that the outspoken Les MacDonald made his intentions clear. One person who was at these early meetings gave the following account:

“From the beginning it became apparent that McDonald had an agenda and it was a noble one. He was going to see the sport included in the Olympic Games. He was tilting at windmills, we said. There was no way. But there was a way and he was going to make it happen. He had a check list of what needed to happen. A few of the things I recall were that a certain number of nations needed to do the sport. Those nations needed to have governing bodies and there needed to be a world governing body – but none of this, Les assured us, would ever come about unless there was equal representation of men and women in the sport. He could go on for hours on the topic. He spoke at length about Title IX in the US college system and how successful it had been. Of all the ideas and notions that possessed this man I would say that this one was his strongest. You have to remember this was at a time when the term “affirmative action” was said with derision. There was push back – but not from the people in that room. We didn’t all like him but you had to believe in him. I see now, with some hindsight, that for Les this was more than just about getting the sport in the Olympics. He truly believed that if there was ample opportunity then those opportunities would be seized. He was saying ‘build it and they will come’ long before the movies made it a cliche.  Today the female side of ITU racing is as vibrant and exciting as the male.  Les McDonald was right.”

From the start, the ITU offered equal opportunities for female athletes. Their mandate stated that the athletes had to have equality on all levels, including sponsorship, media opportunities, prize money and access to races. Additionally, Les insisted on gender equality within leadership. Federations could send more than two delegates to Congress as long as the additional delegates were women. This protocol helped get around the usual problems with the requirements of “affirmative action.” If a federation had two men at the helm who were already doing a great job, there was no need for either to step down. A third female delegate could simply be added.

This idea at the level of leadership, combined with the creation of a Women’s action committee in 1990 paved the way for a federation that is now lauded as having the highest degree of equality of any sporting federation. Achieving this high level of equality was instrumental in getting triathlon include in the Olympic Games – and joining the Olympic Games ultimately increased the visibility of the sport and improved participation numbers overnight. President Marisol Casado: “Achieving gender balance as an International Federation made us more complete in the eyes of the IOC. The IOC made a conscious effort to increase female participation in the 90s so triathlon’s focus on equal opportunities was very advantageous for us in our campaign to have triathlon included in the Olympic programme.”


Gender Equality, the Olympics and the Growth of the Sport

The sport of triathlon evolved in the 80’s after a group of renegades started creating swim-bike-run events in various corners of the globe. From the beginning there was a general consensus that the prize money should be equal between the genders despite the fact that woman made up only a fraction of the participants. Most of the people I spoke to were unable to give a reason why the prize money was equal beyond the general feeling that it was the right thing to do.

In the end a small group of people, led by the infamous Les MacDonald, made sporting history when the sport of triathlon debuted at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The strong degree of gender equality that permeates this narrative is one of the key reasons why triathlon has the participation numbers it has today.

The USAT had this to say about the number of races popping up all over the US since 2004:

Looking at the causes for this growth, one must first turn their attention to the 2000 Olympic Games, triathlon’s first appearance at this international event. This elevated the publicity of the sport on the national level. Through the first weekend, NBC’s coverage of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, which included coverage of the women’s triathlon, was the most watched non-U.S. Olympic Games in history with 111 million people tuned-in to all or part of the broadcasts, according to NBC Sports research. [click here for info]

The resulting popularity boom for the sport after the 2000 Olympics is a testament to why achieving gender equality in sport can have far-reaching outcomes and can help any sport, federation or corporation, achieve more than what is currently thought to be possible. In our ongoing discussion of gender equality we need to make sure we don’t get caught up in the small details of the issues and that we keep our eyes focused on the fact that equality can help us ultimately become Faster, Higher, Stronger.


Learning from History

So what does all this have to do with the original goals of this series as set out in my first post here? Before I was a triathlete, I was a historian, and the question ‘how can we learn from those who have gone before us?’ is always relevant.

To answer that question, let’s start here: the official policy statement of the ITU’s Women’s Committee is as follows:

The Women’s committee:

a) Ensures equality of opportunity, recognition, and reward for women in Triathlon, Paratriathlon and their related Multisports.

b) To create policies on the development of the integration of women in all sport activities. 

Having talked to some of the women who have been involved in creating and enacting this policy, I think it is fair to say that limiting the female pros at World Champion Events to 35 when their male counterparts have 50 spots would directly contradict their policy of equal opportunity. As would the fact that at Championship-level races, the pro women’s race continues to be affected by the presence of age group men. In fact, as I will show in the next post, not only were the early ITU leaders willing to give their elite women equal prize money and opportunities to race, they were willing to do it at a time in which participation numbers for female pros and women in general were far worse than they are today.

It is important that all women who currently participate in triathlon at all levels recognize that without triathlon’s rapid rise to Olympic status and the associated media coverage, we may not have the participation numbers we have today.  I have come full-circle in this discussion. Without a stringent rule of gender equality, the rise of triathlon to Olympic status might well have been stalled. For this reason, I encourage all of us to keep our eyes focused on the bigger picture as we discuss the ongoing importance of gender equality in our sport.


Further Information

Anyone wishing to dig in a little deeper and look into the background of some of the points I have made can look here:

* Loreen Barnett’s interview on the Legends podcast gives a wonderful starting point for understanding how the ITU came to be. Click here

* The ITU official constitution including the policy for its women’s committee: Click here

* Sean Phelps wrote this PhD thesis entitled, “The creation and development of an international sport federation: A case study of the International Triathlon Union from 1989-2000.” Click here

* This independent audit out of the University of Toronto discusses the level of gender equity at the 2012 Olympic Games: Click here



I have deep gratitude to those who shared their stories with me.

Thanks to:

Erin Baker

Scott Molina

Mark Allen,,

Loreen Barnett

Sarah Springman

Marisol Casado

Erin Green

And my hubby Clint who was there at the first ITU meetings in Vancouver and is one hell of an editor.


I hope I have done justice to your stories.

Photos by Delly Carr

Text by Sara Gross


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5 Responses

  1. Kelly Williamson

    Brilliant Sara (and thank you Witsup for posting). I’ve often thought it isn’t so much about some magic number of “50” but an equal number of men and women; and on a similarly important note, I don’t believe it is right to pay out only 28% of women and 20% of men at a World Champ event, much less one such as Kona which has gotten increasingly difficult to qualify for and is held as the ‘gold standard’ in our sport. I feel there should be an equal number (even if that is 40M/40W) but 50% of people should be paid; or at the least, a higher % than is currently. In this light, HyVee has done an phenomenal job and others could take a lesson from the professionalism with which they treated the pro athletes. Again thank you for spurring this conversation and doing so in such a researched manner!

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