Professional triathlete, Sara Gross, kicks off a fascinating four part in-depth series evaluating gender equality in triathlon. 

This is the first of a four part series in which I will show that triathlon, from its inception, has been a sport that embraces equality between the sexes and that we now have the opportunity to be one of the first sports in history to display complete gender equality by taking the final two necessary steps;

  1. Allowing an equal number of pro men and pro women to compete at the Ironman World Championships;
  2. Making a commitment to creating race conditions in which the world’s best women can compete on a level playing field without interference.

In September of 2014, all professional World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) athletes received an email from Andrew Messick, CEO of the WTC, in which a number of issues were addressed including the two issues stated above. First, the good news;

For 2015 the time gap between the pro women’s start time and the age group men at the World Championships will be 25mins.

Then the bad news;

Regarding slot parity, our discussions with the professional women encouraged us to regroup and conduct a more detailed and comprehensive review of the slot process, relative competitive dynamics by gender within the professional field, and the fundamental appropriateness of proportional representation. Our conclusion was that we believe that we currently have a fair and appropriate slot allocation between professional men and professional women. We intend to maintain this proportional approach and work to increase both the number of professional female athletes and female age group athletes – which would lead to more slots for professional female athletes at our world championship races.

At the time, I was outraged. Can they not see that they are wrong? I wanted to jump up and down, wave my arms around and shout “NO! NO! NO!” But as it turns out, this isn’t the best way to deal with a disagreement, at least as an adult. And so, armed with the idea that I would put together “the best rebuttal ever,” I marched myself down to the Women’s Studies Department to find out if there was someone who could help me develop my argument. There wasn’t. The results of my short trip back into academia were disappointing. I spoke with the Head of Department of Women’s Studies and she was mildly surprised and impressed that triathlon offers equal prize money. She suggested that I look at women’s soccer or women’s hockey, but when I opened the related books and articles I quickly realized that the level of gender equality we have in our sport goes far beyond these sports. In fact, one of the first books I opened cited triathlon as the sport with the highest degree of gender equity!

Female participation in sport, at least in this phase of history, is actually relatively new. In the first Olympic Games in 1896, not a single woman was allowed to compete. From 1896 – 1981 there was not a single female member on the International Olympic Committee, and 2012 was the first year that women competed in every sport.

Uhhhh… Ok. So it looks like triathlon got a few things right along the way.

As my research continued, I found more and more sources that told me that triathlon is the sport that got it right when it comes to gender equality. A 2014 proposal by the European Commission for Sport TWICE mentions the International Triathlon Union as having implemented gender equality to positive ends. I found a website called the “The Sydney Scoreboard” that tracks information about the gender of the Board of Executives for every International Sporting Federation since 2010. No sport even comes close to triathlon with 40% of its executives being women, plus a female CEO and Chair of the Board (as of Feb 2014). The only exception is Netball whose federation only recognizes women’s teams. In fact 19 out of 90 Sports Federations actually have ZERO women in leadership positions including boxing, aikido, baseball, shooting and most surprisingly, tennis.


Thank Athena I’m not a Cyclist

So there I was, scratching my head and wondering if I am barking up the wrong tree. I feel immensely grateful to be part of a sport that has a history of equality in prize money and leadership. I thought of Kathryn Bertine, Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos and our own Chrissie Wellington who took on the UCI and successfully established a one-day women’s race alongside the Tour de France called “La Course”. All their blood sweat and tears for just one day of racing, and there is still so far to go before the sport of cycling could even come close to displaying gender equity. I admire the vision of these women as they take on this enormous task.

So here I sit with my comparatively small problem of wanting equal slots for men and women at the Ironman World Championships. I reached out to Kathryn and asked her directly how she felt about her pursuit. Here’s what she told me:

“La Course was an interesting quest. The challenge was and still is – that too often we have to open people’s eyes by shaming them into change rather than having it be proactive. We have to call out inequity publicly before something gets done about it. The hardest part is to change minds, because no one can actually open a closed mind…Women racing La Course and women having equal spots at Kona comes down to the same thing, regardless of gender equity: Having an equal field for women is a smart business investment. The hardest part is to get the Old Thinkers to see the New Thinking from a Different Angle. Fighting for change is tiring and hard and sometimes downright demoralizing. But it is worth every struggle, because when you achieve your goal – and you will – the world becomes a better place.”

I was touched that Kathryn saw our small struggle for equal slots as being somehow comparable to the “David and Goliath” situation that she took on with the Cycling Federation. I was inspired.

IMMT_NC_2014-10Taking the Final Steps 

And so I am left with a very clear picture of where we are as a sport. We are one of, if not THE most gender inclusive sports on the planet, we have a rich history of gender inclusivity that started with a handful of people asking for equal prize money and sponsorship opportunities when the sport grew up in the 1980s and 90s. Today, myself and my pro female colleagues benefit immensely from this history.

I am also left thinking: “Why not take the final step? Why would we continue to accept the inequality of allowing less pro female competitors at the World Championship level when we are SO CLOSE to having it all?” It’s as if we are stopping 100m from the finish line in an iron-distance race. Why would we let this happen? As a community (and by that I mean all triathletes) we should ask the WTC to reconsider. There are a plethora of reasons why we should do this. Becoming the first sport to be 100% equal in all ways will in the long run; improve diversity in our sport, help increase the quantity and quality of female role models for girls and provide a nurturing environment for our daughters. I think we would see an increase in the number of female coaches, which would attract women and keep them in the sport. Also, there’s the overall health benefits for the increasing number of participants and the economic benefits for independent race organisers, coaches, and well… the WTC.

The goal of this series of posts is to show clearly that a sport that embraces equality will have a healthier growth rate.

Moving forward, I will present my research in three more instalments over the coming weeks. The first will discuss the history of how triathlon came to be a sport with such a high level of equality to begin with. I think it is important to understand where we came from and recognize those we have to thank for that.

The second post will outline the advantages of becoming a sport that upholds 100% gender equality across the board. This equality would include equal slots for men and women to World Championships and also an ongoing commitment to create race conditions where the world’s best women can compete in an environment of fair play. I will look at the influence that Title IX had on female participation in all sports in the US. I will also aim to show that the best way to increase female participation in Ironman events is to become a sport that embraces true equality, not equality in proportion to existing participation numbers, but true equality.

And lastly, I will outline how the conversation on this topic has gone so far. I will outline the arguments that have been made for and against the issue of equal slots. I hope to show that the “proportionality” argument is flawed and has no place in the world of elite sport. I also think that our professional athletes, myself included, have on the whole been ineffective at standing up for ourselves and that this situation needs to change. Further, I hope to show that one of the best ways to increase female participation in the sport is to commit to taking the final steps towards becoming a sport of complete equality. Taking that path is the best way for triathlon to continue to grow, not only in numbers, but also in integrity, because its the right thing to do.




Text by Sara Gross

Stay up to date with Sara by following her on twitter here.

Stay tuned for part two…

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12 Responses

  1. Katherine D. Harris

    I do work in Women’s Studies in all kinds of fields, but mostly historical and literary, and I certainly applaud your efforts here. There’s a difference in what you’re asking (“to do the right thing”) and the very real economic argument that you will most certainly have to make to the governing powers.

    There’s an underestimation in triathlon about the economic power of women — what do they buy in terms of gear (all kinds); how participatory are they in the sport of triathlon in terms of new triathletes competing as beginners (usually self-identified in surveys); how many at the amateur-experienced level; how many at the age group elite level; how many overall at the pro level? How can each of these groups be harnessed to demonstrate the longevity of women’s participation in triathlon? What are the instances of equality already effected by the sport’s governing bodies? (For women in age groups, the rotating start wave times is a huge boon in the Ironman-branded races. Not all races conform to that strategy and instead put the women in later waves year after year, much to their detriment in races where weather is a major factor.) How can more Kona slots for women pros create more opportunity and more loyalty by those age group women?

    I can see that this argument is based on equality in slots at Kona — but will it serve a higher purpose that will trickle down to age group women of all levels?

    Good luck with it all! I’m looking forward to the next blog posts on the topic.

    • Sara

      Hi Katherine! Thank you for your comment here. I had a quick look at your website. I am wondering if I could speak with you regarding my 3rd post? Email if you have time!! Thanks!!

  2. Jordana Blackman

    Hi Sara,

    Having just covered the Santos Women’s Tour down in Adelaide as “part” of the TDU I am interested in reading through your findings. I did several polls and spoke to men, women, professionals, punters and non-cyclists to get their opinion on topics such as gender equality, prize money, media coverage and opportunity/support at the elite level.

    Happy to share my findings with you if it helps. One of the things I love about triathlon (I’m competing in my first full Ironman distance triathlon in 5 weeks) is that the distances are the same as the men. Every single foot that the men swim, ride and run, I get to as well.

    The more I talked about it with people, the more I thought about the issue of gender inequality on the many hours on the windtrainer the past few months.

    It’s easy to get worked up about it. I’d think to myself, “My sweat is worth just as much as a man’s. My commitment just as steadfast. My sacrifices just as numerous.”

    The resounding opinion I got from the women racing in Adelaide is that just because something has improved, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable…

    Looking forward to seeing the rest of your blog!

  3. Chris King

    Wouldn’t a good approach be to look at an event where parity is the norm?

    The Boston Marathon has equal prize money awarded equally deep between male and female participants. Entries are not allocated by gender, but based on qualifying times, with the advantage tilted toward women. They get 45% female participation, whereas Kona gets 28% female participation based on roughly 20% female participation globally. The largest ratio of female participation appears to be 30% at IM Boulder. Perhaps an open registration as at Boston? That would reflect the true demand for the event and the sport overall.

    If the true goal is to grow the sport, then wouldn’t efforts to increase participation at the grassroots level be more effective? If the goal is equality based on merit, then perhaps completely ignoring gender and simply allocating slots on uncorrected time is a more fair method? If we are going to assume that the top men will always be faster than the top women, then maybe a corrected time for women based on a percentage of the overall winner’s time is fair?

    Simply saying that half of the world is male and half is female, therefore, in one event, allocate an equal number of slots (and this will grow the sport), seems like a bit of an over-simplified tactic, doesn’t it? If I’m missing some key statistics or figures, I’d love to learn more.

  4. Sara

    Hi Chris, Thanks for your comments. One thing to keep in mind when looking for comparisons is that with the issue of slots for the pro women, we are talking about elite sport. So in Boston, the amateur athletes qualify by time. I had a look on their website and I can’t find anything that tells me how the elite athletes qualify. I would need to dig deeper! Also, unlike Boston, the WTC is calling Kona the “World Championships” so an equitable system for qualification is necessary. Regardless, I feel certain that the qualification for the elite women in Boston has nothing to do with participation numbers either by women in general or by elite female runners.

    When we are talking about elite sport we need to take many things into consideration, such as athlete development, the ability to make a living and forming a platform for the athletes to become role models. Also, there are many who believe that the pro women’s race at World Championship level has as much depth as the men’s at the very top.

    I absolutely agree that efforts should be taken to increase female participation at the grassroots level and the Women for Tri board that the WTC has recently created should be able to come up with some great ideas there. The current problems with how the pro women are being treated by the WTC is simply one cog in the machine.

    I’ll stop before I end up writing the next blog here!! Thanks for the discussion!


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