For those not in the know, Kona is the site of the Ironman World Championships. The race, located on the Island of Hawaii (but born in Oahu), has been held annually since 1978 and is owned by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), which is currently headed up by CEO Andrew Messick. The race started when a Naval Officer stationed in Hawaii, John Collins, had the idea to combine the 3 toughest endurance races on the island in one single event. He and his wife, Judy, issued a challenge to all swimmers, cyclists, and runners, combining the Waikiki Roughwater Swim (2.4 miles), the Around Oahu Bike Race (115 miles, which was shortened to 112 miles for the inaugural Ironman), and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles). Collins famously said “whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the ‘Iron Man'”. Fifteen men participated in the inaugural event, and twelve finished.
Fast forward to today: if you are an ‘age grouper’ (the category most triathletes fall into, including myself) and you want to make it to the Big Island, you need to qualify at an associated event – i.e. another Ironman race. Ironman events are held on 6 continents, and more events are added every year. Qualifying slots are allocated to each group based on the proportion of the race they make up, with each age group being given at least one spot. For example, if the race has 50 qualifying spots and your age group makes up 10% of the race field, the top 5 athletes in your age group would qualify to race at Kona (I’m oversimplifying, but you get the picture).
If you are a pro, you need to accumulate a certain number of points by racing, and placing, in Ironman events throughout the season. The 50 top-ranked pro men get to start on race day in Kona, while the 35 top-ranked pro women get to start.
Yes, you read that correctly, 50 pro men and 35 pro women. The number of pros allowed to start at the Ironman World Championships are not split equally by gender.
This arrangement is (quite clearly to many, with the apparent exception of the CEO of Ironman) unfair. Women pros have been pushing for equal representation at Kona for well over a year now, most recently gathered under the banner of @50WomentoKona (twitter, facebook).
This is not to be confused with Women for Tri, the board developed by Ironman with the mission of identifying and diminishing the barriers to enter into the sport, and mobilizing triathlon advocates to encourage and engage female athletes across all distances and representing all athletic abilities. This mission is admirable, and many talented, enthusiastic, experienced, and passionate women sit on the board. I, along with many others I am sure, am excited to see the good work that this board is going to do. From my twitter creeping and articles published by some of the board members, it seems like board members are aware of the 50 Women to Kona movement.
All the lobbying on social media to send 50 women to Kona seems to be falling on deaf ears at the executive level within WTC. I cannot for the life of me understand why WTC would not want to have 50 women toeing the start line. Triathlon has generally ‘got it right’ when it comes to gender equality. The distances men and women race are the same, and there is equal prize money for men and women. Compare this situation against cycling, where women have fewer opportunities to race, they have less prize money available, and race over shorter distances. Sara Gross, a pro triathlete, has a fantastic blog where she goes into this in far more detail.
From spectating and somewhat participating in the debate surrounding sending 50 Women to Kona, mostly on twitter, there seem to be four common arguments that come up frequently regarding why there are/should be only 35 women on the start line at the World Championships. I’ll attempt to briefly discuss each here.
Argument: the women’s pro field isn’t as deep.
Wrong. A person much smarter than I am, who has ‘run the numbers’ so to speak, discusses why the women’s pro field at Kona is just as deep as the men’s field here. Or rather, he says the following in the conclusion of his post:
I couldn’t find any data that supports the claim that the depth of the women’s field is any worse than the men’s field. (If you have other suggestions, please let me know!) While the lower number of athletes leads to bigger gaps in the Ironman races across the globe, at least the women that made it to Kona are as competitive as their male counterparts. In my eyes, the women’s race in Kona would be even more exciting than it already is if there were 50 Pro slots for the women.
Also, look at pros in the men’s field that juuuust make it into the top 50, and then go to Kona and place in the top 10. Andy Potts discussed how he did just that in a recent interview with Slowtwitch. More recently, Ben Hoffman went to Kona ranked #41 and placed 2nd on the big day. How can you say that a women ranked below the 35 slot cut-off wouldn’t have a similar performance?
Argument: there are fewer women who race Ironman, so they should have fewer slots compared to the men.
This is how the Kona slot allocation works for age groupers. As more women participate in Ironman triathlons, the amount of women at Kona would increase because more slots would be allocated to them at qualifying races. The pros racing Ironman use a different qualification system, where they earn points based on their performance at other Ironman races throughout the qualifying season. And, even if more women pros were racing, the Kona slots are still capped at 35. If the pro qualification system were the same as the age group system, sure, maybe this argument would hold water. But trying to say that there should be fewer women at the pro start than men because of participation percentages, as there are in the age group field, is like trying to compare apples and oranges.
Argument: there isn’t enough space on the Kona pier for another 15 bikes.
Then how come WTC keeps adding Ironman races to the calendar, which come with Kona qualifying slots for age groupers, and therefore more bikes? Perhaps I’m understanding the race layout wrong and the pro bikes go on the pier while the age grouper bikes go elsewhere. Maybe Ironman is re-allocating age group slots to these newer races from other established races. Having never been to Kona personally, I’m basing this opinion on looking through the Kona athlete guide, and I didn’t see any distinction made between bike racking areas for pros and age groupers. Regardless, I feel that this argument is poor and a bit of a cop out. Find space. Make space. For crying out loud, extend the pier 10 feet with all the money you make off age groupers who fork out half (or all) of a paycheque to participate in an Ironman race.
Argument: the women pros took a vote last year and opted not to have 50 women on the Kona start line.
This statement is correct, but fails to take into account the bigger picture. The pros did indeed vote not to send 50 women to Kona in 2014, but that was because the vote was held late in the season and many pros would have already gone all-out, perhaps at many races, in order to gather up the points they needed to make it into the top 35. To allow an additional 15 women into the race who would have been below the 35-slot cut-off would be unfair to the pros already above that line, since the additional 15 women might/would have been better rested and ‘fresher’ for the big race. Just because they voted not to have 50 women at the start in 2014 does not mean that they didn’t ever want 50 women to start, and from what I can tell from twitter, many women pros do want to see the cap brought up to 50 spots.
After all that, the question begs to be ask: why would I, a slow age grouper who will probably never qualify for Kona (much less be fast enough to race as a pro) care at all about sending 50 pro women to Kona? The subtitle for this blog is “confessions of a very average age grouper”. I am not middle of the pack, so I can’t really say that I’m of average speed. I am average in that I have a job and family commitments which take up the majority of my time, and I pursue triathlon as a hobby.
I love triathlon because training keeps me healthy, both mentally and physically. Training for triathlons gives me a goal that is just for me. It’s a healthy way for me to be selfish, and I truly believe that it makes me a better person.
An open letter was recently drafted to encourage having 50 women on the Kona start line, addressed to the Ironman and Lifetime Fitness Board of Advisors, and ultimately says why this is important far better than I can:
[The] disparate treatment of professional women at the very highest levels of the sport has a trickle-down effect on women of all ages and abilities. How can anyone, let alone a female triathlete, justify to her daughters, sisters and friends that “Anything is Possible” when opportunities for women are less possible than opportunities for men? We ask you to consider this issue as one of the many important issues on the table.
This is important. What happens at the top of the sport influences what happens at local races. From my own personal experience in triathlon, I think that the more women who are able to participate in this amazing sport and have it become a positive force in their lives, the better. That’s not going to happen if the opportunity to participate and race is stifled at the top tier of our sport.
Please, if you’ve stuck with me this far, add your voice to the many already asking for equality at Kona. Perhaps you, like me, are an age grouper who doesn’t really have Kona hopes. Maybe you’re training hard to earn an age group spot at Kona, or sub-elite and pushing hard to make it into the next tier. Maybe you’re a pro who somehow found my blog via my excessive hashtagging on twitter. Regardless of where you are in the sport, this issue affects us all.
Equality benefits us all. Tell Ironman and WTC that it’s not only wanted, but needed.
Kelly Burns Gallagher (an awesome site all around, not just on this issue)