Thursday, April 9, 2015

#50WomenToKona, or, Goodbye (for now!) WTC

     Normally I concentrate this blog on my training and the absolute amazing time I have participating in this sport. Triathlon is amazing. It has changed my life for the better, made ME better, and opened my world to possibilities I never even considered. Before triathlon, I never called myself an athlete, and for sure never thought I'd call myself an Ironman (5 more weeks!)

      Triathlon is also a sport that, in the grand scheme of things, has always been amazingly progressive. As you read when I recapped "Half the Road", cycling is incredibly hostile to women. They are barred from race series, given unequal prize purses, and actively excluded from the sport they work hard for. Triathlon, on the other hand, has always included women at every distance. The pros have seemingly equal exposure and support from major sponsors. It is written in the rules that prizes payouts must be equal and go equally deep, no matter the gender of the athlete. These things and many more are reasons I am so proud to participate in this sport and bring other women along with me.

     However, The World Triathlon Corporation, owners of the "Ironman" branded races, are actively working to be regressive, not progressive, for women in the sport. In recent times, they re-structured the qualifying standards for the World Championships at Kona and most notably, made it so that women were given 35 qualifying spots, while men were given 50. For those that don't follow the sport, this is a huge deal. Kona is the super bowl of triathlon. Pros compete all year to gain points and qualify at regional championships to earn one of these coveted spots, which culminate in sponsor bonuses, incredible exposure, and prestige as an athlete. In short, what the hell, WTC?? What. The. Hell.

   Back in December of 2014, the WTC announces the creation of the Women for Tri board. I was ecstatic. Women have always been welcome in the sport, but as with any hobby or activity that involves this much intense physical work and time dedication, there are social, cultural, and physical barriers that exist for many women, and having a place for them to reach out and support each other in their journeys, and therefore raise the percentage of women participating in the sport, seemed great. Even greater, was the purported mission of the board, which was to advocate for equality in the sport, aiming at gaining 50 spots on the Kona pier. They even wrote an open letter.

   Unfortunately, a good idea is only an idea without action. I joined the Facebook group and have met some fantastic women at all levels who love the sport passionately. I have also heard nothing but radio silence from the board after their letter. It's come off, at least to many of us frothing for action, as a smoke and mirrors move puppeteer-ed by the WTC to placate the ladies in to leaving them alone about their silly bid for parity. I know that's not completely true- I believe that most of the women on the board truly, passionately want to succeed in this mission. However, from the recent resignations, including that of Hillary Biscay, it seems as though fighting from the outside for change might be the better way.
    Enter First, go read this excellent primer on exactly how everything went down. It breaks down the changes in the rules, the messed up way the WTC tried to "compromise" with female pros during a meeting in Boulder, and exactly how the group formed. As soon as I heard of them, I sent an email volunteering to help. I may just be an age grouper, but I am so passionate about equality for women, equality in sport, and making triathlon the best sport possible to support, I'm helping in any way I can.

   TriEqual, the people behind the trending tag #50womentokona (they didn't start it, but they helped it spread like wildfire!) and #5Q, are a formidable mix of lawyers, professional triathletes, and industry insiders who know things have to change, and refuse to wait around for the WTC to feel like being accommodating. And I'm not either. The women of this sport are role models, inspirations, and the driving force behind a sport that creates better lives for other women and men from all walks of life. I've never before has sports idols, but now every word out of the mouth of Chrissie Wellington captivates me, playing over in my mind as I power up a hill on my bike or wipe the sweat from my eyes on a run. 

    There are so many smart, articulate, nuanced rebuttals to the reasons given by Andrew Messick, CEO of the WTC. I could go on for pages analyzing, rebuffing, and arguing every one. But women smarter and more in the know than me have already done so. I'll do it short and sweet instead. 

So let's address some of the "reasons" for the lack of progress with the WTC:

Not enough room on the pier. First no. No way. They've increased spots in the past, and currently give 200 Kona slots to celebrities, legecy slots, and even more to lottery winners. There is no way I will ever be convinced that there's not a single square foot of space that can't be spared for 15 more bike. 

If we give women more spots, we have to take them from the men. This is a tale as old as time: when those in charge are being challenged, they divide and conquer. By giving this reason, they pit the male pros (and male age groupers) against the women, weakening the women's cause. Even at the meeting in Boulder, the "poll" they took framed the question differently. Women were asked if they believed they should have equal slots. Men were asked the same, WITH the caveat that it would mean their slots would be reduced. That is manipulation at its finest. I am proud to say that there are plenty of male pros and age groupers see right on through this. I have been so heartened to read the comments on stories published about this controversy and see just as many men as women balking at the WTC for their stubbornness.
There is a lower percentage of women's participation in the sport. Ugh. STOP. This is nonsense. First, the qualifying procedure for the pros is completely different than it is for age groupers. For age groupers, slots for Kona are handed out at different Ironman races based on the percentage of each age group and gender participating. It's an imperfect system, sure, but not as egregious because as the number of women in the sport grows, so will our slots. (Except, soon there will be more IM branded races than they have slots to give out for, if, in fact, the space on the pier is so "limited") The pros qualify with points, much like NASCAR, except it's much harder on their bodies. If it was truly "proportional," then the numbers would shift back and forth every year based on the number of pros in each gender. It doesn't, it's just flat inequitable with no change in sight.

Why does this matter so much? I'll tell you why. Because women deserve a fair shot. Because opportunity begets results- when women are given the chance, they exccell. This has been proven over and over since the inception of Title IX. 

Right now, the women have to push themselves harder, compete in more races, and score more points to make it to the big show compared to their male counterparts. There are pro men with less points, slower times, etc. going to the Championship, but #36 in the women's rank is being told no. This matters not only philisophically, but financially. Women are going to make less money in the sport, find the profession less sustainable, and see less exposure and opportunity if they aren't allowed to compete at the highest level. Despite the Challenge Family races growing, Ironman has its self proclaimed "World Championship," and sponsor dollars follow, so even if pros wanted to boycott in protest, they truly cant afford to right now. It's flat unfair.

What can you do? Get involved! Volunteer with TriEqual, email the WTC tweet, Facebook, and Instagram your support, wear a 5Q tattoo at all your races, just SPEAK UP! Personally, I'm doing all of the above, and adding in a refusal to participate in WTC races, and therefore give them my money, until things change. There are dozens of tris in Texas, to keep me going for a while. I'll also be supporting the brands that support the movement!

My fabulous Coeur Tshirt! But it HERE to support the cause!

"Ironman" may be a brand, but it's eponymous. It symbolizes an accomplishment. I'll go in to this more when I cover my tattoo, but suffice to say that Andrew Messick thinks people just won't sign up for anything but WTC races, and he's wrong.  My race in May at Ironman Texas will hopefully be the greatest of my life so far, but it's a victory tainted. I'll keep speaking up, speaking out, and doing what I can until I can be proud, fully, completely proud, to call myself an Ironman.

This has to change, and we won't stop until it does. Come join us!

On a positive note, look at the beautiful flowers on my running route! #Texasforever


  1. Jenny, so well written. Thank you!

  2. The argument that their is just not enough room for 50 more pro athletes is absolutely more outrageous. I will probably never race a full Ironman but this issue of gender equality fires me up! Great post!