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The Push for Equality at the Ironman World Championship

Men and women have long raced the same course and shared equally in prize money at the Ironman World Championship, but some in the sport argue that the current system for professional triathletes shortchanges women.

Ashley Lauretta

BRUCE OMORI/EPA

Like many working mothers, Beth Gerdes returned to her job just a few months after giving birth to her daughter, in May 2014. Unlike most women, however, her job involves swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and then running a marathon. Gerdes is a professional triathlete, and the decision to return to racing—to put herself through such a physical and mental ordeal right away—wasn't easy.

"I don't think that my body was quite ready for a full Ironman distance at that point, but I still did alright. I came in 5th place in Ironman Malaysia, which was good," she said.

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Gerdes felt she needed to dive back into competition quickly in order to qualify for her sport's marquee event, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on October 10. There are a limited number of slots for professional triathletes in the race, which is organized by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), a for-profit company; the rest of the field—about 96 percent of participants—are amateur age-group athletes who qualified at Ironman events or via a lottery. (This will be the last year for the lottery after the U.S. Department of Justice found that it illegally charged athletes to enter this past May.)

To qualify for the world championship, professional triathletes are ranked according to so-called Kona Points, earned at events throughout the qualifying year (which usually begins and ends in August). While 50 slots are allotted for the men, there are only 35 for women. Fewer spots means more competition, and women are often forced to participate in more races than the men per year to make sure they stay on top of the rankings.

The first Ironman World Champions was in February 1978, on the island of Oahu. The following year marked the first woman triathlete in the championship, Lyn Lemaire, who raced alongside 14 men—and beat many of them to finish in fifth place. By 1980, there were over 100 competitors, 20 of which were women. During the 80s, the race moved to its current location in Kona, and to the fall. Prize money began to be offered in 1986, when the top 15 finishers in both the men's and women's races were eligible for a $100,000 purse, which was split equally. The current points system for professionals was instituted in 2011; before then, athletes earned a championship berth according to single performances at qualifying races and was based on how many men and women competed. The change has been a controversial one.

"Racing in Kona is an advantage for someone's career; you are barring these 15 women from opportunities that their male counterparts have," said Sara Gross, the co-founder of TriEqual, a group dedicated to advocating for gender equality in the sport. Not only does the World Championship mark the culmination of an entire season of work, it's a place to make connections with current and potential sponsors who help contributed to an athlete's income and visibility—an important aspect when racing is your livelihood.

The winners of the 2014 Ironman World Championship. Photo by Bruce Omori/EPA

The WTC has maintained that because there are fewer professional female triathletes, they should get fewer slots. Women currently make up 33 percent of all triathletes. While the company appointed an advisory board called Women for Tri to encourage more women to participate in the sport earlier this year, neither WTC nor Women for Tri appears to consider expanding the number of professional female athletes at Kona as a way to accomplish that.

TriEqual's founders don't want to wait until participation levels rise before changing the Kona points system. Its first order of business as an organization this past March was 50 Women to Kona, a petition and a social media campaign that launched on International Women's Day. They point to the passage of Title IX, in 1972, as an example of how more opportunity can encourage growth. At the time of its passage, there were only 29,977 women in college sports, 2 percent of all college athletes. Once schools were legally required to support men's and women's teams equally, however, women's participation in college sports increased by 456 percent; now, more than forty years later, 45 percent of college athletes are women.

Similarly, TriEqual believes that increasing professional opportunities for women in triathlon will increase participation at all levels of the sport. Fifteen more women at the World Championship level would mean more media exposure and increased sponsorship opportunities.

However, WTC so far has refused to change the qualifying protocol for the championship. In a statement this April explaining the decision, they said that "arbitrarily increasing Kona representation of females or specific age groups would be unfair since the additional slots would come at others expense," and that it would lower the standard of performance required. (Requests for comment from Ironman officials have not been returned.)

Women triathletes also hope that with 15 more spots at Kona, the path to qualifying for the world championship won't be quite so difficult. Had there been 50 slots for women this year, Gerdes would have guaranteed her slot for Kona after her second half Ironman and third full Ironman of the qualifying season, the Ironman Melbourne this past March, where she beat the current World Champion and finished fifth.

"I could have stopped there, taken a break and then built up to Ironman Hawaii," said Gerdes. "That would have been ideal. However, knowing the points threshold for women and what we need to do to get to Kona, I knew that I needed to have another strong Ironman."

The professional women get ready to race in last year's championship. Photo by Bruce Omori/EPA

So Gerdes went to Ironman Cannes—a race that her fiancé, Luke McKenzie, won on the men's side—but after suffering a few flat tires, she was forced to drop out of the race. As a woman, Gerdes still needed points, so she had to make the quick decision to race Ironman Switzerland in July.

"That was a big call on our part to invest more time, more travel, more money, and more time away from our daughter, in order for Beth to go and do that race," McKenzie said. "It puts stresses on families and stresses on the athletes that I think is not maintainable. If someone had to persist with the exact same situation year in and year out, they would probably get to the point where they would wonder if it is really worth it. That is where triathlon is going to lose some great talent: through frustration from the system; to know that you are good enough, yet you are not good enough by the Ironman qualification system."

In the end, the move paid off, as Gerdes took home her first Ironman win. That race was validation that she is ready to race in a World Championship field and helped solidify her Kona slot, but Gerdes wonders whether the extra races will cost her on Saturday. "Do I have it in me to do another great one in Kona?" she said. "I am excited to have qualified, but I hope that in the future if there are 50 women on the start line, I won't need to race four Ironman races to prove that I am World Championship-worthy."

Gross and her team at TriEqual will continue to dedicate their time and resources to equality in the sport. This includes their recent announcement of Equally Inspiring, a program that will accept 40 women to be trained for three months by top triathlon coaches who are donating their time. She hopes more professionals like Gerdes (who is not involved with TriEqual or Women for Tri) continue to speak out and keep performing at such a high level where the depth of the field cannot be disputed.

"At the end of the day, if we give equal slots to women—even if right now somebody says the talent is not there—I guarantee you with this opportunity, in five or 10 years, the talent will be the same as that of the men," said Gerdes. "I think that opportunity needs to come first."

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