Over the last week or so the issue of #50WomentoKona has come to the fore front of the triathlon world.  The open letter to the #WomenforTri Board of Advisors has been signed by hundreds of individuals, from Olympians and world champions to a guy “who knows right from wrong, who happens to be a triathlete” on both witsup.com and womenfortri.org.  The support is over whelming.  While it seems like common sense to me to simply allocate additional slots for female professionals, there are those vocally arguing against equality.  Below are some of the arguments that have been voiced against #50WomentoKona and my responses to those arguments.  It floors me that in 2015 anyone would argue against equality, but as these bastions of discrimination exist, their arguments must be addressed.

There are equal opportunities today for just as many women to enter any race they want to enter as there are for men.  

Actually, no.  At Ironman Kona there are 50 slots for male triathletes and 35 slots for female triathletes.  But, let’s dig deeper.  In order to qualify for Kona, a professional male triathlete must rank in the top 50 in the Kona Points Rankings (“KPR”) while a professional female triathlete must rank in the top 35 in the KPR (for simplicity I’m leaving out previous Kona winners and the new auto qualifiers for regional championships in 2015).  This means that a female professional triathlete must score more points than a male professional triathlete in order to qualify for Kona by either placing higher or racing more often than her male counterpart.  That’s not an “equal opportunity.”  With a contraction in the number of races that offer KPR points in 2015 (in the United States only four races will offer KPR points — Texas, Coeur D’Alene, Chattanooga and Arizona) and compression in the field (look at the women’s race at Western Australia in December), it is more difficult for a professional female to collect the points needed to rank 35th than it is for a professional male to collect the points needed to rank 50th.

There is equal access to training — we can swim, bike and run as often as anyone else if we chose to.  

Once again, not completely true.  On the most basic level, yes any athlete can swim, bike and run as often as they want to, but on the professional level the athlete needs support from sponsors in order to have the time and financial stability to put in the necessary training.  This financial stability often comes from sponsors and sponsors want results –specifically seeing their athletes racing on the big stage at Kona.  As there are more opportunities for professional male triathletes to race in Kona, there are also more opportunities for greater exposure.  Making it harder for professional women to qualify for Kona, makes it harder for professional women to gain the exposure necessary to secure and maintain vital sponsorships that let them swim, bike and run as often as they chose.

When we have as many female professional and yes even age group triathletes as men in a race then the percent of women earning spots to Kona will be equal to the men.  

A couple of issues with this statement.

First, there seems to be some confusion about the fact that the professional and age group races at Kona are distinct.  While the gender allocation of age grouper slots can fluctuate depending on the percentage of males and females participating in Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races, the number of professional women at Kona is set at 35.  There is no mechanism for increasing the number based on increased participation of either female age groupers or professional triathletes.  If tomorrow the percentage of women participating in Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events was 50 / 50 there would still be 35 slots for professional women and 50 slots for professional men.  No change.

Second, the logic is faulty.  Participation follows opportunity.  Prior to the passage of Title Nine in 1972, only 29,977 women participated in college sports.  Over the next 35 years, women’s participation in college sports increased by 456%.  Today, over forty years later, 45% of college athletes are women.  Greater opportunities for collegiate athletes encouraged greater participation at all levels and particularly increased participation by girls in youth sports.  Increased professional opportunities for women at the Kona will increase participation for women at all levels in triathlon.  Conversely Ironman’s current regressive policy serves as a deterrent to women interested in long course triathlon.

It’s a privilege to be earned, not something that is just handed to any of us.

I’m not sure what more professional female triathletes can do to “earn” equality at Kona.  A statistical analysis of the 2014 men’s and women’s professional fields at the Ironman World Championship in Kona demonstrates that both fields were equally competitive at comparable depths. It does not take statistics, however, to show that the professional women’s field may be even more competitive (and compelling) than the professional men’s field. In 2014, at 30 km into the marathon, Sebastian Kienle had all but locked up the victory as he led the field by over 10 minutes. Comparatively at the 30km into the marathon three women — Daniela Ryf, Rachel Joyce and Mirinda Carfrae — were still competing for the victory.

Regardless, the logic does not hold.  Using this line of reasoning, there should be no slots for physically challenged athletes at Kona.  Physically challenged athletes constitute a tiny fraction of a percentage of all athletes that complete Ironman and Ironman 70.3 races, yet there are a disproportionate number of slots reserved for physically challenged athletes each year at Kona.   Should these slots not be “handed” to physically challenged athletes until they “earn” them with increased participation numbers?

If we grow the base of women in triathlon then the rest will follow.   And it will mean something, because we earned it on a level playing field.

How so? As previously noted there is no mechanism for growing the number of Kona slots for female professional triathletes and the inequitable distribution of Ironman World Championship slots for women drives talented women away from long course racing. Further, this line of argument seems to ignore the fact that growth can be both top down and bottom up (they are not mutually exclusive).  Look at the effect Tiger Woods had on golf or Serena Williams had on tennis.  Both are charismatic stars from under represented demographics who dramatically drove growth in new sectors.  Grassroots efforts and equality at the highest levels of the sport can serve the same purpose — attracting women to the sport of triathlon and maintaining their involvement over time.  To me, it seems like a win – win.


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Kelly Burns Gallagher

mccarter english employment litigator / oiselle team runner / coeur sports triathlete / sonic endurance coach & race director / witsup.com writer / dartmouth '02 / emorylaw '05


Chris · February 11, 2015 at 1:28 pm

I think you missed the boat on your first argument. Just as the allocation of Kona spots adjusts based on the size of the AG, the pro slots should as well.

For your argument to hold, you should also be demanding more Kona AG spots for women too, right?

Agree with the rest though.

More relevant data here: http://www.andrewstarykowicz.com/2014/09/ld-part-i.html

    Kelly Burns Gallagher · February 11, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    I think Starky’s analysis will change in 2015 due to the elimination of KPR points from many races. I also see the pro and AG races as distinct (I’m not saying there shouldn’t be changes to Kona qualifying for AGers, but that’s an entirely different post).

    Emily Cocks · February 11, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    Chris—the professional and age group qualification procedures are distinct and completely different. By your logic (proportionality) you are saying there should be less spots in Olympic finals for women because there are more male participants in a given sport vs. women (or a smaller elite field of women at the Boston Marathon b/c the overall % of women runners is less). The professionals at Kona are trying to make a living at the sport. Women have 15 less opportunities for exposure than the men. That’s not equal.

    I can’t imagine a Fortune 500 company would advertise they only have a certain number spots on the Board of Directors for women since the proportion of women working at the company was less than the men.

      Chris · February 11, 2015 at 2:02 pm

      I believe the number of opportunities should correlate to the number of people who are qualified to take the position/slot. Going to 50 would greatly increase the statistical odds that a female pro would go to Kona versus a male. The “odds” should be even.

        Emily Cocks · February 11, 2015 at 4:19 pm

        Yes Chris, the odds should be even. And increasing the opportunity for females in the sport will build the number of females who do triathlon, top to bottom. By your argument prize $$ should not be equal either b/c there is more “chance” a female will win $$ because the number of females in the field is less. Look at the major sports (tennis for example), opportunity is equal across the board. Prize money, slots in tournaments.

          Chris · February 11, 2015 at 4:29 pm

          Completely see your valid points.

          With that said, I think it should be bottom to top. I think this effort would be better focused at USAT and youth initiatives. Not a PE-owned race series. Gender equality =/= additional revenue.

          Emily Cocks · February 11, 2015 at 4:53 pm

          From the post above: “Prior to the passage of Title Nine in 1972, only 29,977 women participated in college sports. Over the next 35 years, women’s participation in college sports increased by 456%. Today, over forty years later, 45% of college athletes are women. Greater opportunities for collegiate athletes encouraged greater participation at all levels and particularly increased participation by girls in youth sports.”

          If someone is looking to participate in an activity and looks around to see there is no opportunity for growth (or less opportunity) they might say to themselves “I will find something else to do where I won’t be limited.” Opportunity breeds participation.

Chris · February 11, 2015 at 1:36 pm

One additional point…

While very early, check out the KPI standings.



There are a total of 230 women (37%) and 499 men (63%).

Presently, women have a 15% (35/230) chance of making Kona. Men have a 10% (50/499) chance.

By taking women to 50, they would (presently) have a 22% chance (double!) of making it to Kona.

    Susie · February 11, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Opening a whole new can of worms there Chris. A whole lot of reasons out there why people choose not to race pro, even though they qualify to. Your numbers don’t necessarily reflect a given standard. The numbers could well be different if equal opportunities existed in the first place.

Emily Cocks · February 11, 2015 at 4:48 pm

And, last thing. This PE owned race series puts on the biggest race (media, etc.) other than the Olympics. It should be equal. There is nothing to argue. It’s the right thing to do. Simple.

    Chris · February 11, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    The NCAA and USAT are non-profits. IM is for profit. Completely different objectives. NPOs exist to change or improve social issues. For profits exist to make money. Just because it’s the “biggest race” doesn’t mean IM should champion gender equality.

    If you really want this change to happen, why not focus more on why expanding to 50 makes business (read: $$$) sense to IM. Maybe organize a boycott with everybody who signed that letter? Just improving social issues is (and should be) a non-starter for them. Correcting a social issue will not increase the PE firm’s ROI.

    It’s not that simple.

      Emily Cocks · February 11, 2015 at 7:52 pm

      Building the sport will increase their ROI. And that is why they said they created this Women’s Tri Board—-to increase participation for women in triathlon. So, that is their objective. Increase participation to make more $$.

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