On my recent post about KPR and the women’s pro race, there was an interesting comment from Leana about why there are 50 Kona slots for male pros and only 35 slots for female pros. In the words of Amelia Pond, “surprisingly good question.”
When the Kona Points system was instituted in 2010, WTC’s rationalization for having 35 slots for women and 50 slots for men was that those numbers were the approximate number of slots that had been available to each gender under the previous system, which was based percentage of overall participation numbers — very similar to the age group qualification system that currently exists. The system was revised in 2013 but the number of slots allocated to each gender remained the same — 50 for men and 35 for women. There was some conversation after the 2013 revisions came out as to whether women should receive more slots. Thorston Radde did a nice job looking at the numbers in his blog post here and Rachel Joyce touched on the disparity issue in her witsup.com article here. Being a lawyer by profession and a historian by training, I have a slightly different viewpoint and am asking a slightly different question — where does long course / 140.6 triathlon fall with regard to other sports in offering gender parity?
The first place to look is with sports most similar to long course triathlon – swimming, biking and running (yes, Olympic/ITU triathlon exists but it doesn’t have a championship event but rather a championship series and the start lists are determined by national governing bodies, which makes for a complicated and inexact comparison).
For swimming, the world championship event is the FINA World Cup. Equal numbers of male and female swimmers are entered on a nation by nation basis based on A and B standard qualifying times. While this system does not necessarily ensure that all of the fastest swimmers are present at world championships (e.g. the fifth fastest 50 freestyler from the United States doesn’t make it to world championships even though he or she is faster than the entrant from a non-swimming nation such as Thailand), it does ensure than there are generally equal numbers of males and female athletes competing at the world championship event.
Qualifying for IAAF World Championships for Track and Field (which includes the marathon) is similar to swimming. Athletes must achieve certain standards and equal numbers of slots are available to men and women based on the country of origin (not all slots are necessarily “claimed”). This process resulted in 1105 male participants (56%) and 865 female participants (44%) in the 2013 World Championship events in Russia — if you control for countries that do not send ANY female participants such as many countries in the Middle East (a completely different issue) the numbers get even closer. Looking at a more specific event, there were 76 participants in the men’s marathon at the 2013 World Championships and 75 in the women’s. Virtual parity.
Biking presents an interesting comparison. The most popular event in professional cycling, the Tour de France, does not allow women, although there is a movement to change that fact. As popular as the Tour de France is, it is not the World Championship event in cycling, that event belongs to the UCI. The start lists for the UCI road world championships are based on a complicated formula that awards numbers of slots to countries based on UCI points accumulated during the previous year. In 2013 246 women and 335 men competed in the world championship road race. Not great parity, but the disparity issue lies not in the absolute number of female participants but in the lack of any women from certain countries. For example there were 11 American men and 11 American women participating in the world championship road race while countries like Venezuela sent 6 men and 1 women and Morocco sent 9 men and 0 women. I think cycling numbers speak more about developing cycling for women in underrepresented countries rather than an absolute lack of opportunity at the world championship level.
While disparity to some extent exists in running and cycling, that disparity appears to come from individual countries and not from limited slots for female participants at the world championship event, making WTC’s Kona World Championship event unique in that it places a hard and disparate limit on the number of female professional participants.
Venturing outside the world of “similar” sports, over the past twenty years championship events have achieved gender parity in the United States. At the collegiate level since 1994 both the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments include 64 teams (not counting play in games) and both the NCAA men’s and women’s soccer tournaments include 32 teams and the NCAA. In fact, high schools and colleges in the United States are governed by Title 9, which requires that equal athletic opportunities be offered to both men and women. Since its inception Title 9 has resulted in an increase in the competitive level and quality of women’s sports. Essentially if women are given the opportunity, more will participate and the sports will become more competitive (as an interesting side note triathlon has been approved by the NCAA as an emerging sport for women, but not for men). Title 9 was enacted in 1972 and in the United States women have enjoyed increasing parity in the high school and college sports for over forty years.
Given the parity between males and females in high school and college sports and increasing parity in similar professional endurance sports, it would appear that from a historical standpoint, WTC is currently standing on the wrong side of history. While there may currently be more male than female triathletes, the numbers are changing and WTC should look to place itself ahead of the curve rather than falling behind it.