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Is equal coverage enough?

Ironman World Championship Podium 2016.

I was recently forwarded an article Dear Ironman – Is Equal Coverage Too Much to Ask? written by Sara Gross. In it she makes some insightful commentary as to the state of current Ironman World Championship coverage and some practical suggestions for improvement:

‘A full 43% of the coverage was dedicated to the men’s race, while only 27% focused on the women. (The other 30% was split screen or advertising.)’ ‘The Ironman coverage still comes across as a homogenous group talking amongst themselves... If Ironman is truly looking for 50% female participation as they claim to be, I would suggest that a female commentator would help women feel like Ironman is an inclusive space and not a middle-aged white man’s club.’

These are valid points and for Ironman should be relatively easy to implement.

However, while we’re of course happy to see people taking an analytical approach to areas that make the sport better, to me the above criticisms on the ‘Ironman World Championships’ remain frustrating in that they overlook the larger problem in the first place:

There is no real ‘World Championship’.

Kona is not a real female ‘World Championship’ by any objective analysis and shouldn’t be marketing itself as so.

Firstly, women do not compete in their own event. Secondly, because of the structure of the race you have a situation where men often affect the outcome of the women’s race. Both points would be considered unacceptable for most legitimate sporting championships. The women’s Olympic Marathon doesn’t begin just minutes before a pack of amateur male athletes capable of running the same speeds or faster starts just behind them. That would be ridiculous.

And no, this is not about bashing Ironman.

Kona is a very important race and we’re very proud that our athletes do well at it. But followers of the sport need to stop deluding themselves that Ironman has any commitment towards creating the best conditions for a legitimate sporting ‘World Championship’. Their job is in creating the most profitable business, which is not the same thing.

Age group men pass professional females on the bike. There are always fast age group men running next to pro women on the final discipline. There is actually no rule for pulling slow male professionals off the course if they are caught by the female pros. This would be ‘unfair’ to the professional men – despite it being alright to do it to the amateurs for logistical expedience.

So we have a situation at the ‘World Championships’ where the leading women can receive drafting penalties for catching the professional men. I know it didn’t happen this year – but the fact that it could is unacceptable on its own. Caroline Steffen not too long ago received a drafting penalty while leading the women’s World Championship, and the conditions that made that possible are yet to be addressed.

50 women to Kona?

Women still do not have parity of championship numbers with the men. Why? Technical or logistical impossibility? Of course not. It’s a power play taken straight from the textbook for managing any corporate monolith:

‘We don’t need to listen to you at all – there’s no competition and you’re still going to come.’

The Men Nor is it a structural problem that affects only the women. Let’s turn our attention to the Age Group ‘World Championship’ for the men. What’s the biggest blight that will engulf this race in the not too distant future if it has not already?

DRAFTING This is supposed to be a non-drafting race, but because of the size of numbers never envisioned 20 years ago we now see conga lines of age group men putting in unheard of splits. And because of an archaic drafting rule the athletes can be now be spread in a giant line over kilometres. If you’re an athlete exiting the swim at the back of this pack you then have to decide whether to drive forward past a group of 40 athletes (nearly impossible) or sit back to not get a penalty!

Putting honest athletes in a position where they can be called ‘cheats’ for formats outside their control is the worst possible scenario.

Or, when we have a situation where the guys at the front are doing all the work and the athletes at the back hear the motorbikes coming behind them and sprint like hell to pass some poor workhorse who has been towing everyone around field – and then he gets the penalty!

But no-one wants to talk about changing that. Because the numbers keep growing and the figures look good. That’s a fine short term strategy for those running a business with short term goals. But we shouldn’t be promoting a ‘Championship’ under non-championship conditions. It leaves the participants feeling shortchanged.

As Sara points out – increase the Kona coverage for women, employ a full-time female commentator. It’s an easy win.

But let’s also keep our eye on the ball. The bigger obstacle for long term equal participation in the sport is sending professional female athletes with no wetsuits 5 minutes ahead of a horde of fast age group men in wetsuits, so they can be bashed up in the swim and then have their bike and run legs compromised by large packs.


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