A better way forward for pro Ironman racing

A recent article on the future of professional Ironman racing has proposed, in all seriousness, a system whereby the disparity between the number of men’s and women’s pro slots at Kona is increased.

“The pro fields would begin at 60 for the men and 40 for the women. That would mean an increase of 10 men and 5 women”.

Andrew Messick, the CEO of Ironman, describes this article on Twitter as “a positive contribution”.  Let me repeat: that’s an article that proposes a worsening of gender inequality being described by the guy who runs the show as A Good Thing.

Twitter screenshot 1

Something I find incredible is that Messick’s comments are being passed on by female pros too…

Twitter screenshot 2

The article also suggested a number of changes to how the WTC could structure its professional racing, whereby only 12 races would have prize money and qualifying slots to Kona.  At each of those races, the top three women and top five men would qualify.

Below I demonstrate that:

  • a 12-race system would make the sport significantly less interesting in many ways, as well as less fair; and
  • ironically, one step that would help the current system to work better is creating equality for male and female athletes.

Leaving this aside, any change that were to be made to the way that racing is currently structured would provide an excellent opportunity to address the current inequality in men’s and women’s slots, albeit that this could be rectified immediately by equalising the number of pros from each gender regardless of any changes to the overall structure.

 

When the WTC adds a new race to the Ironman series it’s exciting for age groupers and pros alike to see another opportunity to race.  The increasing number of races on the circuit allows athletes to select courses that play to their strengths.  It allows them to travel almost anywhere in the world, or to travel very little.  For pros a system with only 12 races a year, combined with restrictions on travel expenses and any consideration of personal strengths and weaknesses, would severely restrict this choice.

A 12-race system would be highly susceptible to gaming and could even lead to a multi-tier system within the 12 races.  The obvious strategy for the strongest athletes is to qualify early, leaving them time to rest, recover and rebuild into Kona.  Under the proposed system, the first few races of the season would become the most competitive, with later races likely to be of a demonstrably lower standard as the top-tier pros have already qualified.

For the remaining pros, tactics start to come into play.  Should I race the first qualifier of the season, knowing that x, y, z are going to be there?  Would it be better to wait until a mid- or even end-of-season qualifier when the strongest athletes have already qualified, and risk going into Kona tired?  This also increases the risk of spreading the field out in Kona itself, with July and August qualifiers potentially exhausted from multiple attempts to qualify.

There is also the issue that races, especially those of the duration and level of complexity of Ironman, don’t always go according to plan.  Under the current system, if an athlete faces an insurmountable bike mechanical issue, they can pull out of the race and enter another one a week or two later.  Undesirable, I’m sure you’ll agree, but not as undesirable as having a deserving contender missing out on Kona because of an equipment failure.

The 12-race system would make life difficult for the next generation of pros: at the moment, prize money from smaller races (and concomitant sponsorship) helps them to survive as professionals for long enough to gain the fitness and experience needed to do well at the highest level.  Without this, we might very well find that while the sport would flourish for the next 5 years, after this we would find a gap where the up-and-coming talent had simply been unable to survive financially.

There are clearly issues with the current system that are addressed in the original article, most notably the fact that current top 10 Kona finishers are not required to “qualify” in any real sense of the word for the following year, but I do not believe this is the way to solve them.

Although the existing structure sees issues with strength and depth of field given the high number of races, I believe that to an extent this will right itself, with strong athletes willing to travel where they need to get their KPR points.  Attracting more people into the sport will also help with this: with a higher ratio of professional athletes to races, every race will be closer and hence more exciting.

 

On the subject of encouraging more athletes into the sport, it makes intuitive sense that a sport that treats all its participants fairly is an attractive sport to compete in.

On a personal level, faced with a choice between a sport that I was instantly good at or one that would require far more work for me to excel, I nonetheless chose triathlon over cycling with little hesitation.  As a woman in cycling the opportunities were limited, though it was not so much the quantum as the inequality of the opportunities that put me off.

Data from the US shows that following the introduction of Title IX in 1972, participation of both men and women at both the high school and collegiate level has increased.  The following table is reproduced from this website:

Title IX impact

These numbers provide a compelling commercial as well as moral argument in favour of equality.  If women are treated fairly, more people of both genders participate in sport.  Both the men’s and women’s races thereby become more competitive, closer and more exciting to watch.

For WTC, that means more athletes, both AG and pro, participating in their events, buying their merchandise and spreading awareness of their brand.  It means an increased general level of interest in the events, which in turn leads to rights to televise the events being worth more.  It just makes sense.

The current level of strength in depth in the women’s field is remarkable given the current lower number of participants.  Quoting from trirating.com:

  • “The top 3 in a women’s race are usually closer together than the men”
  • Where there is a drop-off in the women’s field, “the women’s differences are a lot smaller than what could be expected from the “raw” number of athletes”
  • In a women’s race, we also see more changes in the lead between T2 and the finish (in the women’s races, the winner was not leading after the bike in 17 races, in the men’s the lead changed in only 12 races)

Finally, I simply find it hard to believe that in 2014 I am having to ask not to be discriminated against, not to be given the same chance as another athlete, just because they were born male and I female.  As Rachel Joyce eloquently put it, “We count for half of the world’s population.  We should want to see triathlon be an equal sport in future generations.  What message are we sending out to kids taking up the sport with this disparity?”

With Ironman recently adding several new races with AG Kona qualifying slots to the calendar, there is clearly not a capacity issue in Kona.  WTC is so, so close to providing a system that “feels fair”; why not make one small change that would allow everyone to compete on a level playing field?  There’s still plenty of time to fit another 15 bikes on the pier this October.  Give me a good reason: why not?

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One Response to A better way forward for pro Ironman racing

  1. “With Ironman recently adding several new races with AG Kona qualifying slots to the calendar, there is clearly not a capacity issue in Kona.” Realize though there are fewer and fewer slots at each race. Ten years ago an event would have 100 AG slots. Now the norm is 50. WTC is just distributing the same number of slots among more races (which rewards those who can race often and chase slots).

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