Last year was supposed to be a big one for Angela Naeth. The 33-year-old from British Columbia finished fifth in her first full Ironman triathlon late in 2013 and sixth in her second in the spring of 2014, then signed with Red Bull that June. During the summer she cut back on competing to focus on a season-ending trip to the spiritual home of triathlon: the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. But one thing stopped Naeth from making that journey: She's a woman.
Since 2011 the World Triathlon Corporation, which runs Ironman, has enforced a 50/35 split between the 85 male and female pros qualifying for Kona. Ranked No. 40, Naeth would have made the cut if she were a man.
"If someone like Angela Naeth has to extend her season to make it [to Hawaii]," says Julia Polloreno, editor-in-chief of Triathlete magazine, "there's something that's not right with that system." Since missing out on Kona last year, Naeth has won two Ironman races, including a North American championship in May in The Woodlands, Texas.
In fairness, Ironman has a pretty good record on equality. Men and women race the same courses and prize money is split equally. In fact, the most iconic moment in Ironman history came in a women's race, in 1982 at Kona. On Wide World of Sports, Julie Moss collapsed yards from the finish. Unwilling to quit, she crawled her way to second place.
Andrew Messick, CEO of the WTC, defends the current system by arguing for proportional representation. "There's twice as many male pros as there are female pros," he says, "and we think its fair that there are more professional males in Kona than professional females."
Angela Naeth expected to race in the Ironman in Kona. One thing stopped her: She's a woman.
But that is only half the story. Writing for TRS Triathlon, Brian Maiorano noted that of the 617 pro men and 347 pro women who had completed a Kona qualifying race in the 11 months before July, 27, 237 men and 225 women had finished high enough to win prize money. Since professionals are athletes who earn their living competing, there is justification to strike hundreds of men from Messick's equation, evening out the number of male and female elite triathletes.
And 50/35 is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fewer opportunities there are for women, the less sponsorship money flows their way. "All the sponsors are [at Kona]," explains Sara Gross, a founding member of advocate group TriEqual. "Anyone who has any power to help you in your pro career is there." It's disingenuous to say men get more spots because there are more of them while maintaining a policy that reinforces the differential.
Female athletes also over-race to fight for those last slots. Just ask Beth Gerdes. Since giving birth in May 2014, she has completed four Ironman races to collect enough points to qualify for Kona this year. Gerdes's challenge now is to recover sufficiently to be competitive in Kona. If there were more slots available, she likely could have eliminated one of those four qualifiers and still earned a place in the final.
Of course, Ironman doesn't have to seek equality. The WTC is a private corporation. There is no Title IX here. And Ironman doesn't have to listen to its pros. They pay $800 in annual membership dues but race Kona for free, while more than 230,000 amateurs pay to compete in WTC events every year. According to Messick, any extra space at Kona, where amateurs pay anywhere from $850 to $25,000 to participate, will "go to age groupers, not pros." Equality is nice, but it doesn't pay the bills.
Perhaps investing 15 more pro slots in the hope of inspiring thousands more women to sign up—and pay up—is a gamble worth taking. And even if it's not, the risk of sticking with the status quo might be worse. Being synonymous with inequality is not a good look for an event that prides itself on rewarding endurance and perseverance.