The Impact of Civil Rights Legislation on Triathlon

Triathlon in the U.S. is a much more diverse sport now than it was when I raced my first swim-bike-run event (40 years ago this September). You might look around and dispute that, but I’m probably not talking about the diversity you’re thinking about right now. Over my time in triathlon the percentage of women in triathlon in the U.S. has grown from less than 20 percent (perhaps less than 10 percent in the very early years) to 40 percent as of this writing.

In our newspapers today a spotlight is square on the treatment of people of color in American society. The impact of a series of legislative acts designed to lift Black America up and out of poverty and racism has been mixed. But this legislation did, as an unintended consequence, unlock the door to sport participation for America’s girls and women. This is a short data-driven history of how that happened, and it might be instructive to those who want to see a more racially inclusive sport in the U.S.

It may surprise you to hear that the influx of women into triathlon in the U.S. since the turn of the century is a direct result of the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-1960s. Yes. Women who run, and who race triathlons, can trace their move toward parity in sport back to President Johnson’s Great Society agenda, which included the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. To understand this you should fasten your seat belt; the route is twisty.

The point of the Civil Rights Act was to end discrimination based on race, color, religion, and sex, set against a landscape of terrific racial unrest and inequity. We just saw a landmark SCOTUS ruling within the week that finally considered the LGBTQ community to be under the umbrella of protection afforded by this legislation. But the prime movers for federal civil rights protections were segregation, voter suppression, and the Jim Crow South.

But this legislation included protections for women, and as the 1960s progressed it became apparent that women were not granted freedom from workplace discrimination. Specifically, girls and women in public and federally-funded programs (including the education industry) were still the subjects of it.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 was part of President Johnson’s Great Society legislation. It had 8 sections, or titles. When it came up for reauthorization in 1972, a 9th title was added, which said, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This last “title” gave this piece of legislation its famous name: Title IX. You’ll note there is no mention of sport. This was not contemplated as a consequence of this legislation, but, when challenged in court Title IX was interpreted to mandate equal treatment for girls and women in sport.

In 1970 I was a high school freshman and I graduated in 1974. I ran cross country and track and at no time did I ever encounter, at my school or any other, a girls version of what I enjoyed. I was spectacularly gender-unaware of the unfairness of this. I just missed the revolution.

As we see in the chart above in 1971, my sophomore year running cross-country, there were 96 boys running high school cross country in the U.S. for every girl. Imagine that. Mary Decker lived a few streets over from me. Obviously she was a runner, but her only avenue was an AAU club. Mary was a Blue Angel, and if you were a sprinter (in my area) you were probably a Long Beach Comet. What you certainly weren't was a member of a high school team.

The Baby Boom is the term given to the era between 1946 and 1964. Peak birth rate years were 1949 to 1958. I’m a Boomer. The “first running boom” in the mid 1970s wasn’t just a function of Frank Shorter’s Olympic medal in the marathon (as goes the mythology), but of birth rate. Only so many boys make the football team. What if you’re not one of them? You go out for cross country.

What we see in cross country participation during the 1980s, in the chart above, is a reflection of birth rate decline. (You can really see this in the chart furthest below, when all these charts are aggregated into a panoramic 50-year overview.) This decline damaged participation in minor sports like cross country, much more than to glamour sports like football. Participation in 11-man football decreased 17 percent between 1975 to 1985. Participation in boys cross country decreased by almost 30 percent. During my era, between 1973 and 1975, about 215,000 boys competed in high school XC in the U.S. Birth rates hit their century-low in the late 70s, and between 1984 and 1992, this is when you see the low point in boys cross-country participation. In each of those years only about 155,000 boys turned out.

But the girls kept coming. At the 20th Century peak of boys XC participation, in 1975, about 30,000 girls took advantage of cross country teams (up from fewer than 2000 girls only 4 years earlier, just before Title IX). By the end of the 70s girls cross country participation stood at 60,000 nationally. That upsurge stalled during the 80s, as the low-birth-rate post-Baby Boom generation brought down high school enrollment rates. But by 1992 the girls were back at it, swelling high school cross country participation. The boys’ ranks grew by about 11 percent between 1993 and 1998, but girls cross country grew by 30 percent over that same time span (as you’ll see in the chart below).

I believe 2013 was a notable year, for 2 reasons. First, this was the year more girls participated in high school cross country running than participated in boys cross country during any year prior to the year 2000. Second, this was the first time girls combined participation in cross country running, and in high school swimming, exceeded the total of boys participation in those 2 sports. If you want to know why U.S. women in triathlon are consistently so good, this is it. It’s pipeline. It’s Title IX. It’s the story of access. Remember this word: Access. If you grant people access to something intrinsically good, like running, they’ll respond. Girls responded, and when those girls became women they were the engine fueling the second running boom.

You can draw a straight line between the quality of performance and the density of performers. If you consider sub-4:10 in the mile, and sub-9 minutes in the 2-mile as "high quality performances," care to take a guess which decade, prior to the year-2000, saw more high schoolers produce those times? It was the 1970s. What decade comes in second? 1960s. Then the 1980s, and the “slowest” decade among high schoolers was the 1990s. This tracks with cross country participation rates, which in turn is a function of birth rates. When birth rates decline, high school football catches a cold and cross country catches pneumonia.

After the turn of the century those high achievements in high school running increased, and have been increasing since, because the numbers of kids in high school has been steadily, if slowly, increasing.

How has this impacted adult sport? The so-called “second running boom” was woman-fueled. An article in ESPN from back in 2013 sought to explain this, and noted, “In 2011, nearly 14 million people ran a road race in the U.S., and according to Ryan Lamppa, research statistician at Running USA, more than 7.6 million of those runners, or 54 percent, were women. That's up from just 25 percent in 1990 and an essentially nonexistent women's long distance running field 40 years ago.”

Forty years ago we saw the start of the first running boom. That was my era. I was a witness to a boom that was almost entirely male. Perhaps it was energized by Frank Shorter’s medal, but more so I think to two other factors: demographics (more people mean more runners), and the demolition of the AAU as a gatekeeper to road racing.

It did literally require an Act of Congress for women to get their chance to run, and the rise in triathlon between 2000 and 2012 was largely fueled by women and this is a function of access to running and swimming in high school.

I believe we’re at the confluence of some truths that bode well for endurance sport. We learned just this week that for the first time in 30 years the total number of those playing high school sport decreased, and the largest reason was a 20-year low in the number of those playing 11-man football. Perhaps because of the fear of head trauma in football.

Also, the increase in participation in cross country has outpaced the growth in birth rates. Here’s the data: In 1985 there were 15 boys who ran cross country for every 100 who played 11-man football. By 2017, there were 26 boys running for every 100 who played football. What explains this? Maybe running is not as unglamorous as it used to be. But also, high school runners over the past 20 years are the kids of the Baby Boomers. They’re the kids of those of us who fueled the first running boom. Every year I get together with the old runners from my day and we tell war stories. Who attends? Dale Fleet, high school distance god from the early 70s. His son? Oregon alum Mac Fleet, one of America’s premier middle distance runners. Matt Centrowitz also flew in for our annual lying-and-beer fest. Not Matthew Centrowitz, the 1500 meter Olympic gold medalist and world champion. His dad, who’s my age.

At certain key moments in history our society recognizes segments of our population that have been underserved, taken for granted, misused, not the focus of investment. That happened with women, in the late 60s and 70s. There is a freight train of a movement right now, with an outpouring of support for righting some egregious historical wrongs for people of color.

This is on a parallel path with an appreciation of sport among today’s high schoolers. I can almost promise most of you don’t see it. For those who maintain that today’s teens are only interested in video games, we are closing in on a half-million combined girls and boys running cross country. When I graduated high school – near the height of the Baby Boom’s graduation peak – about 5.7 million of us participated in high school sports (4 million boys and 1.3 million girls). Last year it was just shy of 8 million total participants, a half-million more boys now versus 1974, and almost triple the number of girls. This excludes consideration of sports outside of those officially recognized by high school state associations, triathlon of course, and if you’re naïve to NICA mountain bike leagues, prepare to have your mind blown at the size of these races.

Which brings me to racial diversity in triathlon. “Nice aggregation of data. Now what?”

Why is triathlon so white? (And straight, for that matter.) My opinion only, but I don’t see evidence triathlon in America is beset by racial or sexual orientation animus, any more than it suffered from gender animus. Insensitivity? That’s a better word. Myopathy? Naivete? To this, I think we can plead guilty! But, an actual antipathy toward people of color? Not in my experience, and I have not heard this expressed by the black people I’ve spoken to in triathlon.

We’re lucky. We’re gender-welcoming in spirit though over my 40 years our testosterone got in the way. Likewise we (sort of) roll out the welcome mat for those of every race, religion, culture, and ability. In theory. But in access? Not so much. For example, we are all big fans of our challenged athletes. But if you ask how many races are ready to accommodate challenged athletes, you might hear a different story. This isn’t an indictment. It’s the story of access. The problem is not animus, but access.

I believe there are four reasons we don’t have American multisport races that look like America: available time to train for a time-intensive sport; the cost of this sport; the lack of diverse people in the business of this sport; and the lack of a background in our 3 constituent activities.

These are all problems of access and invitation. What’s an example of an access problem? If an adult wants to learn to swim, but lessons are only available between 10am and 3pm on weekdays – when he or she is working – that’s an access problem. (That’s not a theoretical I just raised; it describes my area, within an hour’s drive from me in any direction; and I live in Los Angeles County.)

What do I mean by an invitation problem? If the LGBTQ community is underrepresented in our sport, there are two ways to increase the numbers: put on triathlons designed specifically for this community; and recruit, mentor, and perhaps fund, race organizers who’re members of this community. My instinct tells me that a member of the LGBTQ community who puts on a triathlon will have much more success at populating his or her race with a diverse demographic than I would at a race I produce. In the decade just following the turn of the century 4 of the 6 largest triathlons in the world were women-only, and heading those races was a woman: Maggie Sullivan. As an outside but interested observer my sense tells me that women – in particular Maggie and Sally Edwards – inviting women helped energize the increase in access (that Title IX legislation unlocked) toward our sport in particular.

This is a history, through my prism, of how women rose from 1 percent of the high school running population to 40 percent of American triathlon and more than half of the field at many or most footraces. How we might repeat that paradigm for other groups that are conspicuously absent from triathlon – the mechanics of this – I’ll leave for future installments. If this is a topic that animates you, realize it took decades for the freedom women earned to bear fruit in a sport as technically complex as triathlon. I write this because if you aspire to a more inclusive sport, do you have a lifetime? Because, it’s that kind of project.

[Most of the data above comes from the National Federation of High School Athletics and USA Triathlon.]