Planting a Rainbow Flag In the Ground

How do you widen the umbrella of triathlon’s appeal? Via the law of unintended consequences, the addition of 2 words in the sport’s rulebook just provided one unwitting pathway.

Triathlon’s world governing body, the International Triathlon Union (ITU) lists its rule changes every year, against a highlighted green background (so you don’t need to search the old against new, finding the differences). In the graphic below you’ll see what was added to the general conduct rule: the words “sexual orientation”.

I hope the ITU means well. This org is owed the honor it earned through its early stand on gender equality. Triathlon should be proud; consider the difference between women’s triathlon and women’s cycling. The ITU’s driving force in its early years, Les McDonald, placed his flag of women’s rights in the ground. McDonald and the ITU made this a core value. But the rainbow flag appears a bridge too far.

In the rule above I see a prohibition against “political, religious, sexual orientation or racial propaganda.” This has been an existing rule, just, what's added for 2019 is "sexual orientation." Not listed is gender or disability “propaganda”. The ITU knows that women and challenged athletes have been ignored and disparaged in sport, and it has stood on the right side of history on this, hence no mention of any outward show of solidarity with these historically-disenfranchised groups.

One might argue the ITU is trying not to take sides between the underrepresented, underserved, discriminated groups; but by adding “sexual orientation” to its list of prohibited expressions, this is what it’s done. Will I be DQd if I race with a chain with a cross on it around my neck? What if I wear pink arm coolers? I doubt any of this behavior will generate a DQ, because the ITU has stood against disenfranchisement.

The ITU will begin its 2019 World Triathlon Series campaign in Abu Dhabi. I can almost assure you that, in that event’s age group race, women will race in attire circumscribed by their religion, and if any of that attire breaks an ITU rule, does anyone think that rule will be enforced? (I certainly hope not!) Meanwhile, someone who flies the rainbow flag is threatened with a DQd according to this rule.

The operative ethic here is equality, making sure that no one’s opportunity is diminished in sport and in life because the powerful use their power to bully or disenfranchise those without power. Is the ITU taking the position that a publicly gay triathlete is as enfranchised the world over as a straight triathlete? I sure hope not, and I can’t imagine it is.

The image above is of Jack Bristow, from the UK. I asked him about the genesis of this rule. The image is from Leeds, last year, and is the only time Jack flew the rainbow flag in a race. What about other athletes? “It’s not something I see being done,” Jack wrote me. So, why the rule? I don’t know. But in reading about Jack’s life, it took a lot for him to get to the point where he could fly the rainbow flag in his life, in his head, before he ever flew that flag above his head. And, that’s the point of the rainbow emblem: Those confident in who they are let those less-confident know that they’re not alone. The ITU should stand foursquare with Jack and all others like him. It’s what the ITU has done in the past.

This is the ITU’s righteous fight. It ought to get on the right side of history; and I predict it eventually will.

I also predict this new rule will have the opposite of its intended effect: an outpouring of affection and solidarity in triathlon for people across the sexual preference spectrum beyond anything I’ve seen; and a proliferation of rainbow flags, shoelaces, bike and helmet stickers. American sensibilities are best measured by the response to North Carolina's "House Bill 2". For those who’ve wondered whether triathlon is a sport friendly toward, and embracing of, everyone, rank and file triathletes worldwide may answer that question in 2019.

[Update: I received this from USAT's CEO, Rocky Harris, shortly after publication of this Opinion piece, and I add it here: "USA Triathlon recently became aware of the rule amendment made by the International Triathlon Union concerning 'athlete demonstrations' at events. We are in direct communication with the ITU in an attempt to learn more, and to address the resulting concerns this rule change represents for the LGBTQ community. We take pride in the fact that our sport – and ITU – has historically been a leader in equality and inclusivity, so we anticipate this decision will be reviewed more closely."]

[PHOTO of Jack Bristow:]