Womens Access

Let's talk about women's access in triathlon. It should be obvious to anyone that access begets prosperity.

The success of the U.S. women in Olympic-style triathlon is a story about access. I wrote about this last June and my thesis then, and now, is that the success of United States women in triathlon flowed from increased access by girls to swimming and running in the 1970s. Not only did high schools open doors in the form of girl's run and swim teams, Title IX mandated money and resources to women as they entered college, including access to athletic pursuits.

In the United States more boys than girls swam in high school when I was in high school. Now that is reversed. We have, in the last year or two, reached that moment when the combined numbers of high school girl swimmers and runners surpassed the combined numbers of boys participating in these sports.

This might explain why our women do well, but we still have a lot of boys who run and swim. Why aren't we sweeping the podium in men's WTS races? I think it's because our women benefit from the ability to move into a 4-year NCAA single-sport program, while our men are hindered by their entre into that same system. How can the same process aid women, but hinder men?

From the time of Siri Lindley, Barb Lindquist, Susan Williams, Sheila Taormina, down to today, with a sweep last week of an ITU WTS podium and depth beyond the top-3, practically all America's top women emerged from college single-sport programs. When that pathway underpins America's success it's hard to find fault with the thesis that these programs provide great development.

But I don't think it's the optimal process if you are outrageously gifted and if your only goal is to prevail in athletics. American distance runner Mary Cain was swayed by her coach Alberto Salazar away from the NCAA route in favor of a pro career in running. It's not that Mary's skipping college, rather she's chosen to be unburdened by the NCAA schedule and restrictions. She's a professional runner, she became one right out of high school, and she's good enough to gain access to international elite competition right now.

Because triathlon is such a time-consuming sport if you want to be the best, I think this is probably the ideal system if your only aspiration, for the moment, is to stand atop the Olympic podium.

If American men "lose" four or five prime development years by competing in the collegiate system as runners or swimmers (Potts, Shoemaker, et al), why doesn't this hamper America's women? Because, compared to the poor access available to women in a lot of other countries, an NCAA program looks pretty good as a development model.

What about the other route, becoming a professional triathlete right out of grade school? This has been a viable pipeline for men for decades. Spencer Smith, Simon Lessing, Miles Stewart, Lance Armstrong, and a number of other notables not only bypassed collegiate athletics, some were pros on the circuit while still attending high school.

I can't think of one woman in my years watching this sport who was afforded that kind of opportunity, at least until the advent of funding through national federations. But many of the top men in triathlon right now followed this model.

Here are the gender participation percentages in Ironman races in various countries. Let's talk below about how this impacts Ironman.

I don't know, I have no good data, still I would wager that the percentages of women entering Ironman races in each country at least somewhat parallel the access to competitive swimming and running programs given to young girls in these countries. And I mean access financially, culturally, and in proximity (swim and run programs in school versus a sparse network of clubs). Simply put, how many countries around the world produce the stats we have in America, where girls who swim and run equal or outnumber boys who swim and run?

I'll wager that New Zealand and Canada are among them. Anybody care to bet against that? Swimming is the number-1 athletic activity engaged in by girls in Canada according to Statistics Canada in 2005 and again, in 2014, by Solutions Research Group. Canadian girls are more likely than boys to participate in individual sports. About 1 in 5 Canadian girls are, "currently in swimming lessons, instruction or competition."

Robust numbers like this explain why Canada bats way above its average, per capita, in triathlon excellence and specifically in the female ranks. It also explains, I believe, why it is near the top in female participation in Ironman relative to the men.

This brings us to the question of Ironman's stand on access, and whether its adherence to the notion of proportional representation extended to the female pro start field in Kona is in line with, or at odds with, the virtue of access.

Ironman, as most observers know, has a history of allotting slots to its world championship race in Kona in proportion to those who enter qualifying races. This more or less extends to the pro field, although the 35 female slots (versus 50 male slots) are slightly more than would be allocated based on the number of females racing as professionals per the Ironman Pro Membership program.

There is equal access to prize money. The money is the same for men and women in every Ironman race including in Kona. But is that enough? A lot of the top women in Kona, and those who support them, don't think so. They believe equality ought to extend to the numbers of invited pro entrants. Those who have made statements don't seem to think proportional representation in the women's age group field is a problem; and they find no difficulty in parsing between the pro versus the age group cohort.

Maybe they are right. But America's great open door to women did not occur at the top of the sport but at the bottom. It wasn't the accomplished who were granted access in the 1970s, it was the young. I am not persuaded that adding 15 pro female slots will move the needle in female participation in Ironman racing around the world.

But I don't think abandoning or honoring proportional representation, as it applies to the pro women, should be decided simply on the basis of what it might mean to the future of female participation in Ironman. We also ought to note what it means to women racing now. In the affected cohort. What does 50/50 mean to those who are racing right now, with an eye toward Kona participation in the pro field? And, would age-group women see it as a victory, or a slight, if pro women were granted equal slots on the pier while AG women were still subject to proportional representation? The sense of justice felt by each of these cohorts of women trumps the theoretical question of what 50/50 means to future participation of women in triathlon.

I'm going to pivot from the discrete technical discussion of access to pier slots, because I have one more thing I'd like to say about access and while it might seem afield it is, to me, central to the discussion of pier slot access as we move forward. I'm talking about a different kind of access. Access to speech. To opinions.

I do not usually share the political views of New York Times columnist David Brooks, but I admire him more as the years go by. In his new book The Road to Character he describes himself as, "paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am." I listened to an interview with Mr. Brooks on NPR and I'm struck not just by his humility, but by his attachment to the need for humility – especially his championing or honoring of the value of humility when forming and voicing opinions.

David Brooks' day job is asking you to abandon your view of what's right and moral, replacing it with his view, while he knows full well that his own prescription for morality is a moving target. For some pundits this job requires great hubris. These are unswayed by the possibility their prescriptions could be unwise. Other commentators, like David Brooks, engage in an intense and never-ending self-examination. This approach requires a lot more energy, but it liberates the writer from stasis-of-thought.

I don't know whether we ought to keep the numbers of the pro men and women on the pier as they are; raise the women's slots by 15; lower the men's by 15; lower them all to 25 each with a corresponding increase in the prize purse (hopefully paid more deeply, so that those who do race Kona have a much greater shot of going home with a paycheck richly earned through a tough, yearlong qualifying process).

I just don't feel strongly enough about what ought to be the best resolution to ask you to abandon your view of what's right and moral, replacing it with my view. But a lot of other people have the resolve that I lack, and I don't get the sense that they've gained it through the kind of internal struggle David Brooks describes. As Mr. Brooks puts it, "We live in a culture I call in the book 'the culture of the Big Me,' where we're really praised and rewarded for celebrating ourselves all the time." I am convinced, based on the quality of the discource, that many of those in this debate care far less about the issue for which they are contending as for some other self-aggrandizing end.

My favorite triathlete, at least this month, is a woman named Mary. I see her at the pool on weekends. She's black. She's not in her teens, nor her 20s. Nor, maybe, her 30s. She started swimming in January. I don't mean she came back to swimming. She started swimming. Her goal is to compete in one of the Chicago Triathlon events later this Summer. Mary represents every good thing triathlon can offer. Mary is not the future of triathlon, but she's one future, and an important future. I won't say that we need more Marys for triathlon to prosper; but every Mary I see is a blessing to me.

Most people of goodwill in triathlon hope for more Marys, and some are committed to the work of increased access, and not only for women. If there is a problem on the Kona pier that needs to be fixed, let us fix it. But we have another problem that needs to be fixed first, and that is a problem with our discourse on this subject. There is no excuse for the vitriol that has surrounded this issue; nor for the affected parties to sit silent in the face of the vitriol hurled on their behalf. America's success, now, in WTS racing, is a testament to the power of access. My pool-mate Mary is a product of that access just as much as is Gwen Jorgensen. I am certain that the Ironman Corporation – even if only for business reasons – is just as committed to increasing access.

Just, I don't think we as a cohort of likeminded individuals are going to unlock the door granting a wider audience access to multisport until we can find a way to talk to each other using a more civil language, attaching humility to opinions on an issue that is, even to a lot of good people – notwithstanding the strong opinions of others – a moral coin-flip.