It’s Women Only in Kona for 2023Nov 30, 2022
Ironman World Championships is splitting the women and men between Kona and another location next year.
By Sara Gross
The rumors rocking the triathlon community like Hawaii’s infamous crosswinds on the climb to Hawi are true: The iconic Ironman World Championship race in Kona will be women athletes only vying for glory on the Big Island in 2023. The men will compete in a separate event, location to be announced in January.
There was already outrage brewing as this news leaked prior to the official announcement. There’s bound to be more today. This is a big change to the sport's most monumental event. And people don’t like change.
But I do. I personally believe that, though this shake up is going to create difficulties that need to be addressed, this is ultimately a change for the better, a change our sport needs if it truly wants to achieve the equity that many claim it already has.
2022 Was Just One Leg of the Journey
I am often told that there is no need to advocate for women in triathlon, no need for women’s-focused media or education.
In Kona, just this past October, four days ahead of the Ironman World Championship races, a well-known coach and podcaster shouted at us at the bar for over an hour about how unnecessary it is to spotlight the women and how we should put our focus elsewhere. “Why don’t you focus on equality for sewage workers in New York?” he said.
I couldn’t make this sh*t up if I tried. Unnecessary, he says. Unnecessary in a world where training programs are not designed for women because the very sport science that forms their foundation did not include women. Unnecessary in a sports system that is not designed to support women through pregnancy and early motherhood, let alone perimenopause and menopause.
Sure, there’s been progress in Ironman. Great progress. This year, the pro women had equal slots at the Ironman World Championship, and even more remarkably, with this year’s 2-day format, they had their own race, a fair racecourse, and media focused only on them. New mom Chelsea Sadaro won the race, and we were treated to a woman given the microphone to talk about succeeding as an elite athlete on one of the world’s biggest stages while also tackling the challenges of motherhood.
The age group women didn't enjoy the same progress. Only the professionals had been granted equal slots at the Ironman World Championship. And the amateur women didn’t get to enjoy a fair race without interruption from packs of age group men.
Recognizing there was room for improvement, Ironman announced equal slots for women, both pro and age group for 2023. They told us we would have another 2-day World Championship event in Kona, with a women’s-only (both pros and age group) field on Thursday and the men's race on Saturday. True progress.
Progress Comes with Bumps in the Road
So, what happened? How did we end up here, with men and women racing in different months in different parts of the world? I don’t know for sure what transpired in the days and weeks since the Ironman World Championships but I’m going to take an educated guess based on what I saw and heard on the ground in Kona.
The people of Kona did not love the 2-day event format. I heard from several people that the locals were angry. They were angry because they had to close their businesses for longer than usual, angry because they couldn’t get to work because athletes were everywhere and acting like they own the place.
And to be fair, they have a point. We do act like idiots sometimes. The streets are extremely busy and while it’s busy every year, with the two-day format, it was busier, and for longer. And while some locals love having the athletes around, I understand why many of them kinda hate us.
So, if we can’t have 2 full days of racing in Kona then what?? The assumption was we'd go back to a one-day race. Everyone would be happy in Kona. Except that doesn't lead to progress. Will a 2-day race be messy? Will it cause some inconvenience for not only men who have booked accommodations and planned vacations, but also brands who haven't budgeted for two world championships and media companies who are struggling in this current economy? You bet it will. But we can't let inconvenience allow us to stop progress.
No Turning Back
Over the past decade, women have only comprised 25% to 28% of the athletes racing at the Ironman World Championships. Now that I’ve been there and tasted just a little of what it will be like when we have our own day and platform, an opportunity for pros and amateur athletes alike to perform on their own terms and have all cameras on them- I don’t want to go back. I want to move forward. I want to move into a future in which women have our own stage and do it our way.
I love the idea of Women’s Triathlon standing on its own two feet, with its own identity and vibe. My imagination goes wild with the idea of having the racecourse in Kona to ourselves and having all the media attention on the women. It feels like a weight off our collective shoulders, like we’re emerging from the shadows of the men. I think it’s important that as women, we believe we can, that we are worthy, and it’s important that the media and industry are right there with us. If we need a confidence boost, we need look no further than what we witnessed this summer in France.
In July 2022, we saw the first women’s Tour de France since 1989. The 8-day stage race attracted a viewing audience of 2.25 million on France 3 alone, with a peak viewership of 5.1 million. These numbers represent 50% of the viewing audience of the men’s version, and for a first-year event, excuse my French, that’s pretty f*cking good.
And that’s cycling, a sport that still limits distances for women based on antiquated beliefs about our abilities and took until 2022 to host a women’s version of their flagship event. If cycling can do it, Triathlon can do it.
And, to the point made by my mate who shouted at us in the bar in Kona, Triathlon has a rich history of gender equality. While I don’t agree with him that there’s nothing left to improve, I do agree that Triathlon has got a lot of things right.
In a sport that doesn’t have a complicated history entrenched in sexism, this should be a no-brainer. In a sport and industry that has reminded me over and over that women have all the equality we could possibly need, all I can say to the media and industry is- now it’s time to prove it. Show up for us.
The Pros Will Outweigh the Cons
The advantages of women having their own day in Kona are multitude. We get to see the athletes display their athletic prowess- on their own terms. The women’s race will not be tangled up by hundreds of men on the swim and bike.
This change is not only good for the competitors, but also the sport itself. A true world championship should move around to different locations. The world champion should not always be the person who performs best in the heat or the wind. With this new system, a wider variety of athletes will have a shot at the podium.
I understand that there are some downsides to having the women’s and men’s championships on different sides of the globe. There is something wonderful about a race where everyone is in it together on the same course on the same day, male or female, age grouper or pro, regardless of age. I get that. It’s part of what makes triathlon great.
But if we can’t have that without putting women back in the box of 25% representation at the World Championship, I don’t want it. And I don’t want to give up ALL THE FEELS that I know myself and so many women around the world felt when we watched Chelsea win on her own terms, first across the line in HER RACE.
Another notable downside to men and women competing in two different races on two different sides of the world is that it entrenches the gender binary that by definition excludes gender non-conforming folks who identify as neither “male” nor “female.” This adds a layer of complexity to an already complex issue in sport. I don’t have a clear answer for this.
Or if you’re a male/female couple hoping to race an Ironman World Championships together, it kinda sucks.
The road ahead is bound to be bumpy. Progress always is. But regardless of whether you love or hate the idea of splitting up the Ironman World Championship and hosting it in various locations across the world, I hope we can all show up online or on the ground in Kona and cheer for the best women in the world as they own the course on their own terms for the first time in history.
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington
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