The world of triathlon is one of the few sports that can truly celebrate its gender parity, both in the elite circles and grassroots. Indeed its reach, participation, prize purses and governance are pretty evenly balanced in terms of male and female representation. This is certainly a huge draw for many people embarking on their triathlon journey; a level playing field for all, provided you work hard and respect your fellow competitors – let’s not get into the affordability of TT bikes and carbon plated shoes in this post though, shall we?
But International Women’s Day is not just a chance to revel in the accomplishments. Improvements can and always should be made, to ensure we are promoting inclusivity for all, and incentivising the sport as a viable career path, and a way to keep fit in a caring community. It’s true that equal participation tends to tail off as triathletes age. At the age of 10, girls and boys are split evenly. At 50 this generally declines to 2 men for every 1 woman. By 70, this has exponentially shifted to 11:1. There are perhaps several cultural factors at play here, the obvious go-to being the reluctance of women to compete after having children and raising a family.
The pro field however is littered with post-partum participation (try saying that in a hurry). Zone3 athlete and mother Yuliya Yelistratova, told us ‘life has changed a lot since [son] Artem’s birth, with even more love and inspiration now present’. Of course many women feel a moral obligation to side their sporting aspirations in favour of family commitments, but with a supportive network there’s no reason why the two can’t coexist. ‘With the huge support of my husband and relatives I still manage to train 100% efficiently and improve year upon year in my competitions’.
Smiling Dane, Michelle Vesterby is testament to that ‘no compromise’ mentality, having competed at the Ironman World Championship whilst 17 weeks pregnant with son Markus (despite eventually withdrawing from the race due to some untimely punctures). ‘I make the decisions - I know what's best for me - as an athlete and now as a mom! Don't let anyone tell you that you can't or that you should not! We can do way more than we think and we should do what makes us happy - that's also why I have the motto; KEEP SMILING!’
International women’s day, to me (a man), is not just about pushing for equality, but celebrating femininity, and it’s distinctions, in its own right, with motherhood being a big part of this.
Whilst age presents a sliding scale for female participation, so too does the distance of the event. Disparity is far more prevalent in long course triathlon, with pro-female start lists regularly under 10 participants. This, despite the fact that the performance gap between men and women gets smaller, as the duration of the race gets longer. You could easily point towards an air of intimidation around male-dominated Ironman and Challenge races, but I think the issue is far more complex than this. Kona has had equal prize money since it’s inception, and with plenty of female role models paving the way, you could hardly accuse the long-course community of scaring off would-be competitors.
3x Ironman 70.3 champion Kimberley Morrison paints a positive picture: ‘I’m an active member of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign locally and I have seen the importance of coming together as women in a variety of sports. I believe women feel more empowered to share their love of sport with others, and the triathlon community certainly supports this locally and internationally. The most exciting part of racing around the world as a professional triathlete is meeting my female competitors, sharing stories and just willing each other to bring their very best come race day. We work relentlessly at our sport and I love the mutual understanding of wanting one another to achieve their best.”
The ‘in this together’ movement is obviously prevalent amongst the elites, and you could argue this takes a while to trickle down and shift the culture amongst amateurs and weekend warriors alike.
As Belgian WTS athlete, Valerie Barthelemy put it, ‘the higher I’ve climbed in the triathlon world, the more I’ve felt my voice and role as a woman celebrated and valued. ITU (International Triathlon Union) does a great job celebrating women alongside men in their policy of providing equal prize money, start list quotas and media coverage. Additionally, with the introduction of the mixed team relay debuting in the Tokyo Olympics, we now not only having a team event, but also one of the first mixed-gender competitions ever! With 2 men and 2 women, it’s a beautiful way to celebrate equality and have both genders competing together, something I will be very proud to partake in. That said, I do find that there’s work to be done to follow this example, specifically in the triathlon community in Belgium to work towards equal sponsorship opportunities, prize money in local triathlons, and media exposure. This change will take all of us strong women continually working together to combine our voices for greater change!’
Valerie makes a valid point, in that improvement will require continual effort. Social media campaigns are a step in the right direction, but it’s important not to oversimplify when we consider ‘women in sport’. A woman’s path into triathlon is as diverse as the women themselves, which means organisers, media outlets, sponsors and athletes need to consider the time-poor mum of two, as well as the thriving teenage protégé, when speaking to their audience.
My resounding take on triathlon, this International Women’s Day, is one of excitement. British IM athlete Nikki Bartlett enthused to me about the ‘progression, quality and depth of the sport’, and how it’s ‘rising every year’.
‘We are collectively pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible. You just need to look at the splits of each discipline from the top female pros. People are gobsmacked when I mention the distances, even more so when I mention the 2hr50 marathons off the bike! Being part of a fab group of female pros motivates me to wake up and push my boundaries day in, day out!’
She concedes that there is still ‘a gap in female to male coaches and practitioners across the world’ but overall it’s an ‘exciting time’ to be involved with the sport.