Off Side by Sara Gross

Loud Voices Make Change

Sara Gross talks about what she has learned while fighting for equal opportunity in triathlon. 

For over a year, I have been heavily involved in a movement to create equal opportunity for the professional women at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. The professional men have 50 spots on the start line after automatic qualifiers and the women only have 35. 

In order to create this change first we asked Ironman Triathlon which is owned by the World Triathlon Corporation through official channels. Numerous women asked over numerous years for parity in the numbers. No, no, no, was always the answer. 

And so we took to social media, we started a Twitter account, we created a hashtag. We started a Facebook page. No answer. Then we went to the media and got coverage from the triathlon media. We were interviewed by Forbes, ESPNW, Vice Sports, Fox News. There was a full page article in Sports Illustrated. Still no change. 

This situation leaves me scratching my head. Adding the fifteen spots to create gender equality would not be expensive. It’s not about money. So why? Why don’t we deserve to have the same treatment as the men? 

I’ve talked to a lot of people about this over the last year and I think I can put their various reactions and responses into three main categories;

“Thank you for what you are doing for women in our sport.” I think I can speak for everyone involved when I say: “you’re welcome, it’s an honor.” 

“I agree there should be equal numbers, but I don’t agree with the way you are asking.” This one’s a shocker. I mean, really? Have quiet people been the ones to make change in your experience? Having been told no so many times, what were we supposed to do? I’m sorry if we hurt someone’s feelings, but being treated as a second class athlete because I am a woman kinda hurts too. So we might speak out of turn from time to time.

“I think that proportionality is fair.” This one is a reference to the fact that the 35/50 ratio is based on Ironman participation numbers for women and men respectively. On the surface this might seem reasonable. But wait. So, women have been ALMOST COMPLETELY EXCLUDED from endurance sport until the last 60 years or so and now you’re going to turn around and tell us to pull up our socks and get more women out there doing triathlon before we can have equal opportunity? Like it’s somehow our fault? Really? 

This process has made me realize on a deep level that it’s not all roses for gender equality in sport. Why is it still ok to not offer equal opportunity for women or girls at ANY LEVEL of sporting competition? Why do people come to me and say “It’s not black and white Sara – it’s grey.”

This got me thinking about how, as individuals and as a group, we can never fully extricate ourselves from the cultures that shape us. In our case, a sporting culture that idolizes men and idealized masculine traits. There are ways to gain a birds eye view on who we are and what shapes our assumptions and norms, such as education, travel and listening to others. But at the end of the day, I like to wear my hair long, partially because I internalized a norm that long = pretty and while there are lots of beautiful women with short hair, I wear mine long because I like it. Am a doing woman-kind a disservice? What about if I shave my legs or wear make up? How do we know the answers to these questions? 

And moreover, how do I convince a group of middle-aged white guys that unequal opportunities for any gender/race/class/ability/sexual orientation is in fact just a sign that culturally we are not where we need to be? That in fact, our sons and daughters will still suffer under the current state of things? How do I convince them that equality and fairness are more important than business or saving face or being right? 

At some point during the push to have our voices heard about the inequality at the Ironman World Championship, we made a list of all the women-in-sport twitter handles and I tweeted each of them asking for help with our cause. Not many answered, but one significant person did: Chris Stafford from WiSP Sports. Having retired from a career as a professional horse rider Chris became a journalist and broadcaster and started the Women in Sport Podcast in order to give women athletes, coaches and other sports leaders a louder voice in the media. 

And so over the months, Chris and I talked more and more. We share the conviction that there is still the need for a major paradigm shift in the way women are treated in the sporting area, from opportunities, to money, to media coverage. Change is needed. These conversations and many others between the amazing women who now reside in my orbit led to the creation of the new all-inclusive women-in-sport media company: WiSP Sports. Here we build and share, continue conversations already started and create new ways of talking and showing that are more respectful, more uplifting, more inspiring. 

So while I have not succeeded in convincing the The World Triathlon Corporation that the pro women should have equal opportunity, I have a much clearer view on what is required if real cultural change is what we want. 

Here, on the pages of this site, integrity, fairness, respect and equality come first. If you have something to say, come to us and say it. If you don’t like the way we treat a topic, tell us. If you are a woman or gender non-conforming and feel that you are excluded or silenced or treated unfairly, you can have a voice here. If you want it. I can personally assure you of that. 

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Lauri

    February 16, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Awesome idea!!! Keep moving forward. Things will change!

  2. Robin loader

    February 18, 2016 at 3:27 am

    Don’t let them win they always hope you will eventually give up over time if you are ignored. They don’t want to share or give up their vaulted positions. If they aren’t listening turn up the volume. Eventually they will and you will be treated equally.

  3. Garbo

    February 29, 2016 at 9:44 am

    This can be easily sorted. Don’t have a womens and mens division just have 85 pro spots. The only way to truely establish equality.

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