There's been a lot of talk about equality in sports lately, from the variances in prize purses at national level mountain bike races to the differences in slots for the woman pros at the Kona Ironman. Usually it starts with the women pushing for equality - the same payout for top three at least instead of getting 50% of what the men win, or less. Or in the case of Kona, having equal opportunity for women to compete. Once you start digging, the examples of inequality in sports start piling up. There are voices calling for change and some athletes willing to take a chance and speak out. But even that is a risk - the more vocal you are, the more people you will piss off and the fewer opportunities you will have. There are loud voices arguing that the current status que is fine and the numbers don't support promoting equality in racing and prize money. And if all you look at is the numbers, that's absolutely true. When there are 20 women racing at a national level mountain bike race compared to 150 men, it's hard to argue for equal payout. The men are essensially subsidizing the women racers if they have the same payout and the women don't have to race as hard to win money. That is the biggest argument put forth against having the equal payouts - that the money is based on percentage of racers. As for the Kona slot allocation, the WTC is using the same argument - that the women have a fair percentage of slots and to add womens slots would take away from the men's race. Phrased like that, of course there will be little support among the men. And so nothing changes.
But both arguments ring hollow to the women directly affected - as well they should. The women mountain bikers aren't working as hard for the win? Tell that to the racers on the trails, riding hard for 100 miles. It's the same distance as the men and the racing at the pointy end is usually close. To say that the 100 miles that the women raced over was an easier 100 miles then the men's race is to degrade the athletic achievements of all racers. Yes, the field sizes are also lower, that argument is true. But without creating the foundation for success, what incentive is there for women to enter the sport in the first place? We are seeing stagnation in the women's Pro and Cat1fields as riders choose not to continue racing and leave the sport. Can you blame them? Look at the men's teams vs the women's teams for XC racing in the US. How many women are out there, actually able to support themselves with racing vs the men? And if I can't support myself, what is the incentive to keep racing? So the women leave the sport because there is no reason to continue. In order to have more equal field sizes for the payouts, we need to encourage more women to stay in the sport in the first place. Having minuscule payouts and poor sponsorship opportunities does not achieve that goal. Field sizes will continue to shrink and it will become a spiral of failure. It will take a few years to develop the women racers that are dabbling in the sport now and if there is incentive to stay, then those field sizes will start swelling. Equal payout is something that should happen - both for the riders currently competing and the future.
And then there's the carrot of iron distance racing - Kona. The current model of long course triathlons has a huge emphasis on the race in Kona, from sponsorship opportunities to performance bonuses. Pros want to race there - even those who have no chance of placing in the top ten. The race resume reads better with having a Kona finish. It used to be that pros qualified just like the age groupers - place high enough at qualifying race and get a slot. There were the same number of slots between the men and women at each race, leading to similar sized fields at Kona. That allowed for dark horses - unknown racers who had a great qualifying race to come out and shine. Some great champions were born this way. Then came the KPQ - where qualifying was based on the number of points pros accumulated at the feeder races, forcing over racing in order to qualify. I personally think it's affected the quality of the race in Kona - it's hard to fresh and ready to rip after a long season of traveling and hard racing. And the WTC's current slot allocation is 50 for the men and 35 for the women - arguing again that since there were fewer women racing, there was no need for equal slots. Again, the same faulty argument used against the equal payout. How are we supposed to increase the numbers when there is fewer incentive? Fewer slots for women only stifles the competition. More racing for fewer slots. Less reason to take the chance and turn pro for the faster age group women. So the number of pro women stagnates and the racing becomes predictable instead of exciting, further alienating sponsors and spectators.
We cannot look at today's numbers for justification of the gross inequalities in prize money and racing opportunities. Race directors and promoters have to be willing to look towards the future - how will providing equality now, even if it favors the women on paper, affect the future of the sport? It is a leap of faith that must be made - now, not tomorrow, not in five years. To look only at the numbers today is to deny the next generation. Build the framework for success by providing equality for the women today.