Women and their participation in sport

I wrote the bulk of this article over a year ago but didn’t post it…. I was worried that it might not be well received, however having re-read it recently, and still agreeing with the points I have made I think its valid and I would be genuinely interested to hear other peoples opinions, so here we go…

When at Ironman 70.3 Dubai in February 2018 the commentator proudly announced that 16% of the field was women… 16%!

This means out of 2200 people on the start list only 352 of those were women.

There are a lot of perceptions about women’s abilities in certain sports (I was in a taxi recently when the driver announced that women would never be physically capable of playing top flight football, I refrained from launching into a debate on this).

However I would like to think that these preconceived ideas of women being less capable are less prominent in triathlon? There are an incredible number of highly talented professional and age group female triathletes, surely women should be treated in an equal way to the men in this sport? I think it is widely accepted that women are more than capable of swimming, cycling and running extremely well and competitively?

So lets take Ironman as a casing point, purely because I have competed in more Ironman events recently than any other brand, however it is reasonable to presume there will be similarities across other branded events of a similar style.

The evening before the Ironman 70.3 in Dubai myself and my friend Olivia participated in the Irongirl 5km run. I mentioned to my sister who was going to be on holiday with us that we would be doing this and asked if she wanted to join.

Her response?  “Irongirl is 5km and Ironman is 70.3 or 140.6miles? Really? Surely that’s wrong. Is it aimed at children?” I explained that no, the kids race was called Ironkids and would be taking place after the Irongirl run.

She has a point right? I’m not criticising the brand at all, I don’t view Ironman as a sexist name for a brand, in fact I would consider it to be genderless really, and I am proud to be an Ironman! However Irongirl is very obviously a sexist event aimed purely at females, so why is it presumed that women will run 5km and men will take part in a middle or long distance triathlon? What if there are husbands/brothers/males friends there whose wives/sisters/female friends are competing and they would like the opportunity to take part in a linked event?

I really enjoyed the Irongirl run by the way. A nice route, finished under the Ironman arch, and participants received a medal, t-shirt, sweatband and bag for their efforts. But it was very pink and purple, quite stereotypical female colours and obviously men were not permitted to enter.

Now, I am not sure how I feel about it. I love the idea of events like this encouraging women to get into sport, perhaps for some women, runs such as these allow them to join in a little and they wouldn’t otherwise get involved?

Should events such as Irongirl exist? Many of the marathon majors do a 5km event the day before the main race, but these are inclusive, Tokyo Marathon for instance offers a Friendship Run, New York Marathon offers a 5km Dash to the Finish Line event. Is this a better option?

Ironman UK recently announced their intention to hold an Irongirl event during the Bolton Ironman weekend, however swiftly changed this to a night time 5km run open to all following a large amount of backlash from the public.

Clearly many people viewed a 5km female run branded as ‘Irongirl’ as being inappropriate for the UK, however it has been proven that these events are well received overseas. Is it just inappropriate in the UK? Or inappropriate anywhere?

Is it more appropriate for instance in areas like the Middle East where there may be additional barriers for women wishing to participate in such events? Or is the whole idea completely off the mark and causing greater barriers by insinuating that women should run 5km whilst men participate in the Ironman event?

I am inclined to say that in my opinion events such as the more inclusive Night Run now being put on by Ironman UK are preferential. As mentioned before, the 5km runs that take place before many of the world major marathons are inclusive and encouraging, a great way to gain full participation from family and friends and accessible to everyone regardless of gender.

I am an ambassador for the Active Essex, This Girl Can Campaign, I am constantly trying to help and encourage women and girls get into sport. But then am I part of the problem? Is anyone out there campaigning solely to get men and boys into sport? Should we be segregating our efforts?

I am a membership secretary for my local cycle club RomfordCC and we have no gender divide. In fact we have a high percentage of active female members. Not by design, but by happy accident, we are inclusive, celebrate everyone’s achievements and therefore attract members of all genders. You would be surprised how many men are also nervous about joining a club, not being fit enough, reluctant to make that first step into fitness or sport. We encourage applications regardless of gender or ability.

Isn’t this better? Giving an equal opportunity regardless of gender. Surely we should be encouraging everyone to join in, get fit, find a sport they love? If women aren’t getting involved is it because truly the sports are not inclusive and that the women feel that they can’t, or aren’t able to? How many men also feel this way? Or is it because they are less inclined/don’t want to, if so why is that? Perhaps we need to think a little less about perceived barriers and a little more about people’s personal reasons and motivation? I don’t have the answers.

But saying these campaigns and efforts work and we are doing the right thing by doing them. Lets presume we have got a number of women into triathlon – how are they treated once they get there?

So again using Ironman as an example. The Dubai 70.3 finishers merchandise is a male fit gillet. It’s nice, its a padded gillet and looks amazing on my boyfriend who also did the event. But mine looks a bit silly on me, I am built differently, I have breasts and hips and quite frankly the fit of the gillet is not appropriate for a woman, it sits weirdly and is another clothing item I will likely never wear. I had the same issue in Malaysia – the Ironman finisher top was a male fit polo shirt, it looks absurd on me and is again not an appropriate fit for a female body shape, again I wont wear it – on this occasion I purchased a female finishers t-shirt… Should I have had to do this?

My friend Olivia is quite petite, when we set up our transitions in Dubai the day before the race we realised that her numbered hook to hang her bike bag on was very high up, she couldn’t reach it. I could just about reach it at a stretch and I am not usually considered short at 5ft 7″. Olivia asked an Ironman member of staff what she should do about this once she had exited the swim and needed to get her transition bag down… She was told to take one of the chairs, and stand on it to reach her bag?! Really? Firstly this is dangerous, she could fall, not unlikely as many people are quite dizzy when exiting the swim, or she could become an obstruction to another competitor, secondly is it really so hard to ensure that all racking is at an appropriate height for both men and women?

I am not asking for special measures for men or women… Just to put racking at a suitable height, have male and female fit options in the race merchandise. Don’t be proud of the fact that only 16% of the fielded participants are female. Work towards making it equal, make people realise its an equal sport and that they will be treated the same, not preferentially, but the same, equal options, equal opportunities, equal choices.

I guess this post is more of a debate than a structured article as I don’t have the answers. But I would be interested to hear from anyone who believes they do. Should we continue segregated efforts and sexist promotions to encourage women into sports and physical activity (whilst excluding men from such activities) or should they be treated equally, isn’t equality what people have been campaigning for.