Where we started….

The below is a reprint of Sara Gross’s article on WITSUP.com, explaining the evolution of the #50WomentoKona movement, and where we are today.

You can take action and join the #50womentokona movement. Visit here to find out how.


Equality Series Part III:  The Inception and Growth of #50WomenToKona

 As a student of history I have learned that while objectivity is always a goal worth pursuing, in practice it is impossible to achieve. We all have beliefs and values that shape our views and descriptions of events. I think its best to come clean on this as I write part III in my series on equality in the sport of triathlon. While my views on the #50womentokona issue are obvious, I am also very much an insider on some of the events described below. My academic pursuit of objectivity does not stop me as a person from doing what I believe is right, nor do my beliefs stop me from pursuing objectivity.

So, in the third part of my series on gender equality in the sport of triathon I will look at how we came to have unequal numbers of men and women in WTC World Championship events and the movement that has evolved in an attempt to change that.

 The Introduction of the Points System in Ironman Racing

The current qualification system for professional athletes in Ironman and Ironman 70.3 World Championship races came into effect in the 2010-2011 season. Since that time, professional athletes gain points by racing around the globe in a “best of 5″ system. Those with the most points at the 2 qualifying deadlines in July and August gain entry to the World Championships. In additon, there are some automatic qualifying spots available for past champions and more recently, winners of championship races. Beyond these automatic qualifiers, there were 30 slots available for the women and 50 for the men. In 2012, five additonal slots were added for the women, for a total of 35.

Before the new qualifying system came into effect there were 68 pro men and 53 pro women at the World Championships in Kona in 2010. In 2011, there were 51 men and 33 women on the start line. The new system significantly reduced the pro field, the biggest reduction coming from women’s field.


In July 2014, a woman sat in her living room and thought; “Why are there only 35 slots for the women while the men have 50? That does not seem fair.” She wondered if anyone out there agreed with her and thus created the twitter-handle @50womentokona in an attempt to find out.  (author’s note: its not me… I can’t take credit for that!)

The Boulder Meeting

A meeting was held in Boulder in August 2014. Many respresentatives from the WTC and a collection of female and male pros were in attendance.  The meeting came about after Ironman Frankfurt when, not for the first time, the outcome of the pro women’s race was effected by the age group men. This happens when there is not a big enough gap between the pro women’s start and the age group start. Liz Blatchford reached out to the WTC and asked for a meeting. The request was initially denied, but after some back and forth, a date was set. The circumstances of the meeting are discussed at length in an interview with Mirinda Carfrae here.  The pro women were mostly concerned about ensuring a fair race for the World Championships that October. A start time 20mins before the age group men was negotiated. Additionally, there was a request to regulate Ironman rules worldwide, and subsequently, a new set of globalized rules was announced in February of this year which can be found here.

The issue of the number of slots afforded the women was brought to the table by the initiative of Rachel Joyce. After some discussion, 10 slots were offered to the pro women for 2014, but on the condition that each of the qualified women volunteer one day of their time to  “promote women and Ironman.” Three groups voted/were polled at this time.  First, the Top 31 women voted, those who had already qualified in the July cutoff. Secondly, the women ranked 32-63 and then also the pro men ranked 1-70 were polled. Most of the women in the top 31 voted against adding the extra slots for 2014 because many of them had raced an extra Ironman just to qualify in the July   cutoff. Additionally, they felt it was unfair to change the goalposts at the last minute.

The women ranked 32-63 were in favour of the additional 10 slots as many felt it was a good move towards equality and some hoped to race in Kona that fall. The pro men were asked a slightly different question. They were asked if they thought the women should be granted additional slots, but were told that if they were, those slots might be made available by reducing the 50 slots currently available to them.

 In summary, the women voted on whether 10 extra spots were worth the offered compromise which was: one day each of community service in addition to a last-minute upheaval of the qualification system for that year. The men voted on whether they felt the move towards equality should be made at their expense.

 Needless to say, the outcome of the voting process was “No, we do not want the slots under these circumstances.” In the multitude of conversations I have had with fellow pros since then, I can say with some certainty that many of those who voted “No” would have voted “Yes” to the question “Do you think we should have equality with no strings attached?”

 It should also be noted here that what we have commonly come to refer to as “voting” was not actually a vote in the democratic sense that the outcome was going to be upheld. The process was more akin to an opinion poll and the final decision was made by the WTC.

 The Women For Tri Board

The WTC announced its plans to create a “Women For Tri” Board in December 2014 with the stated purpose of increasing female participation in triathlon. Twelve women from across America were chosen. Board members Hillary Biscay and others felt that an important first step for this new board was to set a precedent of equality at the top level amoung the sport’s elite female athletes. They felt that this would send an appropriate message of equal opportunity to all women, to those already participating and to those entering the sport at a grassroots level.

 An Open Letter to the Board

At the time of the board’s first meeting, a small group of women drafted a letter asking board members to consider the issue of equality for the female pros. Very early in this process, Rachel Joyce and Chrissie Wellington signed the letter and within 24 hours 100+ signators were added, plus hundreds more in the days that followed. These include many professional triathletes, male and female, media people and industry leaders. Read the Open Letter here.

 Meanwhile, Hillary and other supporters within the board worked together to make a presentation to their co-members regarding the importance of this issue and the board was set to vote on February 13th. So far there has been no official word from the board on the outcome of that vote.

 International Women’s Day 2015

Following the letter and the ground swell of support it created, a number of men and women began to communicate and discuss a variety of ways to effect change on this issue. Many felt that International Women’s Day (March 8th 2015) would be a good time to speak their minds on social media. A facebook page was created and within 24h had collected well over 2000 likes. 1500 tweets reached an audience of over 2 million. The reason for this outpouring of support is that supporters of #50womentokona share the fundamental belief that men and women should have equal opportunity at every level of society and sport.


While there are a multitude of issues that effect the female pros and their ability to race fairly and make a living in the sport and still more issues effecting the pros in general, the issue of equal opportunity to race at the World Championships stands out because of the fundamental moral implications of restricting the number of elite women who are able to compete. While it pains me to have to do it, in the next installment I will lay out the many merits of gender equality. In society, culture, business and sport, embracing gender equality leads to better communication, a higher level of self esteem for us and our children, and increases in bottom lines in business. Most  importantly, gender equality and diversity in all forms help create societies and cultures both on the macro- and micro-level that are fair  and just. It is my hope that triathlon can continue its tradition of gender equality (as shown in my previous articles, Part I here, part IIahere and part IIb here and will thus continue to set an example for other sports as the ITU currently does in the Olympic distance.

 The reasons for upholding our tradition of equality are multitude. Proponents of #50womentokona are working together to improve the future of triathlon for everyone.