Why is there a lack of diversity in triathlon?

One of triathlon's great selling points is inclusivity, a welcoming hand to ease you into choppy waters. A look around transition, however, suggests we’re reaching exclusive hands only. Why? And what can be done to attract a wider section of society? Tim Heming reports

Why is there a lack of diversity in triathlon

From the beaches of San Diego in the mid-Seventies to an Olympic debut as recently as 2000, for a sport in its relative infancy the label “pale, male and stale” is as chafing as budgie-smugglers on an Ironman bike leg. Naturally, triathlon couldn’t retain the tag of ‘world’s fastest growing sport’ forever, but the fact its biggest market, the US, has seen numbers flatlining for the past six years suggests not enough is being done to encourage wider participation and dispel an elitist image. 

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And that’s not just for commercial gain but because, as those to whom it has brought so much fulfilment know, it’s the right thing to do. In a changing, polarised and increasingly sedentary world, whose inhabitants could benefit like never before from a bit of swim, bike and run, there’s an argument to say tri is stagnating. 

According to the most recent figures from the Triathlon Industry Association, only around 2% of triathletes are Black, Asian and Minority
Ethnic and the male-female ratio remains consistent at a 70-30 split. Whether stats are needed here is somewhat moot. From the amateur to pro ranks, a glance around the briefing tent suggests triathlon largely exists within its own bubble, and while instinct might be to jump to the defensive, perhaps we’d be better served reflecting whether multisport can realistically improve its appeal and, if so, how? 

If impetus was required, the Black Lives Matter movement provided a seminal moment for many industries, a cue to introspection as to whether enough was being done to encourage diversity. Triathlon would be remiss to bury its head, and while expense, not race, is often cited as the biggest barrier to participation, the demographics are often intertwined.  

To understand the nuances of diversity and see what progressive action is viable isn’t straightforward. Where should triathlon even start? Is encouraging a wider section of society to swim, bike and run enough? Does it need to be a sanctioned event to count? There’s both a cultural and financial chasm between those two aims, although if more individuals take up its constituent parts, a spill over to triathlon should follow. Shouldn’t it? Ironically, in a sport awash with cash-rich competitors, there are also questions over whether tri has the financial means and infrastructure to cater for a wider base. 220’s task is to find out more…

LEVEL OF COMMITMENT

Shirin Gerami of Iran
Shirin Gerami of Iran poses with her country’s flag at the finish line for the Standard Distance Age-Group PruHealth ITU World Triathlon Grand Final London at Hyde Park. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

“If you really want diversity in triathlon, it requires hard work and commitment, support, empathy, understanding and deep respect for others,”
says Shirin Gerami, the first Iranian woman to compete in the Ironman World Championship. “Pretend support will lead to feel good reports, but no real results. Support without heartfelt respect is also ineffective. It’s easy to write about one’s commitment to diversity and equality in sports, but when it comes to real action, how committed are we willing to be? How hard are we really going to work to make it a reality?”

It’s both a candid take and a rallying call, and while the governing body would seem a natural place to start, British Triathlon, like much of society, doesn’t profess to have the answers. At least, not yet. Its recent initial review into diversity simply led to the recognition that it needed ‘greater consultation across our membership and the wider community to better understand issues and barriers that need to be removed’. 

If this sounds like a holding pattern, at least partnerships are underway that bring hope, if not headlines. For the past two years, British Triathlon has helped the Muslimah Sports Association (MSA) organise weekly cycling and running sessions with the aim of providing a safe environment and expert guidance to engage Muslim and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women in London. A six-week GO TRI programme kickstarted the initiative and, to date, over 500 women have taken part. 

MSA’s chair Yashmin Harun says the BTF’s links with the cycling centre allowed them to hire a venue at the right time – when mums have dropped their kids at school – provide equipment and gain access to qualified coaches. With modesty in public a barrier to participation for many Muslim women, the sessions accommodate those who choose to participate with or without a hijab. “The partnership has allowed us to help women who always wanted to learn to ride, but never knew where to start,” Harun adds.

It feels as if the blueprint is right: a considered framework activated through the right partnerships and fuelled by grassroots energy. But for every woman who has taken a pedal stroke here, how many have quietly declined? There are cultural barriers to overcome, as Gerami knows only too well. 

TRAIL BLAZER

The Iranian triathlete first caught the headlines when she competed in the age-group ranks in the ITU Grand Final in 2013, delicately negotiating the sensitivity around traditional Persian values to race fully covered. She went on to finish Kona in 2016, but can still empathise through her own doubts. 

“I had no confidence in my ability to do a tri. It seemed beyond my capacity. My biggest barrier was – and still is – my own mindset. I guess we are consciously or subconsciously affected by the example set by the people around us and no-one in my circle of upbringing was into sport before my last two years of school.”

Cultural acceptance lies at the heart of change, agrees Mel Berry, a co-founder of Her Spirit, that brings together individuals, brands and public sector partners to try to improve women’s physical, nutritional and mental health. 

“It has to be compelling and community-driven,” she says. “While experts are great, the biggest impact is from like-minded women
who say, ‘Oh, you’re as scared as I am, let’s have a go shall we?’” Dr Nighat Arif, a Pakistani GP, is on Her Spirit’s advisory board. “She understands the conversations that need to be had,” says Berry. “That it is okay for a wife, mother, daughter, whoever, to be more active and healthier. Six out of 10 women don’t feel confident to start. We need to provide structure and support to make them feel a million dollars.”

DEEPENING OF DIVISION

As well as supporting women with training plans and event entry to their first triathlons, partnerships are planned to distribute Her Spirit information through foodbank groups to reach the right audience. Berry’s fear is that the coronavirus pandemic has widened the male-female split and deepened inequalities.

“If we don’t put women at the heart of change, we’ll go back to a way of life that existed in the 1950s,” Berry says. “The gender gap of those
that are active has risen by 10% according to Sport England, and less than 30% of women have been active enough for a health benefit during Covid.” Berry also believes British Triathlon needs to evolve its existing offer for newcomers beyond GO TRI. “While it’s great that it’s only £15, what happens when your next event costs you £60-£70?”

While targeted interventions might be well-intentioned, is there a danger that segmenting society, particularly when it comes to race, could be counterproductive, accentuating division where it wasn’t previously considered? It’s the ‘All Lives Matter’ riposte and one that endurance athlete and influencer Marcus Brown, host of A Runner’s Life podcast who has completed all six World Marathon Majors, feels misses the point.  

“Groups aren’t set up to actively not include people,” he says. “When we set up Black Trail Runners, we received comments such as, ‘I don’t see a problem out there. Why are you doing this and excluding everyone else?’

“It’s like me going to a woman and saying sexism doesn’t exist because I’ve not experienced it as a man. It’s not about creating a black-only group – it’s that existing groups are typically all white, so people of colour may not feel as comfortable joining.

“Sometimes people cannot be what they cannot see, but if it’s viewed as normal to take part, then in future the group isn’t needed. I know it’s utopian, but it’s about creating access and removing limitations.”

When that access is created, the signs are promising. Alongside the established and USA-based International Association of Black Triathletes and Black Triathletes Association, the Diversity Triathlon Movement was launched by Vanessa Foerster in June for Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour (BIPOC). The only condition was applicants needed to be new to the sport. Within hours, 50 BIPOC athletes had signed up, supported by 25 coaches. If momentum is maintained then the USA and Canada’s figure of just 1.2% of participants being black will naturally change, too. 

THE BLACK CYCLISTS NETWORK

While there isn’t a black triathletes’ group in the UK, the Black Cyclists Network, founded in 2018 by Mani Arthur, currently boasts over 100 members and has proved so successful it’s announced the creation of the first British domestic racing team for BAME riders and is establishing an outreach programme.

For Emerick Kaitell, an experienced coach educator and principal lecturer at the University of Roehampton in London, the club structure is
a critical pathway – and one that should be better utilised. Kaitell has coached in various sports since the Eighties, including triathlon, and says,
“I want to make people feel how I’d like to feel coming into a new club and not having a clue. But look at the websites. They are all about performance. If you’re fresh into the sport, you’re asking, ‘Where do I fit in?’ 

“My girlfriend (now wife) and I had challenges feeling comfortable in joining a club and in some circumstances I did feel it was about colour. You could go to events and see people looking at you and their body language would change. Because I’ve lived here all my life, I pick up on these signals. My wife is white, and maybe with her it was a gender thing, but we both had similar feelings.

“We must recognise anyone coming to a club will feel apprehensive and it’s down to coaches to break that down. I ask my students, ‘How do you greet people? Do you ask why they’re here, what you can do for them, what are their concerns?’ Good coaching is about being engaged, understanding and enabling athletes to thrive.” 

Kaitell believes a fundamental issue for triathlon is that the sport still isn’t introduced early enough. “Most people wouldn’t know what triathlon is,” he contends. “Nothing is really in school in relation to duathlon or scootathlon. These are great ideas, but advertised to a narrow section of society. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity, you can’t take part if you don’t know about it.” 

COPING WITH DEMAND

The 52-year-old is circumspect about idealism, though, warning of the dangers of spreading ambition too thinly without the correct support in place. “England netball cannot attract everybody. They know they don’t have the funding to have an association for men as well as women. If they tried, they’d be bankrupt. So it’s about sports identifying what they are capable of doing within their constraints. Funding comes from us paying our subscriptions or the National Lottery for the elites, whereas cricket, football and rugby have larger resources to utilise.

“If we are going to seriously go for diversity in triathlon, what are we putting in place to cope with the demands that it brings? That’s not just coaching, that’s infrastructure. And with a sport such as tri, the governing body, which isn’t well off, is limited as to what it can do.”

Kaitell gives the example of Sam Holness, a 26-year-old Ironman athlete who is autistic and whose father, Tony, has become his coach. “Tony checks in with me to make sure he’s doing it right,” Emerick says. “But he’s the one person who can really communicate with Sam, as the language is different. If I said, ‘Make this effort seven or eight out of 10,’ Sam wouldn’t comprehend.”

It highlights the investment and wider skillsets needed to facilitate true diversity. In Sam’s case it’s autism, but it could be visual impairment or physical disability. The support has to be in place to match demand.

With running shoe manufacturer Hoka One One helping to tell Sam’s tale, or Smashfest Queen providing kit to Diversity Triathlon Movement, or wetsuit brand Huub cladding Her Spirit recruits in neoprene for the London Triathlon, there’s also a role for brands to play. 

Both Elle Linton, a fitness professional and blogger, and Marcus Brown, work with several brands to look at ways to increase diversity in endurance sport. “Brands with big platforms and audiences are able and should support the sport from the bottom up,” Linton says. “All it really should take is awareness, acknowledgement and then action.” Brown believes it also doesn’t have to be that complicated. “They don’t have to change all their existing marketing, but integrate diversity in a normal way. If you’re talking about tri kit, talk about the kit, but make the people you use diverse and merge it naturally.”

Those bitten by the tri bug often cite it as one of the most welcoming and inclusive sports they’ve experienced, but can it stretch further? Linton channels the words of Nelson Mandela’s speech at the inaugural Laureus Awards in 2000. “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.” 

“It’s a representation of life and one of the only times you can be yourself and be free,” Brown adds. “Plus, it’s a lot of fun.” 

And if unsure where to start, perhaps the example of Gerami shows how inspiration can come from just one individual. “The response was beyond anything I had imagined. Many women from all corners of the world have got in touch,” she says. “I have been witnessing more diversity in women racing, which makes me heart sing, but the changes are small compared to where I dream for it to be.” There is still plenty to do. 

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