Are women-only races progressive or patronising?

Following the backlash that met Ironman after the launch of its Iron Girl 5km fun run in Bolton, Tim Heming investigates the sport’s appetite for female-only events

Credit: nycshooter /Getty Images

 Are women-only races progressive or patronising? Or do some just get it right and others spectacularly wrong? One thing that does seem clear from the past week is that, unlike its better known big brother of a race series, the embattled Iron Girl doesn’t look destined to become a stellar global brand any time soon.


As the name suggests, Iron Girl is a female-only race series ­– although it’s not, actually, for girls. And when organisers decided that it would be a fitting curtain-raiser to this year’s Ironman UK, the backlash was chastening.

“Is this an actual joke?” responded Clare Fowler on Twitter, at the announcement of the 5km fun run for women aged 16 and over. It encapsulated the sentiment of many on social media. Judging by the bonhomie in which Sam Brawn, Ironman UK race director, had announced the race to the local media, and how Bolton council initially embraced it, the mood was clearly misjudged.

Iron Girl’s owners, the World Triathlon Corporation – now a Chinese company retaining its US operations and vibe – were probably even more bewildered given Iron Girl was launched as a brand 15 years ago, and has previously held an event in the UK. It prompted an immediate climb-down, with the memo – ‘To our athletes and fans: We’re sorry. We’ve heard you, and we realise we’ve missed the mark on this one.’ And was replaced with a 5km Night Run welcoming all-comers.

The mea culpa went on to say it was not “in any way intended to isolate groups or engender negative stereotypes, however we acknowledge the incorrect way in which the message was brought across.”

I’m acutely aware that the criticism doesn’t need mansplaining away as an overreaction. Gender stereotyping in its marketing and a ‘Girls’ reference for an over 16s-only fun run, were placed in the context of it being a mere 45 times shorter in distance than a main event that also has MAN very clearly – due to IRONMAN’s insistence on capital letters – as its second syllable. It was also aligned with triathlon, a sport that is fiercely proud of its gender-equality since conception. It was a perfect storm.

If it’s somewhat laudable the apology was so swift, it’s also somewhat surprising that they didn’t envisage the backlash. As fitness influencer Olivia Cox says: “I don’t see the need to differentiate. We are all humans, we should all have the opportunity to take part in the same events. When I joined the army there were no special girls-only walls for us to scramble over on operations.”

Or, deferring to Emily Young, a 19-24 age-group Kona qualifier for 2019: “Ironman would never have named a 5k ‘Ironboy’ to be aimed at grown men, so why would they women?”

Valid points, but I was still curious as to why Iron Girl is anathema to the UK if it’s been running since 2004 and is going strong elsewhere. Except, on delving a little deeper, I’m not sure that it’s proving much of a success.

The Iron Girl Facebook page hasn’t been updated since April 2017, its Twitter account since November 2017, and the tired-looking website only lists three events for 2019. I did find a combined 14 more Iron Girl 5km runs and short-course triathlons on Ironman’s tracker here, but only four have confirmed dates, making it look more like a revenue-generating afterthought – a bolt-on to Bolton if you will – than an expanding behemoth such as Ironman or 70.3. 

I did ask Ironman for comment, but to no avail, leaving me to conclude that Iron Girl might be going the same way as Ironman’s infamous fitness blender that cropped up rather too regularly during the streaming of its world champs a few years ago and was barely seen again. But Iron Girl’s questionable branding aside, is it that women-only events – the vast majority of which are at entry level for endurance sport – are inherently flawed? Or is there validity to keeping men on the sidelines?

I asked perhaps the most successful of the female-only events, Race for Life, dating back 25 years and organised by Cancer Research UK, what its stance was – and found that times are changing.

“Historically, our research has always shown us that the unique women-only non-competitive atmosphere is what made Race for Life special, and kept our supporters coming back year after year to fundraise for Cancer Research UK,” a spokesperson said. “In the past, we’ve also undertaken a commercial assessment of the event to look at the implications and potential increase in both participation numbers and fundraising income by including men.

“Results showed that the strength and success of Race for Life was dependent on its appeal to women, and we would have risked losing a significant amount of income for the charity’s life-saving work if we changed it. ​

“However, we are committed to reviewing our events regularly, and most supporters now indicate that they would be motivated to take part in Race for Life as part of a mixed family and friends group. Based on this insight, we have taken the important step to welcome everybody to Race for Life in 2019.”

British Triathlon’s GO TRI, a low cost, short-distance series to encourage newcomers to triathlon also has women-only taster days planned for 2019, but these are fledgling by comparison, focussed on increasing and widening participation numbers and do not have the same commercial demands.

So, where does this leave us? While Iron Girl might have got it wrong, Race for Life has a proven track record of success, and, proves as with so much of life, it’s a nuanced debate.

If women-only equals more participation and diversification, in a Couch-to-5km style of making exercise accessible, then it’s likely to thrive with a charitable or social message, rather than for-profit, at its core.


But whether re-introducing men to the mix will be positive or detrimental remains to be seen. Race for Life’s new, all-welcoming policy should be a good yardstick, and event organisers should watch this space.