Andrew Messick and a couple of other industry insiders keep proclaiming that professional Kona slot allocation is based on the relative numbers of pro men and women racing. They call this “proportional” slot allocation, and they use this as a rationale to deny equal slots between men and women. Regardless of if one believes a “proportional” model or an “equality” model is proper, one fact stands clear: the model currently used is NOT proportional. It is arbitrary.
As of July 27th, 11 months into the Kona Points Ranking season, 617 pro men and 347 pro women had completed a race that awarded Kona points. WTC gives 50 Kona spots to men, and 35 to women. This amounts to one spot for every 12.3 men racing (617/50), and one spot for every 9.9 women racing (347/35).
If WTC truly did use a proportional model based on the participation numbers listed above, it would look like this:
- Scenario 1: 63 men, 35 women
- Scenario 2: 50 men, 28 women
This discrepancy has been pointed out before, and WTC quietly tries to justify it by claiming to give women “more than their fair share” of slots. In other words: there is no mathematical formula—slots are awarded on a purely arbitrary basis. And there’s a subtly implied, unspoken threat: “Don’t complain about the arbitrariness, or we’ll take away even more slots.”
I’m not advocating for either a 62-Men-to-Kona or a 28-Women-to-Kona movement. I’m simply pointing out the intellectual dishonesty of those who defend the current 50/35 breakdown by calling it proportional. If WTC and its supporters want to back this allocation, they really do need to acknowledge that the numbers are arbitrary and cannot be defended even with simple math.
Proportional Allocation and “True Pros”
Many argue that it’s far too easy to earn a triathlon pro card. In most sports, being “pro” means being good enough to earn a paycheck. In triathlon, it simply means having a few good finishes at some perhaps inconsequential races.
There are 264 more men than women racing as Ironman pros. It’s been long suspected that this difference occurs at the bottom of the pack. In other words, men who just barely qualify for a pro card are more likely to take it than women who barely qualify.
Now we have data to support that. From August 30, 2014 through July 2015 (comprising most of the Kona points season), 237 men and 225 women won money at WTC races. These are the athletes at the front of the pack—the ones contending every race for the podium and/or a paycheck. They’re the ones who, in virtually every other sport, are the only ones who would be considered “pro”.
Note that almost 400 men who race as WTC pros aren’t good enough to win even one $500 paycheck in an entire season. Messick has said that it’s easier for women to make money because there are fewer of them. That would be true if all 619 men were good enough to win money. But they aren’t. The 400 men at the back of the field have zero influence on the front-of-pack’s ability to earn a paycheck.
In other words, ~237 competitive men and ~225 competitive women race WTC triathlons. This means the same number of women as men have a legitimate shot at winning money in any given race. The other 400 men and 120 women are either developmental athletes or “hobby pros.” If, by definition, being professional means “earning a paycheck,” these athletes do not qualify.
If 400 developmental pro men enter the Boston marathon and run a 2:25, they make it not one bit harder for Meb to earn money by running a 2:08. And nobody would think that those 400 additional men made it easier for Kara Goucher to earn a paycheck, or that those developmental men should influence the number of pro women invited to race Boston.
Here’s another example perhaps more understandable to age-groupers: If you run an 18:00 stand-alone 5k, you’ll age-group podium at just about any local 5k. And if for some reason 400 runners who go 19:30 decide to show up, they’ll not change your odds of reaching the podium. This is equivalent to the 400 “pro” men who aren’t fast enough to win any money—they don’t change the outcome at the front of the field.
Prize Money Distribution
Another way to see if the men’s field truly is deeper, or if it’s “easier to make money as a woman,” is to look at the prize earning distribution. If the women’s field was shallower, we would see more money concentrated at the front of the field than it is in the men’s field (because the rest of the women would be so bad that the same 30-50 women would win money all of the time).
But when we look at the distribution in the chart below, we see virtually identical distribution between men’s and women’s prize earnings in WTC races. If the men’s field was deeper than the women’s it would be a flatter curve—meaning the earnings would be more widely distributed instead of concentrated in the top 20 athletes.
Finally, I’m aware that some argue that comparing finishing times or other direct measurements of speed is the only legitimate way to analyze depth of field. Thorsten Radde of www.TriRating.com has done this analysis (link) and found results similar to those presented here. His analysis of the top 100 ironman-distance athletes of each gender found “…a very small difference [in performance].
The drop is about the same up to #20. After that, the men’s drop off is a bit slower than for the women, but nowhere close to what would be expected by the fewer number of female athletes.” Thorsten is known for his attention to detail and thoroughness, and I haven’t seen anybody question that analysis.
In summary, for those who think that the “proportional” kona slot allocation model is better than the “equality” slot allocation model, here’s a question: Why not look at the proportions of true professionals when making those allocations? Ignore the back-of-pack, developmental athletes who aren’t even pros by the standard definition of “earning money.”
For when we look at true professional triathletes—the ones who earn a paycheck—we find that the “proportional” allocation model gives us virtually the same ratio of Kona slots as the “equality” allocation model. For every pro man racing, 4.7 go to Kona. By applying the same ratio to the 225 pro women racing, we’d send 48 women to Kona.
In other words, whichever way you prefer to analyze it—proportional or equality based—the same number of pro men and women should be racing Kona.