How to Ensure Triathlon’s Diversity Efforts Will Actually Work

Simply saying “all are welcome” isn’t enough.

Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Ironman

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Though triathlon has historically been a sport of primarily white, middle-aged men, that’s starting to change. Recent years have seen events, clubs, and brands step up their game in recruiting women, people of color, and people with disabilities to make triathlon more diverse. But “more diversity” is not the end result triathlon should shoot for, say experts; simply citing a percentage increase of a certain demographic doesn’t mean real change has taken place. 

“More diversity can actually create more problems if inclusion and equity efforts aren’t also addressed side-by-side,” said Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold, Assistant Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Towson University and co-host of the [un]phased podcast at Feisty Triathlon. “It’s literally like riding a tandem bike for three. Diversity just happens to be up front.”

New research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that when diversity efforts ignore inclusion and equity, they often backfire because they amplify differences and do not increase athletes’ sense of belonging. This is known as “identity threat,” which is when a situation makes it obvious that one person or demographic is quite different from others in the group. In a study of 1,500 individuals from a variety of identities (including women in male-dominated arenas, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ, or people from varied socioeconomic backgrounds), participants reported an average of eleven experiences of identity threat per week. In other words, just because someone is in the room doesn’t mean they feel included or welcomed. 

In triathlon, this comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s subtle, like not being able to find a swim cap that’s large enough to contain dreadlocks or braids, or assuming all members of a triathlon club have the same social and financial resources to attend a training camp or destination race. Other times identity threat is overt, like making stereotyped comments like “Asian people aren’t very athletic” or assuming a lesbian athlete must be checking out other women in a locker room or changing tent. All of these can reinforce the idea of who belongs—and who doesn’t.

“Any situation can make you feel like you don’t belong, that you stick out, or don’t fit in,” said lead researcher Dr. Michael Slepian of Columbia University. “It is important to recognize what situations are commonly threatening to minority group members.”

Creating a culture where everyone belongs is important—not only for getting new athletes into the sport, but for keeping them in triathlon once they’re here. Feelings of inferiority or exclusion can lead people to drop out after a short period of racing, contributing to the sport’s ongoing struggles to retain new triathletes. “Just because your event, club, or brand got them there doesn’t mean you’ve done all it takes to keep them there,” Payne Gold cautioned.

Creating a sense of belonging can counter that. When people find a place where they’re welcomed, they’re likely to stay. But simply saying “all are welcome” isn’t enough to foster that sense of belonging, Slepian said.

“Talk is cheap. Real inclusion and belonging requires representation at every level of leadership. We’re far away from that, and so policies that actively include and support diverse perspectives are needed.”

That doesn’t mean people should be singled out for their perspectives simply because they are from a minority group—that’s “tokenism” and it’s another form of identity threat. Slepian’s research has found that when people are asked for their input as someone who can speak for a certain subset of the population, they feel like they belong less, not more. Instead, recognize that people want to be included in the conversation without being signaled out. Do not look only to the minority groups to answer specific questions or take the lead on diversity initiatives, but include everyone in the conversation.

Most importantly, diversity efforts will only work if the conversation leads to action. This is where inclusion and equity work should be prioritized. Those in the majority group often see diversity as a surface-level effort—something to be done to hit a certain percentage of a certain demographic. But hitting those numbers isn’t a sign of complete success. In fact, having more diverse demographics and less inclusive practices can exacerbate already existing problems, making a bad situation worse. Having a clear, honest, and transparent view of what it’s like for people of all backgrounds to experience the sport—what’s easy, what’s hard, and what has to change—is key to creating a triathlon community where every athlete is not only welcomed, but belongs.

“Inclusion efforts may be well meaning,” Slepian said, “but without a backbone of support and respect, they may seem less than genuine.”

RELATED: Why Aren’t There More Black Triathletes?

Steps to Increase Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Triathlon

  • Instead of assuming a certain demographic “isn’t interested” in triathlon for various reasons (culture, costs, etc.), ask: “What barriers stand in the way of people with marginalized identities feeling a sense of welcoming and belonging?” Use that list as a launching point to remove those barriers.
  • Identify other, similar organizations, both locally and nationally, that might serve as models for diversity efforts.
  • Be conscious of communication style. Don’t assume you know more than others about their lives, or that all people have the same life experiences, especially if you are from the majority group. Just because something is easy for you does not mean it is easy for everyone.
  • Educate leaders in your club, event, or race on the real-life scenarios people face, such as providing accommodations for athletes with disabilities or encouraging different points of view in planning meetings.
  • Make the leadership in your organization as diverse as possible, with members representing different ethnicities, genders, and abilities. Include their opinions, expertise, and backgrounds in all processes.
  • Don’t depend on the minority group to do the legwork for the majority. Telling people of color to “recruit their friends” or asking a person with a disability to research cost-effective ways for your organization to provide accommodations places a burden of unpaid work on them.
  • Provide all with a safe space to voice their concerns. Listen to and amplify the voices of people who aren’t typically heard in the conversation, and give credit where it is due. When someone is recognized for an idea someone else put forward, point out who shared the idea originally.
  • Provide a range of products and services in your organization to meet the needs of a diverse population.

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