Three Perspectives on Ironman’s Controversial New Open Category and Transgender Policy
In a surprise announcement last week, Ironman added a new Open category and aligned with World Triathlon’s policy on transgender triathletes in the hopes of addressing issues surrounding gender and racing.
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In a larger press release sent out on February 6, Ironman announced the creation of a new Open participatory division, with the hopes of “[providing] a welcoming and inclusive field for able-bodied athletes that cannot or do not wish to race in a competitive age or gender group.” The press release went on to say that athletes can self-select this category with no approval required.
Additionally, Ironman officially aligned with World Triathlon’s policy on transgender athletes. As such, World Triathlon, the sport’s international governing body will dictate Ironman’s eligibility requirements that, “transitioning Male to Female athletes to [must] maintain less than a 2.5 nMol/L testosterone level for two sequential years prior to receiving approval to compete as a Female. Further, transitioning Male to Female athletes may not have competed as a Male in an official competition of triathlon or its related multisport or an allied sport of swimming, cycling, athletics (including all track and field events) and cross-country skiing for a minimum four-years preceding approval to compete as a Female.” Further adding that transitioning athletes can participate in the newly formed Open category for four years while awaiting approval.
It is worth noting, however, that USA Triathlon, the national governing body for the sport in the U.S. does not adhere to World Triathlon’s (or Ironman’s) policy regarding transitioning triathletes—except for elites, NCAA athletes, or age groupers participating in world championship-level qualifying events that would then be governed by World Triathlon.
In short, USAT’s policy (for all non-elite, non-NCAA, non-world championship-track age-group athletes) relies on self-reporting gender identity—if it’s other than what was assigned at birth—and then providing evidence for a membership change to USAT’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access Senior Manager. USAT says the process can take between 30-60 days. USAT also hosted a new nonbinary category at the last U.S. Age Group National Championships.
Related: Not Here to Win—As A Transgender Athlete, I Belong in Triathlon
As a result of these now-divergent policies for triathlon in the United States, we reached out to three multisport athletes with extensive knowledge and a personal stake in Ironman’s new category and policy alignment:
Patti Flynn is an inclusion advocate, race director, and transgender woman. Using her subject matter expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion, she has worked with races like the Chicago Marathon and the TransRockies Run, as well as organizations like the American Trail Running Association and RunningUSA to foster inclusion and create safe spaces. She is also an ultra runner, a two-time Ironman finisher, and cyclist.
Chris Mosier is an Ironman finisher and transgender man, and the first known transgender man to participate with men internationally and in the Olympic Trials (for race walking). In 2015, Mosier challenged the IOC policy on transgender athletes, resulting in a change that allowed him to compete in the duathlon world championships. He’s spent the last 13 years fighting for transgender and nonbinary inclusion in sport.
Megan Tobin is a cisgender female age-group triathlete, ally, and endurance coach from Boulder, Colorado. She is also the mother of two triathletes—including a transgender age-group athlete. A former corporate marketer, Megan is a multiple Ironman 140.6 and 70.3 finisher, 70.3 WC qualifier, marathon swimmer, and principal coach for TMT Coaching.
What follows is their perspectives, in their own words, edited for length and clarity:
What was your initial reaction to the announcement?
Flynn: I actually didn’t know it dropped for a while, they slid it into a marketing email and the trans policy was essentially a footnote under “other news,” sharing a paragraph on banned shoes. Which really bothered me. It felt like they were hoping it would sneak by, I guess.
Mosier: Athletes who choose to compete in this division are not eligible for World Championship slots. Ironman got it wrong here; while open divisions can be affirming for nonbinary athletes and some transgender athletes, no athlete should be forced to participate in an Open division if that doesn’t match their identity.
Tobin: Upon opening Ironman’s email, I was a little taken aback. The introduction of the open category and the language of inclusivity is sometimes a little bit of a red flag.
How do you feel after sitting with it for a while?
Flynn: It stings. I am not affected by this policy as I stopped competing at all in the male category well over four years ago and will soon be two years of zero testosterone produced. Before that, I was at 0.25 nmol/L since my first blood test over five years ago. But I am signed up for an Ironman-brand 70.3 this year, and the existence of it, what it says about how Ironman views me, and what this has done to other trans and nonbinary triathletes, angers me. Also changing the eligibility rules for trans folks after they might have already shelled out hundreds of dollars to race is not very well thought out. It just feels like a cop out for them to not have to deal with nonbinary participants.
Mosier: On its surface, an Open division is a good idea as an optional category for nonbinary people or trans people to self-select into. But successful Open divisions should be equal, not separate, other, or second class. Nonbinary athletes want—and deserve—the opportunity to participate and achieve personal bests, as well as be eligible for Kona slots.
Tobin: I am really disappointed in Ironman for simply lackadaisically adopting World Triathlon’s rules in terms of transgender athletes, period.
Who do you think will be most impacted by this category?
Flynn: Nonbinary athletes will be shoved into this non-competitive category so that Ironman doesn’t have to deal with their existence. It’s that or find themselves back with choosing a spot in a category that doesn’t reflect who they are. This will also be a catch all for trans women, is quite othering, and indirectly outs them and puts them at potential risk of discrimination.
Mosier: The Open division is now a catch-all for trans people who haven’t satisfied the ridiculous four-year wait time between an athlete’s last race in the men’s category and moving into the women’s category. There are athletes who will have satisfied all of the very restrictive requirements for transgender women taking gender-affirming hormone treatment, who will still not be able to participate in the women’s category for several years.
Tobin: I think having an open category is a fantastic idea, especially for athletes looking to simply complete an Ironman. It opens the doors for wetsuit-optional swims, it opens the doors for that going back to mass starts and things like that. However, as is often the case with creating an inclusivity bucket—if you will—our transgender siblings will be firmly left behind.
Who do you feel could be left behind?
Flynn: A trans policy that only applies to trans women already has left some of us feeling like we don’t matter. Although I am not affected by this policy, it makes me feel as if Ironman doesn’t care enough about this issue, based on the apparent way they conceived it and how they introduced it.
Mosier: I know of trans women who have started gender-affirming hormone treatment and raced in the men’s division because they felt like they would be harassed in the women’s division at that time; now those athletes must wait four years from that time to participate authentically in Ironman races.
Tobin: I absolutely think transgender athletes will feel othered and left behind. They are being forced into a non-competitive category that they are not necessarily choosing, while another athlete has a choice between a competitive category and a non-competitive category. That’s a choice. Open category is a great option for someone making that choice. But to be forced into a category is to be othered. To be forced to start at the back of the race when you’re already feeling othered is even more exclusionary and not inclusionary.
What do you think this ruling will change or achieve?
Flynn: [I think it will] assuage a vocal group of people who are pursuing a coordinated attack on the queer community, and trans and nonbinary people in particular.
Mosier: To say an athlete can’t compete in a local 5K because it would set their clock back to four years is excessive. While some may argue a four-year rule may make sense to prevent Olympians from changing categories (which has never happened), Ironman is not an Olympic event, and this will disproportionately impact your everyday athlete—many of whom have already signed up for future events and are now being forced into a non-competitive Open division.
Tobin: I think in the long term this policy will continue to slow the growth in our sport. Especially for young people seeing a sport that is not inclusionary, that is not visionary, that is not pushing boundaries. Acceptance will definitely force them to take a good look at the sport that they’re choosing. I have three children, two of whom are currently racing triathletes—one who finished Ironman 70.3 World Championships with me this year. And both of them are firmly members or allies in the LGBTQIA community who will be very disgruntled about this ruling. So I think it limits the growth in our sport
Where does it come up short?
Flynn: Regarding the open category there are a few spots: First the name is really not accurate. Open indicates, in every other use that I have seen, a competitive component. This is more of a participation or exhibition category. While I am in favor of a participant category, it really needs to be coupled with an inclusive set of gender categories including a nonbinary category.
Second, alignment with World Triathlon is a convenient way to wipe their hands of having any responsibility for the rules regarding trans participation. The way it applies to those who have already signed up for events this year, thinking they were clear of the rules as they stood on the day they signed up is really a bad business move. It’s also bad for those athletes who now have to consider outing themselves by moving into the Open category.
Mosier: They should have podiums and prizes, like the New York City Marathon has done. And trans people, particularly trans people who make a binary transition, should be allowed to participate authentically, particularly after satisfying the other requirements of the testosterone level threshold in sports and wait time.
Who do you think is doing inclusion right?
Flynn: USA Triathlon, I know, has a guide for races to introduce nonbinary categories, and is at least somewhat (as far as I know) inclusive of trans women in the female categories. Honestly right now I’ve only seen road and trail foot races and gravel cycling as taking the best steps towards inclusion for trans and nonbinary athletes.
Mosier: In the last decade, we have seen increased visibility for transgender athletes. When I came out in 2010, I didn’t see transgender people in sports, and I definitely didn’t see trans men participating with men. Since I came out, and since the increased media attention in 2016 when I challenged the IOC policy, we’ve seen more athletes come out and participate – but still not a lot. However, with the increased awareness of transgender athletes and a hostile political climate where transgender identity has become politicized by politicians, we have seen pushback. The truth is, transgender athletes and specifically trans women are drastically underrepresented in sports.
Tobin: I think USA Triathlon has done a fantastic job with our transgender community and welcoming them to date (though this can change). I am actually the mother of a transgender triathlete who transitioned when they were 13 years old, and USAT made my child feel very welcome. And I cannot tell you the joy on my child’s face when they crossed their very first finish line in the gender that they identify with. The feeling of inclusion, the feeling of being who they were, the feeling of racing in their category, whatever their place was, was an extraordinary moment for me and for my child, and I am grateful for it forever.
What would you like to see done in the next five years?
Flynn: Overall, improved access for all athletes at all events. For race organizers to create special advisory committees to advise on these sorts of topics that include the communities who are impacted. Reconsider bad policy with these advisory groups. Listen to these diverse communities
Tobin: I certainly think that we need standards across the board. And I think that the IOC has done a fairly decent job of ensuring that there are standards, I think USAT does a better job. But I think that the IOC has done a good job. I think that other sports organizations that have decided to protect women are doing so at the risk of harming women. I think that trans sport bands do nothing but actually harm all women, not just transgender women. And I think that it’s a very slippery slope.
What should triathletes who are skeptical or critical of this category know?
Flynn: I would encourage all triathletes to consider looking to other event series that are taking steps to do the right thing. Smaller events, more locally run, may be following the USA Triathlon model which is more inclusive.
Mosier: Since the IOC made its first transgender inclusion policy and created a pathway for participation in 2003, we’ve seen just one trans woman compete in the highest level of sports (and she was the first out of her division and did not medal). That’s one athlete out of over 60,000 Olympians since 2003, which is .009%. The media would like us to believe that transgender athletes are dominating across the board and “destroying women’s sports,” which is the same story we heard nearly 50 years ago when Renee Richards came out in tennis. It’s just not true.
Tobin: I think the open, non-competitive category opens up the sport to more individuals and gives them a chance to start where they are. I think if you’re skeptical or critical of the transgender policy in that you think that transgender athletes should be excluded and you think that Ironman was correct to adopt the World Triathlon exclusionary policy, you should really look at the whole picture and not just buy into media hype.
There’s a theory that women’s sports are under attack from transgender athletes and that’s just a false headline. Women have struggled for years to get equal pay for equal attention in sports, and I think that transgender athletes have been around for years. The IOC has had a policy for decades, and there have not been an influx of transgender women stealing podiums. It’s simply not a threat. And frankly, if it were a threat, I would be fine with that as an age-group athlete and a world champion-level qualifier, and someone desperately attempting to qualify for Kona this year. If I was beaten by a transgender athlete, I would be more than happy.
In the big picture, why does this matter? Why might it not?
Flynn: I don’t think that Ironman will back away from this policy. They are a business and a brand. The majority of their participants, at least what I know of, in the U.S. are economically advantaged, middle aged, cisgender, straight, white men. Backing away from this policy may be something they do not have the stomach to do, since their perception may be that they face a larger risk from their customer base.
The constant drumbeat about trans women in sport is deflecting from the real issues that have a far more detrimental effect on women: Lack of resources, access, training, and societal acceptance for women in sport is a far more pressing matter. Men who have been placed into — or taken — positions of authority in women’s sport who sexually assault, abuse, and push women and girls out of sport are far more pressing and important issues. But those are both far more difficult situations to acknowledge.
Mosier: Transgender athletes participate in sports for the same reasons as everyone else: to push themselves, to be a part of a team or community, and to have fun. Most Ironman participants are not pros – they are everyday people looking to do something that challenges them and helps them grow. The real people who are impacted here are the everyday athletes, many middle-of-the-pack participants, who do this because triathlon is exciting and fun. It is deeply unfair for Ironman to say, “We’ll still take your money but you have to play over there.”
Tobin: In the big picture, this matters because I feel like triathlon could be on the right side of history, and Ironman is instead choosing not to be—I think USAT has really tried very hard to try to be on the right side of history. When we look back on the pre Title Nine era I think many of us can concede that it was a hard time to be a female athlete. When we look back at the organizers of the Boston Marathon trying to pull Katherine off the course, we can see that that was the wrong side of history. And frankly, that race director was trying to protect their sport, and trying to protect women because at the time, it was widely thought that a woman’s uterus would fall out if she tried running 26.2 miles. Obviously, science, technology, and years of watching female athletes compete have proven this wrong. But at the time, that was the thinking. And I think we can all look back and see that that person was on the wrong side of history, simply for lack of knowledge, or all the best intentions gone awry. And I think that this ruling firmly puts Ironman on the wrong side of history, and I’m hoping they will reconsider.
Would you consider racing in this category? Why or why not?
Flynn: Until this category is not an “Others” category for my trans and nonbinary friends, and a way to avoid having to make decisions, this category is off limits for me.
Mosier: I love that an Open division exists in sports, but I do not want to participate there. Open divisions, especially those without equality to binary divisions, do not have the numbers of athletes or meaningful competition; I participate to push myself, to be a part of a community, and to achieve personal bests, and as a trans man, I want to race men. That’s where I belong.
Tobin: I think that there was a time when I was new to this sport, and especially new to long-course racing, that I absolutely would have considered racing in this category. I think that when I first started racing, I was concerned I couldn’t complete the distance. I didn’t know if I had what it takes. One of the joys and one of the benefits of actually racing, triathlon and racing long-course is that I have learned what I can overcome. And I have learned to believe in myself. This is something that we should share. And this is a gift that all athletes should gain. And at this point, I am a competitive athlete and would like to continue to grow my experience as a competitive athlete.
Certainly, there would be a race where I would simply just want to complete and not compete. And perhaps then I would consider racing in this category. And maybe who knows, maybe when I reach a certain number of goals, I’ll decide to race in this category should our transgender siblings not be allowed to race in the competitive category; that’s definitely an option.