Diversity in Triathlon: A Few Radical Ideas

CBCG athlete Morgan Spriggs, photo: Darcie Elliott Photography

CBCG athlete Morgan Spriggs, photo: Darcie Elliott Photography

by CBCG Pro Athlete Amy VanTassel

Moments before the start of Challenge® Penticton (R.I.P.), I helped an African American athlete named Anthony zip up his wetsuit.

“See you out there!”

“How will you recognize me?” Anthony quipped, and we both laughed without having to confirm why it was funny. He was probably the only black man competing that day.

Less than 1% of the entire sport of US participants in triathlon are African American.1 Albeit a staggering stat, are any of us surprised? Look around at any race, anywhere, and it’s egregiously evident that triathlon is predominantly a white man’s sport, fueled by the affluent, and uninviting to minorities since its nascence for the following reasons: 

Why it’s so reason #1 - socioeconomic and sociocultural realities

To truly affect long-term and lasting change, we need to get comfortable discussing, and more importantly, addressing uncomfortable topics. The issues surrounding lack of diversity in triathlon stem from deep-rooted discrepancies in privilege, wealth, culture, perceived social constructs, and actual social behavior. It’s daunting and complex to unpack these phenomena, and, like trying to turn a colossal barge, it will likely take time, and a lot of effort, to see a sea change. 

Why it’s so reason #2 - the swim thing

Another sensitive issue is the converse correlation between African Americans and swimming culture. Similar to socioeconomic nuances, we must stare down this factor and get comfortable discussing it.

Triathlete Magazine reveals, “Seventy percent of black adults in the United States cannot swim, a fact attributable to a complex mix of political, cultural, economic and geographical factors limiting access to pools, and the ramifications of generations lacking a strong swimming culture.”2

More boldly, The Conversation US reveals, “...learning to swim is one of those intersections where race, space and class collide. Black peoples in the United States drown at five times the rate of white people. And most of those deaths occur in public swimming pools.”3

CBCG athlete Morgan Spriggs offers his insight, “What occurs to me as I reflect on my [triathlon] journey so far was how little did I know when I began. All three sports have a language on their own, community norms and customs and basic competencies that have to be integrated. Quickly, I learned of the myth of African Americans and swimming, a task that seemed nearly impossible based on misconceptions.”

Morgan on looking strong on the run, photo: Darcie Elliott Photography

Morgan on looking strong on the run, photo: Darcie Elliott Photography

Why it’s so reason #3 - there are ridiculously few role models

Perhaps the most reparable problem is the fact that young athletes of color have little-to-no reason to be inspired about triathlon. There are staggeringly few exemplars who look like them, and it’s doubtful they’re watching Ironman World Championships® on ESPN-23, or wherever it’s broadcast. (Ed. note: even if Kona was more publicly broadcast, one might note the skewed coverage of men at the front.)

Triathlete Magazine interviewed Sika Henry, slated to be the first black female professional triathlete, “I truly believe that you achieve to be what you see. When I don’t see other people who look like me in this sport, it’s difficult—a little like being an outcast in a way.” In the article, Sika refers to Max Fennell, the first black professional triathlete, who inspired her by “...seeing his journey, his story and having that image.”1

Max Fennell, the first African American triathlete to turn pro, and elite triathlete Sika Henry; photo: usatriathlon.org

Max Fennell, the first African American triathlete to turn pro, and elite triathlete Sika Henry; photo: usatriathlon.org

Impressive strides made #1 - USAT and the NCAA

Last fall USAT announced a major initiative: to continue to monetarily support historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) to increase diversity in triathlon. They jump-started the  pledge with the women’s team at Hampton College in Virginia whose team was made possible through a $225,000 grant from the USA Triathlon Foundation.4

 “USA Triathlon is planning a number of other initiatives focused on HBCU community engagement, including an indoor triathlon series at HBCU campuses, an HBCU triathlon combine to identify multisport talent, a campus rep program and a professional development program...part of USA Triathlon’s larger mission to increase diversity in triathlon.”4

 Strides made #2 – more cash from USAT

Moreover, the USA Triathlon Foundation awarded a grant to Maryland-based group International Association of Black Triathletes. The IABT is the only international African American and women-owned non-profit organization in the multisport industry. Moreover, the Foundation proffered their exclusive “Volunteer of the Year Award” in 2017 dually, to the IABT and Dr. Tekemia Dorsey, its CEO who champions developing under-served populations in discovering triathlon.5 

My radical idea #1

USAT’s strides are impressive, indeed, and continued monetary support will be clutch in creating change. USAT and the ITU are non-profit organizations, however, and cannot shell out the kind of coin that some political candidates seem to solicit in a single day, which led me to my first of a few wild ideas.

What if for-profit companies followed USAT’s lead? There are ample corporations with deeper pockets associated with triathlon, such as race companies (the World Triathlon Company® springs to mind), the bike industry, publications, and title sponsors. In terms of the latter, we’ve all heard Matt Lieto and Michael Lovato dutifully include title sponsors in race announcing, as in, “The Hoka One One® Run Course” at Kona. And this year’s lineup of major races has room for more than one car sponsor, including Mazda, Ford, Toyota, and Subaru.

Perhaps most salient was the “Amazon Ironman® World Championships.” So we know there’s a relationship with these major corporations; what if they could be cajoled to donate or grant developmental programs for triathletes of color? Perhaps they could name a college scholarship and award it to black triathletes at Hampton College. The possibilities are boundless.

CBCG long-time friend Rebecca McKee with an impressive finish at World Championships

CBCG long-time friend Rebecca McKee with an impressive finish at World Championships

My radical idea #2

Whenever I see a need for a seemingly impossible sea change, I think of “affirmative action,” due to my career in college admission. In the context of the allocation of resources, Google defines affirmative action as “the practice or policy of favoring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously.”

In higher education, this practice was adopted by most college admission offices several decades ago, giving a relative leg-up to applicants of color or at least African American and Native American students. The topic is rife with nuances and controversy, such as the most famous case of Grutter v. Bollinger and the University of Michigan Law School Office of Graduate Admissions.7

There have been scores of similar cases since, and the topic remains highly contested, but in my professional opinion (I do still work in the college admission industry), affirmative action in the allocating resources is seemingly the only way for to affect staggering discrepancies as quickly as possible, and I stand by my statement.

What if major race companies practiced affirmative action?  What if the WTC offered free race entries to athletes of color?  It wouldn’t have to be all entrants - they could offer a lottery or figure out another way to manage the cost. How about providing travel or home-stays? What about a special Kona entry system for African Americans? 

There are limitless possibilities for race companies to favor triathletes of color, but affirmative action is a strategy to not only make change now, but to impact the pipeline. So what if youth swim programs offered free facility use, lessons, or team membership? Or, perhaps the Olympic Training Center could host a free summer camp and fly-in young African American triathletes.  Or, perhaps the most sought-after elite coaches could reserve at least one spot for a triathlete of color, which would directly mirror the efforts of affirmative action in college admission.

What it will really take

We must acknowledge the nearly insurmountable underlying issue behind this topic: there are vast racial divides - predominantly socioeconomic and cultural - in the US. I, personally, can only envision true equality in triathlon when these divides are leveled, which saddens me since I doubt that will be during my lifetime.

I do see a glimmer of hope, though, stemming from three pathways: increased support for African Americans in the sport, a continued effort to squash the myth of African Americans and swimming, and significantly increased visibility of high-level black triathletes like Sika and Max.

Morgan nods to inspirational exemplars who combat all of the above, “Without my friends and mentors who knew the culture and ignored the stereotypes, I wouldn’t have had access to the necessary training resources nor been loaned the necessary equipment to begin my investment in each sport. It is so cool I can ride any distance, hop in a pool and swim and go out my front door to run.”

We at the Chris Bagg Coaching Group would like to celebrate Black History Month and offer a special thanks to Morgan for being an exceptional CBCG athlete. 

Morgan in the field with CBCG teammate, Sue Moote; photo: Darcie Elliott Photography

Morgan in the field with CBCG teammate, Sue Moote; photo: Darcie Elliott Photography