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Should women get more Kona Pro slots?

After WTC has announced the changes on the Pro qualification system for 2014 (see my post on the KPR changes and their impact), a discussion about the number of Kona slots for the Pro women has started. (Most notably, Rachel Joyce made a case for equal slots in her article on about the new KPR system, and the issue has been picked up by a number of others.) I hope that by adding some numbers I can help to further the discussion of this issue.

The case for 35 women slots

WTC is offering 50 slots for the professional men and 35 for the professional women. The main argument for this imbalance is that there are fewer professional women racing. This is in fact the case. Here are a few numbers:

  • In Ironman races (2013 qualifying season up to end of July), women athletes constitute 38% of the professional finishes (or roughly 3 out of 8).
  • There is a similar breakdown in the athletes ranked in the KPR system: There are 580 male and 308 female athletes ranked (35% female, close to 1 in 3 or about twice as many men as women).
  • Jay Prasuhn cites another number in his article on the KPR: “The male-to-female percentage of athletes competing in Ironman and 70.3 events globally is at 67 percent to 33 percent.” (This probably refers to all athletes, pros and age groupers.)

Three different data points, all coming in at a similar result. 

Compared to this ratio, the number of slots (35 for the women compared to 50 for the men) seems reasonable (41% of slots). (Note: WTC has increased the number of slots for women from 30 to 35 for Kona 2013, but hasn’t changed that number when they tweaked the KPR system for 2014.)

The arguments for more slots

Even if the number of pro athletes is different between men and women, there are a few arguments why the number of slots should be the same:

  1. “Closed Shop”
  2. Comparable Sharp End
  3. Equality
  4. Why not?

I’ll have a closer look at these arguments and some of the supporting data.

“Closed Shop”

Rachel gives a succinct explanation:

[T]his makes Kona a bit of a “closed shop” for women. … If we assume that the top 10 in Kona will in all probability get there again the following year, that means there are only 25 other spots open for the following year whereas men still have another 40 spots up for grab.

This theoretical observation is backed up by the data for the July qualifiers:

  • For the men, there are 21 athletes that finished in Kona 2012, and 22 “new” athletes (51%).
  • For the women, the numbers are 18 Kona finishers and 12 new athletes (40%).

Comparable Sharp End

The idea of this argument is that the total number of athletes may be different, but that the “density” of the top athletes (say the top 50 that might be potential Kona racers) is comparable between men and women. I’ll have a look at this theory from a few different angles.

KPR points

  • Comparing the KPR numbers of the top ranked male and female athletes, the females have more points up to about #35. For example at #28 the difference is about 700 points. 
  • After that, the male athletes have only a few more points until a clear separation occurs at about #70.

My interpretation of this data (taken from my post “Do Women have to race more often than men to qualify for Kona“): There is a discernible draw to qualifying for Kona, and athletes close to the cutoff carefully choose their races in order to maximize points. This occurs both for men and women and I can’t really see a gender difference here.

Time difference between top finishers

I’ve put together a list of the finishing times of this seasons Ironman races and have observed the following:

  • The top 3 in a women’s race are usually closer together than the men. (The median time difference between 1-2 and 1-3 are 5 minutes and 11 minutes for the women versus 7 minutes and 12 minutes for the men.)
  • After that the men are a bit closer together (for 1-4/1-5/1-6 we have 14/18/22 minutes for the men and 16/22/26 for the women). 
  • Even so, the women’s differences are a lot smaller than what could be expected from the “raw” number of athletes. (Half as many athletes usually implies that the time difference should be twice as large.)
  • In a women’s race, we also see more changes in the lead between T2 and the finish (in the women’s races, the winner was not leading after the bike in 17 races, in the men’s the lead changed in only 12 races).

To sum up, a women’s race can be more exciting that a men’s race. However, if you want to properly follow the race, this requires a “clean” women’s race and similar coverage which is another issue that should be addressed by WTC and race organizers.

Difference between top TTR rated athletes

My own rating system (“Thorsten’s Triathlon Rating” or TTR) takes all professional finishes over the Ironman distance into account (not just WTC races, and also over a longer period of time than the KPR which just looks at the current season). Here is a graph that show the relative difference (in %) to the top ranked athlete (Andreas Raelert for the men, Mirinda Carefrae for the women):


Again, we have a very small difference. 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. (For the data geeks: The slope between #30 and #95 of the men’s curve is about 0.055 percent per spot, that number for the women is 0.087 percent per spot. The relation between these is a factor of 1.58 instead of the expected number of about 2.)


Rachel has a clear point of view on this:

We count for half of the world’s population.  We should want to see triathlon be an equal sport in future generations.  What message are we sending out to kids taking up the sport with this disparity?

I would like to add two observations to this:

  • The prize money is the same for men and women.
  • Adding more Kona slots for the women would make racing as a female pro more attractive, and it should help attract more pro women to WTC races.

Why not?

It’s hard to image that it’s not possible to accommodate 15 more athletes on the Kona pier. After all WTC manages to provide a number of slots to new races on the Ironman calendar (recent examples include Japan, Lake Tahoe, Boulder and Copenhagen).

My opinion

I think the data that I presented here gives a strong indication that just looking at the number of professional athletes does not paint the full picture of the state of professional women’s Ironman racing. Personally, I’d be glad if WTC offers more women the chance to race as a professional in Kona.

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