Climbing the “Performance Pyramid”: Collegiate Triathlon, Emerging Sport Status, and the Politics of Institutionalization

As you read this, a mixture of nerves, excitement, and celebration have blanketed Clemson, SC as more than 1,000 collegiate triathletes converge for the 2015 Collegiate Club National Championships. In addition to the high energy, these championships come with a slight name change: from the Collegiate National Championships to the Collegiate Club National Championships. The addition of “Club” to the name reflects the addition of triathlon as an “emerging sport” under the governance of the NCAA in 2014, with the inaugural Women’s Collegiate National Championship held in Clermont, FL on November 7, 2014.

The notion of emerging sports first emerged (see what we did there?) in the 1990s purportedly as a way to boost women’s participation and develop competition structures for sports that would eventually hold NCAA national championships. Emerging sports have 10 years to become “championship sports” by establishing 40 varsity teams in Division I and II or 28 varsity teams in Division III. Nine sports were originally designated as emerging in 1994 (the full list is difficult to find, but it “included archery, badminton, equestrian, rugby, squash, synchronized swimming, and team handball”). Sports have occasionally gained emerging status while others have lost the designation. According to the NCAA, only four emerging sports have become “championship sports”: rowing, ice hockey, water polo and bowling. The current list of emerging sports includes equestrian, rugby, sand volleyball, and triathlon.

Interestingly, the emerging sports “don’t count” as varsity sports as long as they have the designation, and thus cannot be included for Title IX compliance. However, schools often have the ability to apply for grant monies to cover start-up costs, and thus the designation ostensibly helps to bolster programs and support the institutionalization of the emerging sports within athletic departments — and would, eventually, count toward varsity status and the Title IX implications that come with it. Despite the seemingly broad qualifications for Title IX compliance, most schools’ athletic programs are not in compliance. Some athletic departments choose to interpret Title IX compliance by “cutting” men’s programs — this interpretation, they argue, fits under the “Proportionality” prong for both participation and funding. Others have added teams for women in already established varsity sports – which could be interpreted to fit into any or all of the three-prongs. Given the historic lack of individual sporting options and sporting structures available to women at the collegiate level, the combination of developing competitive sport structures and garnering institutional support for emerging sports is generally seen positively as a way to boost women’s athletic participation and as a strategy to help institutions come into compliance with Title IX.

USA Triathlon (USAT), the governing and sanctioning body of collegiate triathlon, was instrumental in gaining the emerging sport designation for triathlon. Women are the fastest growing segment of triathlon competitors, and women’s participation in the Collegiate National Championships has been growing over the past decade with women comprising nearly 40% of the competitors at the 2013 Championships. Due to this growing popularity, USAT argues that triathlon is perfectly positioned to provide elite sporting opportunities for women and to quickly progress from emerging sport to championship sport.

Triathlon is an interesting case study in the institutionalization of emerging women’s sports because of the complicated interplay between governing bodies and the shifting, contested notions of what triathlon is and who it is for. For many people, the word “triathlon” evokes nostalgic memories of huddling in front of the television to watch Ironman athletes swim, bike, and run into the Hawaiian night as Bob Costas narrates stories of hard work and obstacles overcome along the Queen K highway. However, Ironman triathlon is but one type of triathlon racing – and not the type collegiate triathlon clubs participate in.

This weekend at the 2015 Collegiate Club National Championships, competitors will race non-drafting Olympic distance (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run), draft-legal sprint distance (half the Olympic distance), and draft-legal mixed team relay races (each member completes half of the sprint distance, thus the team totals the Olympic distance). In non-drafting events, an athlete cannot ride closely to or in a group of other riders during the bike portion of the event and is penalized for doing so. In draft-legal events, riding in groups is preferred and the tactics used in the race resemble professional cycling. This array of race programing is no accident.

As administrators of the Olympic games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has enormous power in defining the parameters of sport – defining what counts as sport, and what those sports look like. However, the IOC does not govern the individual sports, they only recognize and legitimize specific governing bodies that do this governing; these bodies are often called International Sports Federations (ISFs). Scholars Jean-Loup Chappelet & Brenda Kubler-Mabbott define ISFs as the groups “that govern their respective sport and disciplines on a world-wide level” (p. 6). Although the ISFs are linked to the Olympics – which, for many of sports, stands as the height of elite competition – ISFs have contested relationships with the Olympics and the IOC’s decisions to offer the “privilege” of including a sport into the Olympics is, obviously, rife with political tensions. But, it’s the ISFs themselves that develop the sport, create the rules for the sport, certify and train the sports’ officials, enforce athletes’ eligibilities – all within the framework of the Olympic System (Chappelet & Kubler-Mabbott, 2008). The ISFs are made up of member National Sports Federations that follow and enforce the rules of the ISF at the national level.

Currently, there are 41 summer sports recognized by the IOC. The 41 sports are governed by 28 International Sports Federations; for example, FINA governs all aquatics, which includes the sports of diving, synchronized swimming, swimming, and water polo. Triathlon is a relatively new sport to the Summer Olympics, first occurring in Sydney in 2000. It is governed internationally by the International Triathlon Union, which was founded in 1989. As mentioned above, USAT governs the sport in the United States.

For the majority of its existence, the USAT had focused on non-drafting triathlons, promoting the notion that these races are the ultimate test of individual endurance and skill. In fact, every Collegiate National Championship prior to 2013 had been strictly non-drafting. As draft-legal triathlon became a successful Olympic sport, the ITU revised the qualification systems, requiring individual athletes from each country to compete in ITU sanctioned events in order to secure starting positions for the country in the Olympic games. As you might suspect, the tactics, strategies, and athletic skills needed to compete in non-drafting and draft-legal triathlons are very different. Thus, the USAT began experimenting with ways to promote the development of elite-level athletes’ draft-legal skills. They began sanctioning and promoting draft-legal events, including the first draft-legal National Collegiate Championship in 2013. Further, they began the College Recruitment Program in 2009. This program targets Division I swimmers and runners, providing them with individualized coaching and economic resources as they climb the “USAT performance pyramid.”

We must ask to what extent the push for emerging sport status is intertwined with the USAT’s Olympic aspirations. Who will this benefit? And what role do the individual triathletes and collegiate teams play in this international drama?

As Taylor Branch maps out (intentionally through his investigate work and unintentionally through his ignoring of women’s collegiate sporting experiences), the NCAA is disproportionately concerned with governing and controlling men’s sports – and primarily the so-called “revenue producing” sports of football and men’s basketball. As has been discussed elsewhere (and in Branch’s piece), the NCAA is a non-profit organization generating billions of dollars of profit off of the backs of unpaid labor of (mostly black) young men. Recent lawsuits (Ed O’Bannon) and player-organizing (Northwestern & CPA) movements have helped to bring the NCAA’s exploitative practices under further scrutiny.

However, feminist scholars, activists, and athletic administrators have long known about these exploitative practices. Such practices are part of the reason for the initial founding of the AIAW, which governed and organized women’s sports throughout the 1970s in spite of the NCAA’s refusal to include women’s sports. After nearly a decade of lawsuits and legal gymnastics where administrators and legislators tried to undermine the application of Title IX to the NCAA – primarily to booster football – the NCAA turned an about face and voted to co-opt women’s athletics into their exploitative fold. Since then, the NCAA has become almost monopolistic for any woman athlete who wanted to compete at an elite level – she either had to play ball with the NCAA under their rules or she had to take her ball and go home. And, their rules disproportionately disenfranchise women athletes. Men continue to see more opportunities to play collegiate sport and men’s teams continue to receive more and better resources.

In the first year of triathlon’s foray into the NCAA, only Marymount University and Queens University (Division III and II respectively) have established varsity teams for women. However, both universities created men’s teams as well and run them as a combined men’s and women’s program coached (predictably) by men. One the one hand, this makes sense, most triathlon clubs are co-sex/gender teams where men and women practice and race together. Yet, if, as USAT argues, triathlon was designated an emerging sport in order to promote the participation of women athletes and help correct the long-standing uneven distribution of resources, this first year casts some very dark shadows. Of course, the promise of millions of dollars in grant money is persuasive. Grant applications for the 2015-2016 school year were due in January and information about the winners is expected to be released soon. We look forward to seeing which schools are granted the money and how they choose to use it.

While the future of women’s triathlon certainly hangs in the balance, so too might the entire system of collegiate triathlon. In its nearly two decades of sanctioning collegiate national championship races, the USAT has promoted “grassroots development” of self-governed, democratically-run collegiate triathlon clubs. These clubs are divided into competitive geographical regions which mirror the geographical boundaries of the competitive age-group (amateur) USAT regions. To date, over 100 collegiate clubs are registered with USAT, and collegiate teams from almost every state are slated to participate in the Collegiate Club National Championships this weekend. Under the current system, each of these collegiate clubs gets to decide for themselves how competitive they’d like to be, what races they participate in, and how to run their team financially.

It is clear that the USAT is placing collegiate triathlon as the water main to their elite “development pipeline.” This construction project includes an uneasy alliance with the NCAA, an organization with a history of discriminating against women and exploiting athletes. Therefore, the addition of triathlon as an emerging sport and the push for recognition and varsity status has the potential to dismantle the very democratic processes on which the collegiate club system was built.

However, we remain hopeful as this is just the first year under triathlon’s emerging sport designation and the next school year promises more developments. So too, this all comes at a time when critiques of the NCAA’s treatment of women athletes and coaches are gaining momentum and athletes are pushing back against its exploitative system more generally. Studying this history as it is written helps us to determine how meanings of gender, sport, and class are re-articulated and coalesce. Triathlon’s emerging sport status shows us what counts as success within the sporting world and the lengths to which governing bodies will go to achieve it.

Cathryn Lucas-Carr and Matt Hodler haven’t yet ruined their friendship by writing together. Yet being the operative word. They are interested in the NCAA’s ongoing institutional contestation over “amateur” sports, and they support all the athletes who toil under exploitative working conditions. Cathryn can be reached at cathryn-lucas@uiowa.edu and Matt can be reached at matthew-hodler@uiowa.edu

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