Cohen, Diana Tracy. Iron Dads: Managing Family, Work, and Endurance Sport Identities. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv+191. Introduction, notes, bibliography, and index. Paperback: $26.95.
Reviewed by Ari de Wilde
In her book, Iron Dads: Managing Family, Work, and Endurance Sport Identities, Diana Tracy Cohen, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Central Connecticut State University, examines the culture, challenges, and triumphs of fathers who compete in “Iron Distance” triathlons, most famously IRONMAN triathlons. The punishing IRONMAN triathlon is comprised by a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile marathon run. It should be noted that these triathlons are big business and are truly a global phenomenon. In 2015, China’s Dalian Wanda Group purchased the series for an estimated $650 million dollars.
The triathlons are all consuming of participants, most of whom are full-time working professionals. The event itself is so challenging that competitors must train for almost one year for one event. The intense training creates triathlon social worlds. Cohen examines these worlds of working fathers. Cohen justifies mainly examining fathers by showing that “75 to 82 percent” of 140.6 competitors are male (p. 20). She attaches her study to a 2006 special issue in Leisure Studies, which examined fatherhood and “how the complex, ever-changing evolution of fathering expectations play out in various sport and leisure contexts” (p. 21). Cohen offers that her work presents insights for “academic and non-academic audiences.” For scholars, she argues that she has developed “new theoretical concepts” and for the popular audience, she “offers pragmatic advice on how to live a more-healthy, well-balanced life” (p. 23). She delivers on both counts.
Cohen begins her work examining the identities of “Iron Men” as a “privileged masculine landscape” (p.32). In “to Tri or no to Try,” she discusses the often year-long commitment that fathers need to make in order to balance the needs of parenthood and work. Potential Iron Dads weigh these extreme life requirements—getting up at 4 am to train for example—against the pull of “Iron Distance as a Means for Doing the Extraordinary” (p. 53). This can mean a number of things—from personal weight loss and accomplishment to being an excellent role model. In a related chapter, “The Juggling Act,” Cohen examines how fathers balance priorities and justify spending massive amounts of time away from family and friends. The author points out that wives of Iron competitors are often referred to as “Iron Widows” (pp.65-67). Cohen goes on to discuss “Why Class Matters,” and shows that participation is overtly and subtly related to class status. Triathlons are expensive. Multi-thousand dollars triathlon bikes are themselves semiotic-status-symbols and the average income of triathletes is $126,000 (p.91). But not all Iron distance racers fit the wealthy-stereotype and finishing an IRONMAN is a visible capstone of physical as well as fiscal success.
In her subsequent two chapters, Cohen presents dialectic topics of faith in racing and reasons why fathers leave the sport. In the former, she shows that many competitors associate rigorous training regimes with religious convictions and that there are a number of faith-based organizations involved, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which commonly hosts the “Iron Prayer” before races. She also points to a number of religious organizations affiliated with triathlons, such as Multisport Ministries (p.114). In the latter, she examines why athletes finally succumb to the plethora of challenges facing an “Iron Dad” trying to complete an Iron distance event. The reasons include the obvious physical challenge as well as trying to save relationships from failure based on the stress of “Iron” training.
In one of her most practical chapters, Cohen concludes the work with concrete policy suggestions for Iron distance event holders. The most prominent piece of advice is to create a more flexible transfer policy in instances when athletes cannot compete in their desired race (p. 150-151). Racers must oftentimes register for IRONMAN events one year in advance of a race to have a hope of finding a slot for a race. She also recommends that IRONMAN events have a more family friendly finish chute where family members can join Iron Dads or Moms at the conclusion of the 140.6 mile race. (Currently, family members are not allowed to join race participants on the course).
Overall, Cohen’s work is path breaking in its qualitative examination of fathers and IRONMAN events. She works in a political science department, but completed some doctoral work in sociology. The work is an excellent example of how various qualitative methodologies, which included participant interviews, surveys and textual analysis of extensive online formats, can be woven together to create a detailed and textual portrait of trials and tribulations of Iron Dads.
While the work was explicitly sociological, as a historian, I would like to have seen more historical contextualization of “Iron Dads.” I also understand her argument that men make up about 80% of Iron distance triathlon participants; however, I think it might be more fascinating to include the lives and tensions of Iron Moms. As Cohen shows, dads face many pressures of family life, but I suspect that mothers face more societal and familial scrutiny than fathers. Their narratives, and the societal reactions to them—would Iron Widowers be socially acceptable?–would be an even more fascinating to study, as I suspect this is a marginalized group. I also wondered about LGBT Ironman participants and their experiences. Nonetheless, as a one-time IRONMAN finisher, before I became a father, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the work and found her portrait of “Iron Dads” to be authentic and her policy recommendations valid.
Ari de Wilde is an Assistant Professor of Sport and Leisure Management at Eastern Connecticut State University. His main research interests are in the business history of sport and the North American bicycle racing industry. He received his BA from Bates College —2005— (History), MA—2007— and PhD—2010— from The Ohio State University in Sport Humanities. His articles and book reviews have appeared in the Journal of Macromarketing, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Journal of Sport History, Quest, and International Journal of Sport Management. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @aodewilde.