In my hometown, every Fourth of July begins with a one-mile race on the streets of Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s set up like the Fifth Avenue Mile or the Carlsbad 5000—waves of competitors, grouped by age and gender, compete against each other.
If I enter the Downtown Mile, I can choose the category in which I want to compete. Being “an old,” I can opt for the masters wave or if I’m feeling ambitious, I can go for the open division and risk being whooped by a pack of teenagers. Typically I opt to skip it altogether and volunteer instead.
However, if I decide to compete in the open category, place 10th, but run a faster time than the winner of the masters division, I don’t earn the first-place masters award—it was a different race, with different competitors, which created different racing strategies and dynamics. It was an entirely different competition—one in which I chose not to participate. I go home empty-handed.
Seems fair, doesn’t it?
In the aftermath of the 2018 Boston Marathon—a year in which the treacherous weather conditions played heavily into the racing tactics of top female athletes—three women in the open category and two masters athletes ended up in the final results with faster finishing times than women who received the prize money. The faster women were ineligible for the awards because they didn’t qualify to compete with the elite women’s-only field of 46 athletes, which started at 9:32 a.m. in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Instead, these women began at 10 a.m. in the next wave of 7,500 mixed-gender competitors.
What happened next included predictable outrage and backlash. Just as predictably, much of the controversy was unwarranted and based on misinformation. Some news outlets framed it as an issue of gender inequity. Others didn’t fully understand the rules involved.
On a recent call with a friend of mine, we got into a discussion about language and how our language has changed over time. We both have spent time living abroad; her in the UK and myself in the USA. The conversation started with accents, and how some people “lose” their accent when they move to a new country and live there for a while. I used myself as an example. For the most part, folks in the U.S.A think I am Australian. In the U.K, folks think I “sound American” and when I hear myself speak, I still hear a strong British accent. I have, admittedly, adapted my accent over time, code-shifting more routinely into U.S linguistic and behavioral culture as a means of camouflage. Not because I am ashamed of my Britishness, but because I am so darn tired of being asked where I am from, or being told that either my accent is lovely, or that I am not understood. For my friend, she reflected that while her accent didn’t shift significantly, the vernacular she used to “fit in” in the U.K did. She adopted terms readily used there, and strayed from North American terminology more frequently over time. She also expressed exasperation at being told her accent was cute, or having conversations interrupted or derailed because the focus shifted to the way she said a certain word. I can relate. It’s annoying.
I think what is interesting about all this is that rather than expecting our friends and colleagues to flex to incorporate us in our original state without fetishizing our accents, we shifted and changed to fit the new culture. In so doing, we lost a little part of our identity. Collectively, we realized that we made these changes because it was easier and more expedient. But at what cost?
Since we are both triathletes, our conversation shifted to athletic terminology and our need to code-shift depending on the nationality of our audiences. In the U.K, for example, a swimsuit is called a swimming costume, which here in the U.S.A seems like such an archaic term. When she and I have used this term in North America, the response is often laughter and puzzlement. The same is true for running machine (treadmill) and turbo (indoor bike trainer). There is the old adage that the U.S.A and U.K are divided by a common language. While both nations speak English they do so differently enough, leading to confusion and misunderstanding.
Triathlon is a global sport, and individuals of many languages participate across the world. My conversation with my friend led me to ponder just how much language and meaning difference is there within our sport and how much code-shifting happens for triathletes who routinely occupy international spaces. How much do they lose of themselves when they try to fit in, and what cultural norms dominate in the sport? Who is most at risk of needing to change to experience inclusion and success? What this line of pondering also highlights for me is the skill involved in existing in two worlds, two cultures, or more. It’s not easy, and takes practice.
Beyond linguistic code-shifting, there is also the reality of how women code-shift behaviorally to fit into sport. Sport broadly, occupies the domain of the masculine. Men’s sports often get more money and resources, more air time, and more sponsorships. Men’s sports are the norm, and women’s sports are often the add-on, or the afterthought. Systems, processes, and competitions are (historically) built for men around masculine norms. In sports where all genders participate, men are generally viewed as the main event, and women as the lesser “other” event. The 2016 coverage of the Ironman World Championship bears this out: women received 27% of the coverage as compared to the 43% for men. How much do women triathletes need to code-shift to be taken seriously in the sport? How much do they need to change who they are, to ensure their participation is featured by networks and taken seriously by sports journalists and fans alike? I don’t have any answers on this just yet, but I think it is worth consideration. What are we asking of women triathletes to “fit in” to the triathlon system as designed, versus being willing to redesign the sport and system so they no longer have to code-shift, losing a piece of who they are, to be equally recognized?