Iron Girl – thanks to Ironman for doing the right thing

Iron Girl logo

On Thursday, Ironman England posted an announcement on Facebook about the introduction of an Iron Girl race in Bolton:

IRONMAN England Iron Girl announcement - screenshot from Facebook. "The IRONMAN UK weekend just got bigger! We're excited to announce Iron Girl is coming to Bolton... as part of the IRONMAN UK weekend." The image shows women wearing turquoise Iron Girl t-shirts with pink logos. The logo is a cross between a butterfly and a flower.

It instantly garnered a lot of attention. When I last looked there were approximately:

  • 700 comments
  • 700 shares
  • 100 likes
  • 100 laughing emoji
  • 400 angry emoji

There were some comments in support of the event by people who thought it was fine. These were mostly men, but there were also some women. Just because an individual doesn’t see the problem, doesn’t mean there isn’t one!

I was really angry, annoyed and frustrated and instantly started drafting a blog post. However, yesterday morning Ironman responded and replaced Iron Girl with an inclusive night run.

IRONMAN England: "To our athletes and fans: We’re sorry. We’ve heard you, and we realise we’ve missed the mark on this one.

After taking your feedback into consideration, we have decided to replace Iron Girl with the Night Run. A 5K fun run open to everyone, aged 16 and up.

Iron Girl was not in any way intended to isolate groups or engender negative stereotypes, however we acknowledge the incorrect way in which the message was brought across. The intention of the event was to provide a 5K fun run through a supportive, energetic and empowering environment for females pursuing a healthy and active lifestyle who may want to be involved but are not necessarily interested in doing an IRONMAN event at this time.

The event was in no way intended to diminish the achievements and capabilities of women. IRONMAN celebrates all athletes and encourages inclusive participation across all levels of competition and distances.

We apologize again and are committed to doing better as we work to bring more racing opportunities for all."

What is Iron Girl?

First up, we need to acknowledge that Iron Girl is already an established subsidiary of Ironman. It’s a brand name Ironman has used worldwide since 2004. To me that seems recent. I would have understood the branding more if it had existed since the late 1970s when Ironman started.

Ironman runs successful triathlons and running races up to half marathon distance under the Iron Girl brand. It seems to be incredibly popular in the USA. This was the first attempt to hold an Iron Girl-branded event in the UK.

Screenshot from Ironman Austria website: "The day before the IRONMAN Austria-Karnten, is dedicated to the ladies. The mothers of teh IRONKIDS, the women of the Ironmen and all sports-loving ladies get what female athletes' hearts desire. The 4.2km must not be taken alone. Who wants can also start in one of the team scores: mother-daughter, girlfriends or sisters run are offered. There is a limitation of 600 participants - we're looking forward to seeing you at the IRON GIRL run."

Ironman’s main competitor, Challenge, also runs women only events alongside its main races, including:

I also find some aspects of these events deeply problematic (such as the provision of a manicure area at the event in Roth).

Is there anything positive about Ironman’s original proposal?

I think that most people agree that holding a 5km event alongside an Ironman is a good idea. It provides something for people who are not participating in the main event to do.

5km is an ideal entry-point into running. There is plenty of time for people who are currently unable to run that distance to train. There is a great demand for events at this distance (although I must acknowledge that for most people in the UK, parkrun fulfils that requirement).

The cost of the race was set at £10. Ironman is an expensive brand. To enter a full distance race costs around £450 (not including the additional costs of kit, travel and so on). Also Ironman souvenirs are not cheap, so this would be a way of other people feeling involved in the event without paying too much money. Yes, parkrun is free, but most timed 5km races cost at least £10 to enter. (I think Race for Life is usually £16+). Finishers of the Iron Girl event would have received a t-shirt and a medal. I’m not sure whether the event was chip-timed, but if so, it was a very fair price.

What were the negatives?

It depends on what the intention of the event was. Was it to introduce people to multisport? It’s just a running event, so perhaps a Go Tri event would be better. However, that has additional challenges as even a short triathlon requires a range of equipment. I can see both sides of this argument. Going to parkrun and running 5km was what led me to join a running club and take part in a range of races up to marathon-distance. I only took part in my first triathlon after completing a marathon. So, would completing a 5km run encourage women to move onto 70.3 or Ironman events?

Why was it over 16s only? IAAF state that it is fine for runners aged 9+ to run up to 5km in a session. Runners aged 4 upwards take part in parkruns. To restrict this race to over 16s seems odd.

Why the branding is inappropriate

Overall, the biggest problem with the event was the inappropriate branding.

The name – Iron Girl – is entirely inappropriate for an event that is not aimed at children. There are plenty of women who are not bothered by being referred to as ‘girls’. I would suggest that for some it is because they have heard the word so frequently that they have not considered its implications. Why should women be infantilised in this way? It is casual sexism.

The parody gender equality account ‘Man who has it all‘ on Facebook demonstrated the ridiculousness of the branding by suggesting an alternative event called ‘Iron Boy’. I would strongly recommend that you read the comments identifying the sexism involved in the Iron Girl event.

A woman running with text superimposed on the image: "IRONWOMAN UK just got bigger! We're excited to announce Iron Boy is coming soon, a woke side event of IRONWOMAN UK. Iron Boy is a 500m race, open to men aged 16 and up. 75p to enter. No prizes. Will you take part?"

There are plenty of alternative names that could be used that do not patronising but make it clear that the event is linked with the Ironman brand. Ironfans, Ironfive or Ironman Family Run would work. Ironman 70.3 exists as a subsidiary and most people are clear that this is a half ironman, not a full iron-distance race.

A 5km fun run?

Another problem is referring to it as a 5km fun run. This suggests that no-one is taking it seriously. There will always be plenty of people who take part in a 5km event without any intention of running as fast as they can. Alongside them will be people who have trained as hard as possible with individual goals, whether to complete the distance, complete the distance without walking or to complete the distance in a particular time. This suggests that those goals are irrelevant and yet they are the same goals that people doing a full iron-distance event will have in mind.

The suggestion that the event isn’t taken seriously is compounded by the knowledge that Iron Girl t-shirts at some events have the slogan “Girls just want to have fun” printed on the back. If I had one of those t-shirts, I’d definitely have edited it. Mine would say”Girls Women just want to have fundamental rights!!!”

As I’ve mentioned, 5km is a great entry-level race. However,by providing it as a women-only alternative to the full iron-distance race, it implies that women are incapable of taking on extreme endurance events. It’s suggesting that men can do 226km (3.8+180+42.2), whilst women can only do <3% of that distance!

The problematic logo

Next we can analyse the t-shirts and other aspects of the branding. A delicate pastel blue colour has been chosen. The Iron Girl logo is some sort of butterfly or flower. It looks similar to the kind of logo more often seen on feminine care products. These elements combined suggest that women are weak and delicate creatures who are incapable of taking on a race of more than 5km.

Why women only?

It is important to acknowledge that there is a place for women-only events to encourage female participation in sport. Getting women active is a good thing. Rates of female participation in any sport are significantly lower than rates for men of the same age. The controversially named This Girl Can campaign showed women being empowered by sport, rather than not being good enough to compete with men, which is what many felt the creation of an Iron Girl event suggested.

The timing of the announcement was also particularly bad. Just the day before Iron Girl was announced, ultrarunner Jasmin Paris won the Montane Spine race. This is a gruelling 268 mile (431km) event along the Pennine Way. Not only did she beat all of the entrants of both genders, but she smashed the course record by 12 hours whilst expressing milk along the way.

Race for Life with its pink branding has been incredibly successful in encouraging women to walk or run 5km. Many people find these events being single-sex acceptable as they are raising awareness of cancers that mainly effect women (and also raising money for Cancer Relief). However, even Race for Life is now gender neutral.

Female inequality

Only 304/2087 (14.5%) of the competitors at Ironman UK in 2018 were female, so there is definitely an inequality. (This inequality follows through to the number of places that are allocated to pro females at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Elite women have to take part in more races than men to guarantee themselves a spot at the event. This is hardly fair, but an argument for another day!) Some women feel intimidated and worry they will be unwelcome in a male-dominated sport, so an entry level event is a good thing.

However, whilst there is a time and a place for women-only events, this was not it. The event did not feel inclusive. I would argue that even the apology hasn’t really acknowledged that, as can be seen in the statement “we wanted an empowering environment for females not interested in Ironman distance”. What about the men who are not ready or interested in taking on the full distance? There will be plenty of youths and men who are supporting their partners at Ironman UK who would want to participate in an event alongside it. It could even be interpreted that Ironman are implying that men should be able to do the full distance and that no alternative is required for them.

Ultimately, the provision of an Iron Girl event alongside Ironman UK seems to reflect outdated ideas. It almost suggests that we are living in an exclusively heterosexual society where men can take part in a big challenge supported by the women in their family. That may have been acceptable in the 1950s, but is intolerable now.

Ironman doesn’t always get it wrong!

I thought I’d end on a positive note about Ironman. This whole debacle shows the power of social media to give people a voice. The negativity towards the event was swiftly recognised by Ironman and the event was changed to something more palatable to the British public.

Ironman has previously recognised International Women’s Day. The message in the following video demonstrates how Ironman wants to inspire women and girls to participate in multisport.

One Reply to “Iron Girl – thanks to Ironman for doing the right thing”

  • Interesting piece. I’m more surprised they have managed to hold on to the ‘man’ in their own branding, to be honest. Though I admit ‘IronPerson’ just doesn’t sound very appealing 😉
    I have always argued, for what it’s worth, that I view ‘man’ as an abbreviation of mankind, but I know that doesn’t wash with a lot of people. And of course, as a bloke, I don’t see the other side of the debate very clearly.
    Silly mistake for them to make. That was always going to misfire on them. Pastel shades and pinks, and butterflies… all very predictable. Mind you, the words ‘fun run’ have much the same effect on me as ‘girls’ probably has on you. You would think by now the penny would have dropped.
    Anyway, good piece and food for thought. The irony is that in reality, over the longer distances, women are proving themselves to be better than men (if that’s the only metric we are interested in). But that too doesn’t surprise me. Most men I know can’t even change the sheets on their bed…
    Anyway, keep on plugging away. When you do your full iron distance tri, don’t bother with the faff of Ironman and all that expense. Come to Ireland and do the Hardman. Brilliant scenery, great craic, and a fraction of the price. Now if only they could change the name. Tough Bastard, maybe?

I'd love to hear your thoughts...

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