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Extreme sports hard to combine with gender-equal family life

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Extreme triathlon puts great strains on the athletes’ family life. Despite wishes to live on a gender-equal footing, families usually end up with highly gender-stereotyped solutions, where male athletes’ careers have priority over women’s. This is evident from research at the University of Gothenburg and Linnaeus University.

The study, based on interviews with 26 Swedish triathletes — 14 men and 12 women between the ages of 25 and 52 — primarily discusses the balance between training, competition and family life.
Most athletes wish to live in gender-equal families, but not everyone succeeds in this. The study shows that family patterns are usually quite stereotyped when one or both parents are triathletes. The woman is usually mainly responsible for the home and children, and in some cases radically cuts back her own training. In other cases, getting a divorce is the only way for the woman to keep up her training.

Extremely time-consuming

Preparations ahead of, for example, an Ironman triathlon, in which swimming 3.7 kilometres, cycling 180 kilometres and running 42 kilometres are performed consecutively, are extremely time-consuming. In many cases, this means that both family and non-training friends must come second. On average, the respondents train between 10 and 15 hours a week.

‘The tendency in competitors’ families is for various forms of compromise to be made, often resulting in relatively gender-stereotyped solutions that, by extension, reward the men’s sports careers to a greater extent,’ says Thomas Johansson, Professor of Education specialising in Child and Youth Studies at the University of Gothenburg.

Global sports event

The idea of the Ironman triathlon was introduced in the late 1970s. From being considered an odd if highly respected sporting phenomenon, the Ironman triathlon has now come to be transformed into a global and commercial sports event. There are numerous spinoffs, such as ‘Mountain Triathlon’, ‘Swim Run’ and ‘Mini-Triathlon’. This trend can be placed in the context of the prevailing boom in various keep-fit races, half-marathons and increasingly extreme events like the ultramarathon.

Constant juggling

‘It applies not least to an increased number of female participants. But these kinds of highly demanding sports also mean that everyday life is characterised by scheduling and by constant juggling of the balance between work, family and training,’ says Jesper Andreasson, Associate Professor of Sport Science at Linnaeus University.

The current article Becoming an Ironman triathlete: Extreme exercise, gender equality and the family puzzle in the journal Sport in Society forms part of a larger book project, with the working title Extreme Sports — Extreme Bodies, in which Jesper Andreasson and Thomas Johansson examine three extreme sports: bodybuilding, Ironman triathlon and mixed martial arts (MMA).