Why is the Athena category so useless?

tri2The Athena/Clydesdale categories are an attempt to equalize competition in non-elite running and multisport events between big and small people. For men, Clydesdale is anyone over 200 lbs and for women the minimum weight for an Athena division runner is either 140 lbs or 150 lbs. But there are at least two problems with the Athena category. First, you have to select to run in it. And almost no women do.

Hint: It’s a great way to get medals. I’ve “won” the Athena division twice in duathlon events by being the only woman in the class.

I’m not sure if that’s because most women object to the weigh-in (a routine part of lots of sports, all of them with weight categories) but I didn’t actually have to weigh in since I’m clearly over that weight limit, or because they don’t want to be identified as part of the heavier group.

Second, as I looked around it seemed to me that most of the women competing were over that weight. Is it just wrong as a category? Am I wrong to think that 200 lbs seems okay for men but 140/150 seems small for women? As I mentioned with my bodpod results, my lean mass is 122 lbs so assuming I can retain that, I’ll always be an Athena class runner/multisport athlete.

Any thoughts about the Athena category and how useful, or not, it is? I’m keen on the idea of encouraging larger people to race and making it fair. Is this the way? (For what it’s worth, I love the idea of a weight adjusted hill race on bike where it’s all power to weight ratio…)

About Sam B

Philosopher, feminist, parent, and cyclist!

12 thoughts on “Why is the Athena category so useless?

  1. Caitlin says:

    I have many thoughts on the Athena category! I actually signed up as Athena/Bonnydale for the Big Sur marathon and was shocked when I got a plaque in the mail saying I was third overall in the division. There’s no way that this was the case (not with a 4:18 time), and I believe it’s because a lot of the women who qualified didn’t want to say that’s how much they weighed and that they were part of a “special” weight class. A friend of mine actually said she would kill herself if she were in that category (which I found soooo problematic, for obvious reasons).

    I’m actually right on the cusp for the Athena/Bonnydale category and in the past I’ve signed up for it, but since then I’ve stopped because I feel like it’s unfair. I technically weigh enough to qualify but I am so tall that it’s not the same as a woman who weighs the same as me but is 5’3″. It just seems more in line with the spirit of the thing.

    That said, I agree that 150 is way too low for a separate weight class, especially when compared with the men’s 200 lb limit.

    I told you have many thoughts on this. BTW, I found your blog a couple of weeks ago and I’m really loving it. 🙂

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  2. Jane says:

    From another perspective (that backs you up) Lightweight rowing (which I did in college) Men’s weight limit 160 max (boat average 155) Women’s limit 130 max (boat average 125 international rules college rules no boat average).

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  3. I qualify for the “Athena” running category, I have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever about letting every single person on our planet know this, but I would never register for the category. (And I would be mighty angry if an event automatically registered me into it without my approval.) Why? Because what is the point in “winning” an event because there was no competition? If I’m not fast enough to win the open classification, then I’m not fast enough to win. Period.

    Being unable to win does not mean I cannot compete. It doesn’t mean I cannot be proud of my accomplishment in the race–regardless of where I place. Except in the case of elite athletes where money is on the line, one’s placement in a race is largely irrelevant in any case. (And this coming from a person who likes to win, a person who REALLY likes to win.)

    When I was in high school, I was a nationally ranked athlete. Yet I only won one race in my entire high school career. Why? Because the fastest runner in the country in my age division lived down the road from me. I had to compete against her in every single race I ran, no matter how large or small. (With the one exception: the race I won, I won because she was not there.)

    Was it “fair” to me that I had to compete against this elite athlete in every single race? Should I have been given a special tier 2 category to compete in to compensate for the bad luck of having a neighbour I could never hope to best, no matter how hard I worked? If I had lived in a different county, I would have racked up plenty of gold medals over the course of my high school career.

    If I had lived in a different county, I also would not have been as good of a runner as I was. If I hadn’t had to chase a runner who was better than me for my entire career, I likely would never have been good enough to make the national rankings at all.

    Weight classifications in running events are pointless. There is no safety reason to have them. We can all compete together in the same event without risk of harming one another. And, unlike some sports in which it is desirable to separate stronger from weaker players (e.g.: tennis, in which, if I am forced to compete against a player who is wildly better than I am, I’m likely not going to be able to make contact with the ball at all, resulting in a match which is no fun for anyone) competing in a running race against athletes who are better than me actually HELPS me to perform better in the event. Also: body weight is a useless indicator of performance ability in a running event in any case. 150 lbs and 5’8″ is a wildly different body from 150 lbs and 5’1″ — and I fully expect to beat competitors who appear to be the same body size as me but who weigh less because, in those cases, my larger weight is the result of my superior muscle mass.

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  4. Kuri says:

    I have very mixed feelings about the idea of an Athena category. I may or may not choose (at 165-170 lbs typically these days, I easily qualify), but since I’m competing against myself primarily and setting my own goals, I don’t really feel like I need to “level the playing field” when signing up for races. If I’m doing a 10K, my goal is to beat the 10K time I had for the same race last year.

    Since rowing categories are mentioned, I’ll share my experience with that when I rowed competitively back in my undergrad days. I found the binary weight category incredibly useless and alienating. I tried a bit to get down to lightweight, but even after attempting some really unhealthy stuff with stimulants, water restriction and other tricks, I could not get under 137 lbs. And I started getting tired more quickly during practices and races. So then, I tried bulking up and getting super strong to row heavyweight. And my times returned and I felt better and lifting heavy in the gym felt really empowering and fun. But then I’d go to a regatta where some schools’ heavyweight women’s teams were all easily over 6 feet tall, who had quadriceps as big as my waist and could easily pull a 1:40 split on the erg. In my third year, I just quit, because while I enjoyed the sport, having no middleweight category meant that I was never going to have appropriate competition. I think weight categories, when done right, can make competition more meaningful, but when done wrong can be hugely toxic and encourage really unhealthy behavior. (For example, I recall a guy on the crew actually took on an unusual yellow cast after he eliminated nearly all fluid intake for 30 hours prior to a weigh-in.)

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  5. Sam B says:

    Yeah, I think the weight categories in rowing are hugely problematic. The worry is that for medium height people, like me and it sounds like you too, the real pressure is to row light weight. I’ve watched friends who row–powerful, muscular women–undertake some pretty drastic measures to ‘make weight.’ They just aren’t naturally 137 lb people–more like 160, 170–but then can’t compete with the 6′ plus set. It’s not a happy sport that way.

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  6. […] I actually think about half the women competing could be in that category if they wanted to be. Unlike rowing, it’s optional. There’s no lightweight category. It’s either the open/competitive category or Athena and so very few women use it. It’s a problem. See Why is the Athena category so useless? […]

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  7. […] Weight categories in sports are tough. See Audery’s post on kids and weight categories in martial arts. And I’ve written about why the Athena category in running and in multisport events is fairly useless. […]

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  8. Lauraine says:

    My lean mass is well over 130 pounds. I would always be Athena but I just have not – and probably will not – choose to do that. I would hate a weigh in – if they required it for me – but, also, the Athena class ran last in the last Triathlon I did. Waiting to start with the 45+ group was enough. Waiting untiol the end? Ugh.

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  9. Caroline says:

    I know you wrote this over 2 years ago, but I am debating this category with myself and your blog popped up in my search, so I am interested in where you are in your thoughts now.
    I’m a RD and I’m over 6′ and will most likely forever be in an Athena category, no matter where I go. I have been wanting to add this category to my races for a few years, maybe it’s totally personal, because when I first saw this as an option out there in the universe I smiled.
    I don’t see it the way other’s do. I see it similar to the age category.
    There is such a stigma against women’s weight, but I think if someone larger is going to go out there and kick it against other runners like them, they should have a chance to be noticed. I run my own journey, that’s my mantra each run. But knowing that I’m running a race within the race? So not just against the gazelles, but the others like me? -Even if they are just on the cusp, makes it more of a challenge. Which makes it fun.
    I don’t like the idea of starting last or singled out, but I have a smaller race, so the large numbers and different start times wouldn’t be a problem anyway.

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    • Sam B says:

      I think if I raced somewhere with an Athena community I’d feel differently about it. Here there were only a few people in the category, even though many others would qualify. So I won Athena medals but they felt kind of meaningless.

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  10. I raised this issue on a triathlete Facebook group and got clobbered. This blog post was very helpful.

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