Providing women the chance to compete
Lauren Kuntz felt as if she had no choice. “I didn’t want one man’s decision to be able to dictate what I can do. That’s when I made the decision to organize our own here in Pittsburgh.” Kuntz was referring to the icosathlon championships—Ico For All—she organized for the weekend of July 22-23 at the Robert Morris University complex on Neville Island.
An icosathlon—a double decathlon—is considered to be the ultimate track and field challenge: Over a period of two days, athletes compete in 20 individual events.
- 100 meter dash
- long jump
- 200-meter hurdles
- shot put
- 5,000 meter run
- 800 meter run
- high jump
- 400 meter dash
- hammer throw
- 3,000-meter steeplechase
- 110-meter hurdles
- discus throw
- 200 meter dash
- pole vault
- 3,000 meter run
- 400-meter hurdles
- javelin throw
- 1,500 meter run
- triple jump
- 10,000 meter run
The world competition takes place every two years, but for the most part women have not been permitted to compete. Instead, they are relegated to a tetradecathlon—a double heptathlon consisting of 14 events. Confused yet? It’s OK. It’s a lot to take in. But, to sum it up, women, for many years, have been held to compete in smaller events than males.
“This event has historically been exclusive to men,” Kuntz said. “The icosathlon is the last remaining inequality that exists in track and field, where men do double decathlons and women do double heptathlons.”
But Kuntz, CEO and co-founder of Gaiascope, an energy consulting company, has set out to try to change that. A 2009 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, she grew up on Salem Drive, where her parents still live. A gymnast in high school, she took up pole vaulting in college when she went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and learned the university didn’t have a gymnastics program. She contacted every athletic coach at MIT, saying she had never done their sport but she was super athletic and promised to really work hard.
“The track and field coach said the program had a lot of success with gymnasts becoming pole vaulters. That was my first intro into track and field, and I always thought I would like to try more events.” During grad school at Harvard, Kuntz helped to coach the track team, and that coach was willing to instruct her in the other nine events of the decathlon.
She had been participating in track and field for several years when someone told her about the icosathlon. “That was the first I ever heard of it,” she said. “I looked it up and I thought, ‘This is insane. Nobody should do this.’ I never thought I would, and then I read that women were not allowed to do it and,” she added with a laugh, “that’s when I thought, ‘I guess that means I have to give it a try.'”
However, when Kuntz tried to compete, she faced barriers she wouldn’t have imagined. Her first attempt was in 2019. “I reached out to the organizers of the world championship and asked, ‘Would you let me in? I’ve been training for it, I’d like to give it a try,’ they said absolutely not.” She tried a different approach in 2021: she asked what it would take for women to be allowed to compete, and they said if she brought in sponsorship money, they would allow women.
So Kuntz used her own money—$1,000—and shadow-sponsored it through a friend’s company. Three other women joined her in participating that year, and Kuntz said there had been one other such event in the United States that allowed women. The championships are overseen by the International Association for Ultra Multievents, and Kuntz explained that they give considerable power to whomever volunteers to organize the championship meet. The meets are usually held in Europe, because almost everyone who participates is European. “I think it was 2010 when someone in the United States said ‘Hey, we’ll do it here.’ I think that’s the only time it happened in the U.S., and the director of that meet let women in.”
Kuntz came in first among the women in the 2021 competition that included more than 75 men and women combined. She admitted, though, that after 2021, “I made the mistake of assuming we did it, we’re good (for the future).” But when it was time for the 2023 event, she learned differently. “There was a different meet organizer this year, and when he initially announced the event, there was no place for a woman to sign up. So I reached out, ‘Hey, I’m assuming this is a mistake, we did it in 2021.’ He came back, ‘I’ve never had women want to do it before.’ ‘Cool, but we did it last time and I want to do it now.’ He said, ‘There’s nothing you can do to get me to change my mind.'”
After that, Kuntz felt she had no choice. “I didn’t want all the training I’ve put in for years to go to waste. That’s when I made the decision to organize our own here in Pittsburgh, so men and women could do this event together, side by side; there is no reason for women to be barred from competing.”
And then the organizing began. “You meet an amazing community at these events, so as soon as I procured the (RMU) track and field, and the date, I started reaching out on social media forums directed at multi-event athletes.” There was interest because it was such a niche event, she said, and athletes were coming from across the United States to participate.
One of the most exciting things for her was the involvement of an organization called Parity, which was founded in 2017 with the goal of increasing representation of women and people of color in organizational leadership. Kuntz had previously assisted in organizing a national championship for a women’s decathlon in the United States, and Parity helped to sponsor that. “They are all about connecting female athletes to brands to try to bridge the sponsorship gap between male and female athletes. Less than 1 percent of sponsorship dollars go to female athletes, and this organization’s mission is to try to remedy that.
“So I contacted them and they said, ‘We want to help make this happen.’ I’m so grateful for their partnership. It shares this vision of what the world could be, and it’s committed to making that happen.”
Kuntz, who now lives in Garfield, said her purpose for organizing the event was twofold: “For me it’s personal goals. I want to do well. But at the end of the day, I want to leave the sport better off for the next generation of young women. I want to make sure they have opportunities that I didn’t have. I want to see a female athlete stand atop the podium and win the gold medal in the Olympics for the decathlon. I know it will not be me, but I want to know that I helped in a very small way get a young woman to that position on the podium.”