Why Using “Sherpa” is Cultural Appropriation

Ever since I got into the sport of triathlon, I’ve heard other athletes ask me if I plan to have a “Sherpa” for my first Ironman, and if so what that “Sherpa” would do. This has always rattled me because it reeks of cultural appropriation. How can I possibly call my husband and family my “Sherpas”? It’s insensitive and inappropriate.

If someone is a Sherpa, they are part of an ethnic group of people, mainly from Nepal, and in addition to being their own distinct cultural group, they have helped many climbers summit the highest peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. But what they are first is an ethnic group of people–not a brand name for sports clothing and certainly not a name you give your support crew–they are people.

To me, calling your support crew “Sherpas” is just wrong. It’s no different than naming sports teams after Native Americans, donning feathers, and attending a baseball game while beating a drum and mimicking Native American Dances. It’s like calling your support crew your “slaves” for the day. Would you do that? I don’t think so.

Why not go with simply: crew? Or race crew? Race support? When Phil assisted me with all of my gear at the end of Ironman Maryland, he told me he would like to be called “Iron Mule” (wait here, hold my gear) because of the play on words. I motion that race support for endurance triathlon events be called “crew” or “IronMule”, depending on your support crew’s sense of humor.

IronMule (noun): person who waits all day long while their athlete does an Ironman, tries to track and find them on course to cheer for them for a matter of seconds, and then collects all of the gear at the end of the day while the athlete tries to eat normal food for the first time. It’s a thankless job, really, being someone’s crew, but the athlete wouldn’t be anywhere without all of the support of family and friends and especially the IronMule.

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