Parity in Sport: A Closer Look

By: Heather Nielson

I was asked to write about women’s bike racing focusing specifically on the disparity between men and women in money, distances & opportunity between men’s and women’s racing. While the subject of parity in bike racing, sports in general and let’s be honest, society as a whole is a broadly & significantly discussed topic, I don’t want to just say the same things that have already been said. Nor do I want to portend myself to be an expert on any of these subjects but I do participate at an elite level as a female in a sport and have thought a lot about this subject for many years as I’ve participated in many discussions regarding the topic. I used to be quite active and vocal regarding this subject but over time, the opinions, arguments and data on both sides had caused me to retreat in recent years simply because I wanted to put my energy elsewhere.  My sponsor K’ul chocolate asked me to write about the subject and have since been thinking a lot about it and there are however, a few that I feel deserve closer examination.

I can think of many, many other sports where the distances & times for competition are the same between men and women like basketball, triathlon, running, soccer, tennis etc; and the list goes on. However, for bike racing, the distances and times are very traditionally different between men and women and have been since the beginning as the sport; so far as I know. Everyone runs a full marathon or competes for the same time periods when playing other sporting matches, so why the difference in distances in bike racing for women and men? I’ve heard arguments from all sides including men, women, race promoters, sponsors etc. I’ve heard many men state (and it makes sense mathematically) that women shouldn’t be paid the same as men if we are racing shorter distances. Ok, but who made that decision? When was that made? Is it really fair to punish/blame women for the race distances when we don’t have that choice? If it was solely our choice then yes, I would agree 100% with the argument that women shouldn’t have the same prize purse. I don’t think it’s right to ‘punish’ women with a smaller purse for racing a shorter distance that we was set outside of our control. So that argument holds no water. If one goes further down the rabbit hole of why race distances are shorter, the comment ‘well, women can’t race that long or far’. This brings up another entire set of issues. If this were in fact true from a fundamental standpoint then again, I would agree with the smaller prize purse. However, that argument has no real validity since other sports are done with the same time limits and distances. Again, everyone has to run the full length of the marathon, male or female young or old. So again, that argument doesn’t hold up either. Perhaps then the very simple solution would be to just make all the distances and times for men’s and women’s fields for all the events in bike races the same. Already, for many of the disciplines in bike racing the disparity between men and women is shrinking. Many time trials and criteriums are now the same distances/times between men and women and many (if not all?) local stage races have the same number of stages for both genders. The greatest differences however still remain in road races and grand tour events where the overall stages and race distances are still quite different; nationally as well as internationally. I would argue then that it stands to reason then that as over time, as the times and distances for criteriums and time trials became more similar, women slowly rose to the athletic challenge to be able to compete at those same distances. Why would this same reasoning not extend to road races and grand tours as well? Why wouldn’t women then be able to eventually do road races consistently that are 70-90 miles long and perhaps one day….a Tour de France of the same distance and length? I can *hear* many men balking right now at the idea. If I haven’t convinced you yet, allow me to make an additional point that anyone, male or female, young or old will always perform to the level they are given.  To expand this analysis take your local group ride as an example. Nearly every woman I know who races at my level know without a shadow of a doubt that racing and training with men will make us stronger. If we weren’t genetically or physiologically capable of responding to training stimulus like men, then we wouldn’t get any stronger, right? Lower category men train with upper category men for the exact same reason. The difference then shows up on race day when women have to go back to racing with women while the men get to race with the same group of men they’ve been training with: our training stimulus is lowered and we no longer get the same benefit so over time, we don’t see the same increases in fitness as the men do. I’ve often heard men say in response to a complaint made by a woman that their race was so slow ,“So just make the race harder and faster!” Why would we do that if the point of competition is to win? Unless we are getting paid to race hard for a teammate, why would we waste our energy in a race going hard just for the sake of going hard? Men wouldn’t do that either. Additionally, our field sizes are almost always significantly smaller than a men’s field size and so the overall horse power of the race is significantly reduced, which is another reason our races are slower than a men’s race.  The simple solution would then be to just get the field sizes bigger from the ground up. However, again, for the women participating, it’s not our fault individually that our field size is smaller than the men’s and so again, punishing the women with a smaller purse based solely on the smaller field size and distance isn’t justified either.

Bike racer for racer, man for woman, each person is there of their own volition and trains with the same heart, dedication, passion and suffering. Our pursuit then, as female athletes, should NOT be weighted ANY LESS than a man’s. So by my reasoning, women’s purses shouldn’t be any smaller than a man’s based on the above arguments alone.

There are a few more points to be made however. Women do, in fact, consistently underperform their male counterparts within those sports where the times and distances are the same & on the whole, the data would certainly support this argument and so mathematically yes, women ‘should’ be getting paid less to their male counterparts who do consistently outperform females athletically. I would refer you to the above argument however about training stimulus and further add that there is another very significant reason why female athletes aren’t as strong or as fast as men and is the main point of my whole argument.

Culture.

From a very young age, little boys and girls are consistently and across all cultures across the globe, not encouraged at the same level to participate in sports, be athletic, outdoors or otherwise physical. What does this mean? It means that running, jumping, throwing, moving, tactical decisions etc are a young boys’ domain and their bodies and minds are given these stimuli starting at a very young age and at significantly higher doses on the whole than little girls. By the time we all reach young adult hood, then for the most part, boys will outperform girls athletically because their bodies have been trained to do so without really consciously being aware of that difference or that either gender really had a ‘choice’.

What would the whole world look like in sports if boys and girls were encouraged, nurtured, trained, taught, and pushed athletically and physically the exact same way from the day they were born?

I don’t need to remind you that these discussions have been  going on for a very long time and parity is closing in and culture is changing but my prediction is that it will take another 100 years…..or more…for culture to change where boys and girls are treated equally, encouraged equally & supported equally.

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