Track Racing, Bastion of Inequality

I’ll be covering the track racing over the coming days and am looking forward to it. But there’s one thing to cover first, the way women get unequal treatment in the sport.

The opening ceremony of the London games featured scenes from Britain’s past including a tribute to the women who fought for the right to vote and later several women were flag carriers for the Gulf states, a first for the region. But if the struggle for equality is celebrated by some there are still parts of the games were men and women are not treated equally.

Cycling is one such sport and this blog doesn’t cover the others. Cycling is at a halfway point, the 2012 games are the first to award an equal amount of medals to the men and women but women are still riding shorter distances and have smaller team sizes. Should things be equal, can things be equal?

First what is this inequality? Well it’s the distance of the races and the size of the teams. Here’s a summary:

Event Men Women
Road Race 250km 144km
Time Trial 44km 29km
Team Sprint 3 laps, 3 riders 2 laps, 2 riders
Team Pursuit 4,000m, 4 riders 3,000m, 3 riders

That should give you an idea, it goes further within the omnium race and we have seen a smaller field for the women’s races too. It doesn’t sit right with the UCI constitution. Here’s Article 3:

The UCI will carry out its activities in compliance with the principles of:
a) equality between all the members and all the athletes, licence-holders and officials, without racial, political, religious, or other discrimination;

Can things be equal?
Yes although for me the road race is different event so let’s get this out of the way. Women can race 25okm but such distances are not needed, indeed we could question why the men race so long (tradition, a legacy of the old days when some races were 400km long?) but that’s for another day. One factor at play is the “pee break”. Now the road race is so long in distance and time that men stop to urinate mid-race and there are some rules to require riders do it out of sight; if they are spotted peeing within sight of roadside spectators then they’re usually fined. For women the task is harder, they can’t do it whilst riding and even stopping is harder, they have to climb off the bike. Now women racers probably don’t have a problem with this but sections of the public do and it is a factor cited by race organisers. But the road race is the exception.

Things are more contrasting in the time trial. If the men did 44km earlier today then why can’t the women also do the same distance? Nobody really knows, it seems the distance of the race is a function of your gender. In mitigation women’s races are often shorter so an Olympic time trial of 44km could be a longer effort than many women are used to during the season but this invites questions about the result of the calendar.

Instead the biggest questions are for the velodrome. Why are the team sizes for the team sprint and team pursuit reduced by one for the women? Why is the distance reduced? Here it seems there’s a classic case of discrimination at work and worse, it means a man has a higher chance of getting a medal because they have a greater chance of being selected as the squad size is larger.

There are two ways to take this:

  • it’s 2012 and outrageous that women aren’t given equal treatment in track cycling. Take athletics or swimming and the women don’t get shorter events than the men, from the 100m sprint to the marathon everyone is equal, except for the hurdles and the heptathlon/decathlon.
  • cycling has been so much worse in the past that 2012 is an improvement. In Beijing there were more events for men than women and this has now been remedied.

So there’s something to cheer but it still seems wrong that women get shorter events when there’s little, except for tradition, to insist on this.

When road race silver medallist Lizzie Armitstead criticised the UCI for sexism in the sport the governing body’s spokesman replied the UCI is “doing everything we can” to raise the profile of women’s cycling. “What we cant do is to impose on a sponsor to do something,” Mr Carpani told Bloomberg. “You can’t force a private company to do something.”

We can all celebrate the racing but there’s clear discrimination between men and women. At least there’s an equality in the number of medals so we should applaud the IOC and UCI for progress. But all the same, it’s 2012 and change seems to come slowly. Maybe a few women are grateful for only having to do 140km in a road race but it’d be easier to organise a time trial over the same distance for men and women alike.

But it’s the track where things look odd. The idea of smaller teams and shorter distances in the velodrome seems more than old-fashioned, it’s strange. Especially since it can be easily fixed. If the UCI is “doing all it can“, here’s hoping it does more in time for the Rio Olympics in 2016. If not the IOC should consider forcing it to change.

113 thoughts on “Track Racing, Bastion of Inequality”

  1. good article but….

    i think sprint hurdles distances are different for men and women. 110m vs 100m

    hurdle height is also different but that is more understandable.

      • The steeplechase also has lower barriers.

        In cross country running it is very common (almost always perhaps?) that the womans race is shorter than the mens.

        • The hurdles (and Track and Field) is a bad example, for a male under 6ft or a female to run the spacings between 110m hurdles is the limitation, similarly for a tall woman or man to run the spacings between the 100m hurdles is a problem. Rowing/boxing/wrestling etc has categories for size of competitors, how about mens 100m hurdles for short guys? The steeplechase barriers don’t change.
          weights of implements? Lets see a woman put a mens shot at 16lb!!!

      • In athletics, also the race-walking distances are different (the women just do the 20k, the men do the 20k and the 50k).

        And all the four throws (shot, discus, javelin, hammer) the women throw a smaller, lighter object than the men.

    • More than any other track race, the madison requires the highest level of bike handling, confidence and tactical nouse. It helps to be able to count too. (Is this why it was removed from the olympics?)
      It ‘s hard enough to get and keep women, especially as they progress from juniors, onto the track. Our club numbers on race day are typically 25-30 junior males, 10-15 junior females, 20-25 senior males and 5 or less senior females.
      The girls love pursuits and team sprints; the boys love scratch, points and sprint races. Girls simply do not like the contact, or general argy bargy associated with group racing (scratch, points, sprints).
      To get around this with the madison, we introduced a “ride past” rule for juniors (U15) and women – i.e. that the rider in the race need only ride past his/her partner waiting on the fence for the partner to be “touched in”. As their confidence grows, the second rider might leave the fence to get speed before the first rider passes.
      This is great on a big outdoor club track, but does little to prepare women for a real madison, which the boys relish.
      From time to time, I have seen a woman or two enter an open madison event, but they get spat out the back pretty quick.
      I think, if there was a womens madison at international or olympic level, there would be so few competent, competitive entrants as to make it farcical.

      • This is only one datapoint, and i’m not trying to make a point, but I do find it fun (and interesting) to point out that I (a male) and my teammate (female) often like to practice madison-style throws together. I always accelerate her forward, but still, she’s fine with the contact and we have a great time. I don’t think she’s alone; I just think we have to make it more common. Women box and play water polo, after all…

    • The pee break thing is totally irrelevant. There are maybe two or three race days in the whole year, and that applies to both men and women, where the crowds are so big people can’t just pull over for a pee. Think Worlds, Olympics, and maybe a particularly urban stage or two of the Tour or Giro. And in those cases there’s probably no reason why the organisers shouldn’t put up an official “pee tent” or two. You wouldn’t need much – a cheap marquee with maybe just a long trough down one side, a bucket to collect the pee and a row of bike racks on the other side for anyone who wanted to get off. Under race conditions most riders care more about speed than privacy.

  2. I call bull**** on the “can’t force sponsors…” line. While in the normal UCI calendar that is understandable, when it comes to the Olympics, you actually can. If a private entity wants their name to be associated with the event, they will do as told by the IOC. Furthermore, sponsorship $$$ has little to do with the inequalities of the Olympics.

    I understand where Mr. Carpani is coming from in terms of the UCI calendar, but again, it has no bearing on the Olympics. And if you want to affect change for equality, you might as well start at the Olympics.

    Unless, of course, a certain individual with a deep financial interest in both the UCI and IOC who has the initials HV doesn’t want money for women’s sports taken away from men’s sports….

    • It was only one line but the idea of “force” is the wrong one. The UCI does force plenty of things, from rules on bikes to minimum wages way in excess of national levels in Europe. But instead the UCI could incentivise sponsors and firms, and offer support and encouragement.

      • Carrot and stick. The UCI could force every UCI ProTeam to have a women’s arm, and not give licenses to teams that don’t; or they could carry points from women’s events into the team and/or nation rankings, which would have much the same effect.

        They could request that men’s tour events run parallel women’s events; upgrading the points value of those that do, and downgrading those that don’t. The marginal cost of which is almost certainly much lower, and the exposure much greater, than a separate women’s tour (certainly joint events work better for tennis and the olympics, not to mention triathlons and MTB). In the absence of broadcasters willing to show women’s events they could produce cut-down coverage and stream it online.

        Every sport has only a couple of dozen stars sponsors want to be associated with. it is up to the governing body how they use the income derived from those stars to cross-subsidise the other groups – be they weaker individuals, teams, nations, or less popular groups like juniors, women, or what have you. TV companies and sponsors naturally prefer as little cross-subsidisation as possible, because they can drive viewers to an exclusive product. But no sport or league actually thrives without a solid base, and ultimately it is the seller of the rights who gets to decide where the money goes.

        • The carrot of upgraded points for events which run parallel women’s events is a good one.

          However, two things conspire against the UCI taking action: most broadcasting money, unlike football, basketball, motor racing, is earnt by the event promoters. So the UCI is relatively powerless to tell the promoters what to do if it doesn’t improve their profits; and second, the pro teams have already put the UCI on notice that it will form a breakaway league if the UCI undermines the teams’ return to their sponsors.

          Womens (road) racing is mostly pretty dull with the winner coming from a small selection of top riders. Asking sponsors and mens teams to invest in a loss making adjunct to their already marginal business is unlikely to be effective.

          • Have you watched any women’s road racing recently? Sadly I see few races but the ones I have are often as good if not better than the men’s, particularly when they’re on the same course. The women’s road race at the Olympics was a good example of this.

            And you’re argument about the winner coming from a small group of elite racers is little different from the men’s peloton. Sure, who that group is will vary depending on the race – there are guys for flat races, slightly different guys for cobbles etc – but normally the winner is a usual suspect.

  3. I’ll probably get flamed for this, but oh well. I should add that I am in no way bagging on women cyclists or athletes, but…..
    In almost every sport, there are differences between men and women’s sports. Basketball has smaller balls, shorter three point lines, water polo has smaller balls, gymnasts do different events than the men, the weight classes start out lower in wrestling, judo, weightlifting, boxing etc, tennis they play fewer sets.

    And I dunno, maybe it is because I am a white middle class male, I don’t really have a problem with the differences, its just the way it is. I don’t really think that shorter races do anything to alter the excitement. If anything, they are more exciting (see people’s comments on women’s RR v men’s RR).

    Also, I think it should be note while people like to point out the negatives when it comes to gender inequality, what about the fact that there are more women competing in this olympics overall then women?

    • *the fact that there are more women competing in this olympics overall then women?*
      More women competing than men.

      Too add, and to probably be more of a jerk, its all well and good for Lizzie to say that there needs to be equality, but how? I’m sure men’s volleyball players wish they had as much exposure and made as much money as baseball players, but it ain’t happening anytime soon.

    • In any kind of discrimination, it’s NOT the people doing the discriminating that should decide if it’s OK, it should be decided by those who are discriminated against. THEY are the only ones who can determine this so if the women feel they should have the same distance, team size, prizes, etc. they should prevail upon the organizers to deliver. In the end they really should consider doing away with most gender-based categories anyway. There have been plenty of instances where the male rules makers have jiggered the rules for the women’s events to make sure no men are outclassed. Look at the current controversy where the Chinese swimmer swam a portion of her race as fast as the fastest male swimmer – the first thing spoken about was how she must be doped. Why? Does the water know who is swimming in it? Does the bike know who is pedaling it? Does the ball know who is kicking or throwing it? Does the bow know who is letting the arrow fly?

      • The reason people are asking if the Chinese girl doped is because she’s 15 or 16, dropped her time 7 seconds, is from china who has a history of doping and because her splits were so fast.. And the reason people are commenting about her splits being faster than the men’s is because 99.99% of the time the men swim faster than the women. To use your water not knowing who is swimming in it, you’re right, it doesn’t. So when a woman, who would usually be slower than the men, swims a faster split than the men’s gold medalist, that is a glaring sign that something is amiss. For example, the men’s 100m freestyle record is 46.91. The women’s is 52.07. To put that into perspective, Mark Spitz swam a 51.94 in 1970. Its not discrimination to say that because she swam faster splits than the men brings suspicion, it brings about suspicion because it is completely out of the norm.

      • Larry, with all due respect, that’s a very poor example. The gap in speed between male and female swimmers is huge. In most years, the gold medal winning time for the women in a typical event would not make the top 20 of the men. For a woman to swim as fast as the fastest man is as unthinkable as a woman running as fast as Usain Bolt.

        Women aren’t as good at sports as men are. It’s politically incorrect to say it but it’s true. And this is why women’s sports inevitably attract smaller audiences (except for maybe beach volleyball, where sex appeal plays a big role in the viewership).

        • Maybe you should define SPORT before you make a claim like this? And claiming it’s somehow the reason the audiences are smaller is a real stretch. Compare the TV ratings for WOMEN’S gymnastics vs those for men… does that prove your theory? You really dig yourself deeper into the hole with the claim about “sex appeal” and women’s beach volleyball. It’s 2012 my friend, not 1912.

          • I’m gonna have to come to John’s defense here. As I pointed out before, it is impossible to sit there and say that men are not out and out better at sports. Again, as I pointed out above, the men’s world record for the 100m freestyle in 1970 would be faster than the current women’s. That’s not sexism or discrimination, that’s cold hard facts. Watch a women’s basketball game compared to a men’s game. If a woman touches the rim, people lose their minds. I would venture to say that even the worst player in the NBA can dunk. Honestly, by sitting there and yelling that people are sexist and discriminatory because they say something (and lie) about women’s sports that isn’t completely positive, that really desensitizes people when real actual discrimination occurs.

            And just because you can’t defend your point, don’t throw up the sexist accusations. If you are going to sit here and try to defend that a lot of people watch beach volleyball because of the skill involved, and not because it is a bunch of women jumping around in bikinis, you might be crazy or brainwashed. I would advise you to but down the Kool Aid

        • “Women aren’t as good at sports as men are.”

          I’m having difficulty with this statement.
          I can accept that generally there is a natural physical inequality between the sexes in regards to size and strength. I cannot accept that men are inherently more skilled or technically more proficient by default.

          Until a multitude of factors reduce the barriers to participation for women and raise the number of professional participants is it fair to increase the distances? A majority of the women’s peleton are working part or full time jobs. Where do you find another ten hours a week of training and the necessary recovery time?

          While I’m here. Beach volleyball. Take it off the beach and it’s just volleyball in some sand. ; )

          • The rules (until very recently) FORCED the female beach volleyball players to compete in those bikini swimsuits while the men did not have to play in tiny swim trunks. Just another example of how the rules are structured to demean women. The old boys network is tough to break, but I’m reminded of the folks in the USA who used to say that black folks shouldn’t be allowed in the pro sports like baseball, cycling, etc. because they were INFERIOR athletes compared to whites. Some of these arguments against women sound very similar.

        • I think you need to define what you mean by ‘not as good as men are’ better to avoid sounding a little sexist.

          Women are not as strong and fast in most categories due to their biology, however that is not what ‘sport’ is. Sport encompasses fitness based parameters, skill based parameters and the mental aspect. When you define sport by those three aspects women are only handicapped vs men in one of them. In my view this does not diminish women’s sport, it merely differentiates it. As an example; in women’s football the game is often more dynamic due to it being more skill and mental based than strength based, and arguably better to watch. Another example was the women’s road race which was, in my opinion, a far better watch that the mens. This is another way that the ‘goodness(sic)’ of sport can be assessed and one where women can come out on top.

          The physical differences between men and women do not excuse the disparity in team size between the two and the lack of respect shown to women athletes by the UCI.

    • “I’ll probably get flamed for this”. The perfect way to state that any response is not logical or justifiable but merely flaming, no matter what is said.

      Justifying something by stating that it is the status quo is not persuasive when the status quo is inherently wrong. Where there are differences due to physical limitations (i.e. not being able to run 110m hurdles due to size) there is a clear logical reason. Where there are limitations because of a notion that “longer matches are outside a woman’s ability” or “tv audiences don’t want to see this” there is not.

      • Maybe saying women aren’t as good at sports is the wrong way to put it. But, as stated, you can’t sit there and say that head to head, men won’t usually beat women in most athletic events. However, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. There are some sports, like volleyball, that men would win head to head but I prefer to watch women’s. While sports like swimming and track and field it doesn’t really matter who’s doing it I’ll watch.

        I said i was expecting flamage because in this case I totally disagree with the authors statement. I don’t think women are being discriminated against by racing shorter distances. And I have found that once someone throws words like discrimination out there, it is hard to disagree with that point without being labeled as a jerk. Perfect example is being criticized for saying that women aren’t as good as sports. If one man is slower than another man, you would say he isn’t as good. But, when political correctness comes into play, it’s hard to have a logical discussion. Again, I’m not saying that women being slower, or not being able to jump as high is a bad thing. That’s just the way it is.

        I guess my point is this. The WNBA has smaller balls, shorter three point lines. I have never heard them complain about discrimination because they don’t play the exact same as the men. I just don’t see race distance as a big controversey. Be mad about the huge difference in the size of the RR field yes, but not the length of the race.

        • And just to clarify, the only reason I started talking about men head to head with women is because that one guy brought up the does the water knows who swimming in it stuff. Now I’m not saying that women should be doing shorter distances because their slower. They could do a 4k pursuit. But I just don’t think is that big of an issue. I think there are bigger women’s sports and women’s cycling issues out there.

      • I heard (and it makes sense) that the reason for smaller squad sizes, was to include more nations, requiring 4 riders in the tp would have left a lot of nations unable to compete. As womens cycling was much smaller at the time. same for the sprint event. The shorter distances is due to the smaller team. I’ve also heard that next year the women’s team sprint will move to 4 riders and 4k.

    • If the men and women are getting the same prize money, the men are getting screwed – they should play the same number of sets to determine the winners regardless of gender. What do the male players think about this?

        • They’ve changed this recently and for most of the Grand Slam tournaments the prize money is equal. So the men are getting screwed in that sense if speak in terms of set-to-money ratio.

          • I’ll side with the women on this one. I think you could argue that women’s tennis is on par with men’s when it comes to popularity, and I think that is what drives money in most sports. For me, I can name 4 current men’s and 4 current women’s tennis players off the top of my head. I think tennis wise I would be a good example of a casual observer at best.

          • Men’s tennis is more popular than women’s. I’m pretty sure about that. The gap is smaller than in most other sports, but it’s still there. TV ratings, attendance, etc. are in men’s favor.

          • Okay. In the US, at least to me, it seems that you see a lot of the Williams sisters, Sharapova, and Federer. Not trying to disagree with you or anything.

  4. For road races and time trials, the average speed for women is slower than for the men. Not by a huge amount, certainly not enough to account for a difference of 110km, but if women always raced the same distances as men, their races would last longer.
    Not that this has anything to do with team sizes – a bigger peloton might lead to higher average speeds in itself, which would make my first point less of a factor anyway.

  5. On the contrary, in Olympic swimming women do have one event that is shorter than the men’s: Men swim the 1500m freestyle, while women swim the 800m. This disparity, oddly, is reserved only for the Olympics. At every other level of competition from local age-group meets to the World Championships, both events are contested by women and men (or girls and boys). Luckily, neither event is long enough to require a pee break.

  6. I would agree the UCI should be moving towards equal distances for men and women.

    Cycling is not alone, other sports still have some level of discrimination, e.g. tennis were women play 3 sets in the major tournaments against the mens 5 sets. In the Olympics it is all 3 sets.

    Athletics has made big strides in equalising the events. Not so long ago the women did not do Pole Vault or Steeplechase. I remember Joan Benoit winning the first womens Olympic Marathon in LA.

    Also in many sports the prize money is distributed unevenly, even if the events are the same.

    For some tips on “peeing on the bike” read Chrissie Wellington’s biography. Not a problem in IronMan events, in fact maybe easier for women than men. 🙂

    The justification for smaller womens teams in the Team Sprint and Team Pursuit is that the strength in depth is less in the womens events, so by having smaller teams more countries will be able to put together a world class team. Over time this should be amended and the womens events moved to parity with the men. I find the 2 women Team Sprint a bit of a disappointing event, it would be much better with 3 riders.

    Some events should change now, e.g. Individual Pursuit distance should be 4Km, 500m TT should be changed to 1km, points and scratch race should be the same.

    Hopefully the UCI has a strategy for advancing womens track cycling.

    On the road I would like the UCI to be actively encouraging more women’s racing. Money is a big factor but races like Fleche-Wallone show how women can have a high profile race alongside the men.

    Womens cycling is now developing rapidly and the quality of competition is improving all the time, hopefully the UCI will develop at the same time.

  7. I suppose one argument in support of smaller female team sizes in track events is that you don’t want dramatic differences in ability between the members of the team. It is not good for the image of women’s cycling if there are competitors who are clearly far below the standard of their team mates. Even in elite men’s sport (generally, not just cycling), there is often a fairly rapid drop-off in ability beyond a few top athletes. As a case in point, look at Ian Stannard’s career achievements — not exactly on the same order of magnitude as Cavendish/Froome/Millar/Wiggins.

    Of course, I realise that this argument merely encourages the perpetuation of the problem, since the consequence of smaller team sizes is that fewer female riders receive funding because not as many are needed as men. Well-funded teams like Team GB might easily be able to find and pay for an additional female cyclist. Since there is a perpetual deadly spiral in which lack of media coverage feeds lack of sponsorship which feeds lack of events which feeds lack of interest which feeds lack of media coverage… then requiring equal team sizes would be a good way to bring more funding to women’s cycling, and might even help break this spiral a little bit.

    • I think that’s a bit harsh on stannard. He was by no means a weak link in that team and is developing into a fine rouleur. With plenty of time on his side he could build a palmares to match millar.

      • Yes, it’s not a particularly great example, especially since past achievements are an unreliable indicator of current ability, and I don’t have much evidence that he performed particularly worse than the others in the road race on Saturday. I think the basic point that even in elite men’s sports the drop-off in ability can be very rapid is a fair comment though.

    • Nor men’s rhythmic gymnastics.

      There aren’t any men-only sports any more (the last was boxing) but there are still plenty that do more events for men than women:

      Sports with more golds for men: Athletics (24-23), boxing (10-3), canoe slalom (3-1), canoe sprint (8-4), artistic gymnastics (8-6), rowing (8-6), sailing (6-4), shooting (9-6), weightlifting (8-7), wrestling (14-4).

      Sailing will go to 5-4-1 (with one mixed event) at the next Olympics. Gymnastics argues that it’s 10-10 overall (men: 8 artistic, 2 trampoline; women: 6 artistic, 2 rhythmic, 2 trampoline).

  8. I would guess that the discrimination in track cycling is a holdover from an age when there were so few women in the sport that it was hard to field large teams due to lack of participants. Maybe it’s not a problem at the Olympics but still today it is likely difficult at times to field very many large teams at local competitions, while keeping the event competitive (smaller teams spreads the talent out). There is probably a desire to keep the event the same at lower level and higher levels of competition lest the nature of the event, and how you train, be greatly altered.

    I don’t really understand why this is sexist though, just because there is a difference doesn’t mean there’s a conspiracy against women. You can look at sports which keep the rules pretty much the same, like basketball — if you really wanted to let women compete on even footing with the men you’d have to lower the rim since almost none of them can dunk at 10 feet. It’s more sexist to expect them to be able to play with rules that were designed for the physiology of men.

    The “ease of obtaining a medal” argument is completely lost on me; if you want to get an easy medal take up some obscure sport no one cares about with a million minor permutations that all offer medal opportunities… oh wait…

    • There are still so few women in cycling.
      Our (Australian) club experience is lots of interest when a girl is 10 or 11 years old. We have almost as many junior girls as boys (at track). But by 15 or 16 years, the boys may even increase in numbers and the girls drop away. It’s not anything to do with encouragement, funding or events, perhaps that (many) girls lose interest in muscle development, training, competition and focus more on academics, social life and body image.
      By the time of Under 19s, the numbers of women is negligible, but the male contingent has swelled for track and road.
      Some women come back later; some come over from other sports (perhaps encouraged to fill the places for women at various sports institutes).
      If the UCI is to do “something” for female participation, it has more to do with junior development (in both the specific and general sense), than with elite funding or race distances.

      • “It’s not anything to do with encouragement”

        I suspect it is – not to criticise the club, but society as a whole doesn’t encourage women into sport to anything like the degree it does men. That means the clubs have to work harder at encouraging the women/girls than the men/boys – because encouraging the women is an uphill ride, and encouraging the men is a descent.

  9. Part of the inequality comes from the lack of strength in depth in a number of the newer countries now competing. The answer is that the UCI need to do more to raise up the nations willing to invest in cycling and work on the ones that don’t.

    The other part of the problem is the lack of participation of women in sport I organise a regional chipper mtb XC series ( please delete if you aren’t happy with the plug). We essentially get no entries from girls aged 14-16 (after nearly 20 races only our last one has a had more than two entries) and we really struggle for women <20 out of 130 riders.

    We work really hard to get prize parity which we achieved in 2011. But even that didn't drive up numbers. We have an excellent reputation with our riders, work hard to keep it friendly and accessible but it's not something that is going to change with a single action.

    We are committed to growing the numbers of women in mtb XC, but it's clear it is a "journey of a thousand miles" rather than a sprint. If we are anything to go by there needs to be cultural changes as well as changes by governing bodies.

    I think the UCI can and should do more, as should race organisers and anyone who has interest in the sport. Getting women involved in racing, organizing, supporting and volunteering is the responsibility of everyone from the grassroots up.

    • Depth of women’s track talent is a reasonable reason for the difference to begin with, but there should be a migration to equal status for distances and number of riders per team. Otherwise there is little incentive to grow the track talent pool in many countries.

  10. To offer a counter argument, in the road events, are we sure it’s the women being discriminated against. As inrng mentions why is the mens road race so far. Is there a macho element to the mens road events where a longer distance is better, tougher, more elite? I don’t know how distances are decided and if it’s men making decisions for both mens and womens road races or if it’s gender specific. If it’s the latter possibly women have more sense than machismo

  11. I think it’s very simple to explain the inequality: Women’s races are dull, unaggressive, boring events. I’ve raced since the mid 1980’s, and have seen countless women’s races firsthand. The typical formula goes like this: start, roll around in a pack until 200M to go, sprint.Doesn’t matter if it’s a crit or a road race. This can be in a local crit or the Olympic Trials (I’ve ridden two Olympic Trials events so I know what I’m talking about). Sorry, but women’s races have less riders, and are significantly slower. Even if they are much shorter events than what men race. When they prove they are equally fast and competitive as men, maybe then the races should be equal. Until then, too bad.

    • “When they prove they are equally fast and competitive as men, maybe then the races should be equal.” I believe Hosking had something to say in response to this attitude earlier this year…

      • A team pursuit of 4000m for women would be difficult. First, every country would need four women who could race that distance at speed. Second, they’re already slower, even at world record pace, in the last 1000m than either of the first 2 x 1000m. It would become a race of attrition and be dull.
        This comment also holds true for the team sprint: where are the women who could ride third wheel for 750m at (competitive) speed and keep the event interesting?

  12. In terms of distance on the road, I don’t think the difference is an issue – in fact as long as it doesn’t get silly (e.g. a 40km road race) then I think the shorter distance makes for better racing… in women’s road races there is no 100km warm-up for the majority of the peloton.

    For the track the distances are different but again I don’t feel this has a detrimental impact.

    The difference that really sticks in my craw is the reduced number of athlete positions for women.

    Road cycling is a team sport. Having teams of 3 or less for the majority of countries effectively kills any possibility of team work – it changes the dynamics of the race. It also means that a large proportion of the world’s best female cyclists are left at home – cyclists who would otherwise have a good chance of winning a medal. You win the world champs and you have beaten the best. You win the Olympics, you have beaten who was there – and it is very possible that riders in the top 10 of the world ranking weren’t there – or some of the top 10 for the course (sprint, climb, classic etc.).

    My understanding is that this is purely a UCI decision. The IOC assigns the number of medals and athlete positions to a sport and the sport decides how to distribute them. So they could reduce the size of the men’s road teams and increase the size of the women’s.

    To get really controversial, I wonder whether the road race and TT should be in the Olympics at all. For track cycling the Olympics is the pinnacle of the sport. From a sporting perspective this is just not the case on the road.

    • I agree re: your point about Olympic sports- there are a number of sports that I believe should not be in the Olympics: anything where the gold medal is not the absolute pinnacle – road racing where a win in the TdF, Giro or Vuelta counts for more, football where the World Cup or even European Cup (to Europeans) is more important, tennis where a grand slam win rates far higher than a gold medal. I also believe anything judged on ‘artistic’ merit shouldn’t be included but that might be considered too draconian! 😉 But road racing is a particularly odd sport to be included in the Olympics: a team event where the teams are of unequal size and only one team member actually gains the medal if the ‘team’ is successful.

  13. One could also ask: why discriminate on the basis of gender at all?

    Why not just have races where only the best riders compete, rather than having special events for those of a certain gender? Equestrian events don’t discriminate on gender. Neither does NASCAR. If no woman has the athletic ability to make an olympic cycling event on merit why should she be treated any differently from the 99.999% of men who also aren’t able to reach olympic level?

    It seems to me that splitting events by gender could itself be argued to be discriminatory and provides women with special treatment.

    • Just to clarify, I’m not claiming that having gender-selected events is necessarily a bad thing, just that it could be argued to discriminatory already.

    • That would be pretty shitty for the majority of top-end professional women who would never medal or win races (or other events) because they can’t ever outsprint Cavendish, climb like a Schleck, etc. That’s just cycling! Can you imagine gender-neutral boxing or weigh-lifting?!

      • “Can you imagine gender-neutral boxing?”

        Oh, but don’t ever suggest that women aren’t as good as men. I appreciate the dedication of female athetes and I respect their personal achievements, but the reality is most women’s versions of sports that men also play are as exciting as watching paint dry. I do appreciate activities where women bring unique skills or ability, but in cases where women are doing the same thing as men only slower, you might as well be watching the Special Olympics. It’s poignant for those participating and I respect that, but it does not make great entertainment.

    • I hope that my comment is understood as “maybe we should just put women in charge of the women’s events and let them make the decisions without male authority interfering” and not “Hey ladies what would you like to do?”.

  14. Very interesting article. Very interesting reactions too.

    The reference to tennis is a good one where things are really leaning towards equality. That said, the whole 5 sets vs 3 sets in grand slams do bother me a bit too. They did a test drive at some time (in the late 90s if I recall correctly) but there was no follow-up since.

    Yes, women might race a bit slower although the fact that both team and peloton are smaller does change the dynamics of the race : just think how the maximum of riders per team changed the dynamics of the olympic men’s race. As for the pee argument, well, it has to be said that men do not always stay on the bike for their nature breaks and also, there are devices out there that allow women to pee standing up for those who do not wish to put their pants down in the middle of nowhere. Surely, it would be possible to use these or an improved version to take care of that aspect!

    There is also a social factor involved in this I think : the general perception of women’s involvement in sports is still affected by old conventions and stereotypes. Many men and women still seem to think that women attend or watch sports events only because of their significant other or for the good-looking men. As for practicing a sport, many of them are deemed unfeminine or too competitive. The lack of visibility makes it more difficult to make a living out of it so the financial aspect of it plays a factor too. Either way, it does make it more difficult to make it as an athlete and many who do will not be able to do it full time, which affects the quality.

    Things are fortunately changing in a positive way in many cases and it should change in cycling too. It might not be easy at first, and making the adjustments would take time but it would be worth it. It does not matter if women are a bit less strong or a bit less fast, racing 100 km instead of 200 will be tackled differently by men as well. We are so convinced the fact that women are weaker that we seem to forget that in many sports, including cycling, pure physical strenght is not everything. Strategy and timing also count for a lot. After that, it becomes difficult to compare a women’s race to a men’s when the ladies ride a distance similar to that ridden by juniors or U23, and for having seen many of those, I have to say that they often feature many of the grievances people have about women’s racing.

    Athletes strive for excellence regardless of gender so why should we judge them by different standards? Equality is not necessarily about achieving the same result, it is more about equal opportunity.

  15. I don’t really buy the equal prize money thing in cycling.. To say the least prize money in men’s cycling is poor to begin with. When people talk about inequality , I think it should be measured against the metrics that are available to all potential investors in any sport, eyeballs… The Tour is THE race despite races like the Giro often presenting a better race because of precisely that. When you look at men and women’s cycling shouldn’t that metric also be used ? If women wanted to be taken seriously why do they still let up to 40% of their elite riders ride even though they don’t actually receive a salary ? It’s common in men’s amateur ranks for this type of thing but hasn’t been for many years in the pro ranks.
    I went to the 2010 UCI world cup in the Netherlands ( A big deal for me since I’m from Australia) and I was shocked at how little the paying punters actually cared about the women . When Marianne Vos won the race , she made a big show of winning but it was really only for TV. No one even cheered for her at the actual race as she crossed the line. I’m a fan of Vos by the way due to how aggressive her style of racing is .

  16. Cross country skiing distances are also different, as are speed skating distances.

    Not sure if this is a case of barking up the wrong tree, or just barking up a particular tree to drive up page views.

  17. Equal chance has been made with equal events.
    If women are to race men that would be rather equal, but not fair.
    I think in terms of sport and compassion the women and men have figured out a system that works pretty well.

  18. I believe men and women compete over the same distance in Ironman (and triathlon?) events.

    Re the besoin naturel, Chrissie Wellington notes in her biography that she will sometimes use a Portaloo on the course or a roadside ditch, but on the bike she finds ‘going on the saddle’ the best way. She even points out its efficacy in deterring anyone from drafting too close!

    Incidentally, it seems women often perform better than men in ultra-distance swimming – not the most exciting sport viewing though…

  19. OK, so as a chick who is approaching 40 – some of these issues are generational. When i was a kid, there were very few options for playing and participating in sport, and to even consider that a professional paying career as a cyclist or as a women, any sport was an option was a joke. What i am suggesting is that the UCI will continue to resit any change until there are massive numbers of women coming through the ranks. Tennis and Golf have had to change how they pay women, as women have been participating in these sports for a very long time. Most team sports there is no equity in salary – but the game is the same length – look at soccer (football), basketball etc. Many professional cycling teams do now have a women’s team – and maybe this should become mandated (Cervelo, Orica-greenedge to name a couple). Girls are not going to take up the sport if they can not see a goal – and they will leave cycling behind if this issue takes too long to resolve. Why should women continue to have to maintain a second career whilst they compete at the highest level? Men don’t.

    • “Why should women continue to have to maintain a second career whilst they compete at the highest level? Men don’t.”
      Professional athletes – men and women – get paid according to their worth (as perceived by the “employer”).

  20. The bottom line is that consumer demand should drive any equality/inequality.

    Personally I find female track cycling every bit as entertaining as the male form and am disgusted that their events are shorter or have fewer riders in the team races.

    Road cycling is a different story. There simply isn’t the depth of quality right now. In the Olympic road races we saw women being dropped on the relatively easy Box Hill, whereas the same didn’t happen with the men, even though the race had a number of riders from lower levels. Despite that, I personally found the female road race far more exciting.

    In terms of developing sports and equality it is difficult. Most women are simply not interested in sport. Nine out of ten women would pick up a magazine about fashion before one about sport or watch a reality tv show before sport. The story is very different for men. As a result, the demand for sport comes mainly from men and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

    If you give the average man in the UK the choice of watching a Premier League football game or a Championship game, he will probably pick the Premier League. If we liken male cycling to the Premier League in terms of standard and female cycling to the Championship, the same choice is going to be made. Using another sport, cricket, as an example, the standard of female international cricket is a long way below that of the men and so I have no desire to either pay to watch it or watch it on tv. Even if the standard was better they don’t have the power of men, so it would still be an inferior product. A good contrast though is gymnastics. In my mind the female variety is every bit as good as the male. Yes they use different equipment, but that just helps to make each distinct in its own way. The lack of strength women have does not affect the quality of what they do.

  21. Thanks for making this a discussion point. As far as I am concerned the sport is half as big as it should be. We all have so much to gain by bringing female cycling up to an equitable position. I love cycling and will happily watch men or women compete. Some sports I’d prefer to watch women play, tennis is one. The reason I don’t watch women’s cycling is because I simply don’t get the opportunity. After the women’s Olympic road race, I have struggled to find any photo’s of the race apart from the money shot at the finish line, surely photographers covered the whole race. In many sports I believe there is an argument for mixed sex competitions. Golf is an example in my mind, sure the men play off much longer tees but if women played at the same time they would be laying up and changing tactics, the chicks are fantastic around the greens. Who cares if the first women is 25th, she’d get more money than she had ever dreamed. I think with cycling women need to start their own world governing body and create a structure that facilitates their own interests, sanction their own races, get their own sponsors, do it all for themselves because waiting for the UCI is a waste of time. We have had many discussions on the merits of the UCI and their cronies. They are simple not interested in equity.

  22. I think the different races distances are not the issues to start with to put women´s cycling on a level field of play with men´s cycling. The best way to do it would be to encourage organisers to implement women´s races in the major men´s races. This would increase media coverage and draw potential sponsors. More sponsors would mean more teams and more professionalism.
    This has to come from the Top, i.e. the UCI.
    A good example is the ” Fleche wallonne”. They have a womens race, which is held just a couple of hours prior to the men´s race on the identical route, just a little bit shorter . The women finish their race when the men are about 75km from the finish, so good entertainment for the crowds who get to see two races. Unfortunately, nothing of the rather spectacular finish of the women´s race was shown on TV, despite the fact that all the cameras were there. Instead, the men´s race was covered (not very active at that moment).

    • They probably should start the women’s race just after the men’s rather than before.

      They could start them much closer because the women are likely to ride a slower time.

      And, with women’s racing being more aggressive than men’s, the threat of being overtaken by the women would stop the boring piano riding that some men’s races start with.

  23. Plenty of comments so far, thanks.

    We can celebrate that cycling has moved to a more equal contest with medals at least. And of the road race is different for many reasons, it’s still hard to see why races like the team pursuit are different distances.

  24. This is a very good point and I do not see the need for different distances and team sizes for women’s events in the velodrome and also for testing. Women contest the same distances for the RTTC’s BBAR title cannot see why the same applies for the Olympic time trial. As for road racing distances, it would be better to hear ladies’ views.

    One area I am interested in is how the UCI and IOC agree the track programme? It seems to me swimming has a lot more events to contest than indoor cycling, notable absentees being the individual pursuit, points race and the Madison. Do you know how this is arranged and agreed? If you have discussed, apologies, but would be grateful if you could highlight where.

    I am sure this has also been discussed, but the selection of one rider per nation in an event, seems to be barring some of the best athletes from contesting. I think there would be uproar if this was allowed to occur in athletics or swimming – again, grateful if you could highlight the previous discussion.

  25. Great article, keep it coming as this issue does need attention. Not only distances and team sizes but other matters like prize money and athlete development. I will say that increasing distances does not necessarily lead to greater quality racing. Quality and exciting racing generally comes when there is parity in the field and a lot at stake – so figuring out how to produce that is the promoter’s opportunity. Also, keep in mind that tactical considerations can be very different between men and women’s racing – another topic.

    However, the argument re: peeing doesn’t hold water. Just like the men, the peloton decides to break and women go roadside butts up. Every race official, moto cameraman, and team director in the caravan has seen my own arse at lease once during my tenure as a racer and a few times as a team director. Forget about modesty at those moments, it’s not what’s on our minds at that time. Also, it is quite possible to pee on the bike and it has been done – a warm rain is a particularly effective stimulator as is knowing that big climbs are ahead. For that matter, I have peed my pants driving in the caravan and had to clean up before the team returned (no shielded place to pull off.) Just like a man, in the heat of battle – one is thinking about victory not modesty or comfort. It is not a reason for any disparity in racing.

    • Perhaps I’m being sexist here but I believe it’s also possible that women may be able to last longer without a pee than men. Not that I want to get into a pissing contest here. 😉 Whether that’s the case or not, it’s no reason for disparity in racing. Longer is not necessarily better as we saw in the Olympic road race.

  26. I find this a difficult subject. In most areas of society, men and women have equal abilities. Many of the differences in the way men and women are treated have been or are being eradicated. In some parts of the world at least. I (male, 35) am very happy about that.
    Sports is one of the areas where men and women clearly have different abilities. At least in most sports, and also in cycling. Applying the usual approach of equal oppurtunities, i.e. no separate men’s and women’s races, would create a situation in which women would have a near zero probability of making it to the top level. Is that a problem? Cycling is about who is faster. Genetics play a large role in determining whether or not someone will be a champion, and having a y chromosome clearly is an advantage in cycling. There’s no basketball for short people, or triathlon for people with low percentage of slow twitch muscle. Should there be? In the most prestigious event at the olympics, the 100 m sprint, the finalists have been almost exclusively black over the past few times. Does that warrant a seperate event for other skin colors? Hell no if you ask me. I’m actually in favor of getting rid of separation of sexes in sports. And weight classes too. It would certainly free up a lot of space for more diverse sports and more events per sport at the olympics.
    On the other hand, it is very much accepted that the difference between men and women is so much larger than any other genetic difference between humans that it is the only one to merit separate events. And I agree that if you are going to have two categories, men/women is the obvious one to pick. But then if you do that, at least make all the events the same. Not so much because it is discriminatory to women to have shorter distances, but more because it is confusing to outsiders.

  27. Some good questions and an interesting analogy to swim distances. However, there are at least two words in the English language ( and in most others) where definition is in the eye of the beholder : “EQUAL” and “FAIR”.

  28. Not reading through all the comments, maybe somebody already mentioned it, but let’s face it, that the women only do 3000m with 3 riders or 2 laps with 2 riders is for MORE equality. Even in the countries where womens’ cycling is pretty advanced for example GB, AUS, FR, GER , there are still gaps in comparison with mens’. Just look at the numbers of active professional and amateur riders that alone shows the popularity and to some the degree the respect they get. And there a lot should and hopefully will be improved, but now imagine the situation in other countries were womens’ cycling is even less developed. Now you are already bemoaning the few numbers of participations in some competitions, now forcing the same size of the mens’ teams would result in my opinion in even less participants and might even kill the event for the women…and that would be quite the opposite of helping the womens’ cycling to gain more equality and popularity worldwide.

  29. Track racing, bastion of dirty tricks and inconsistent rulings.

    What a disgrace. The first day of track competition saw just how woeful are the rules and officials governing this “sport”. If anyone thought drugs were the biggest problem for cycling, take a look at the farce of the team sprints, both men and women.
    In the women’s event, the Brits were DSQ’d for an error which 1. had no bearing on the result; and 2. was only discernable on replay after the event. Makes for a wonderful spectacle (sarc). That’s sure to attract new riders, sponsors and audiences (not).
    Later, the Dutch & French teams were relegated for an unknown reason, lifting Ukraine into the bronze medal round. What the?
    And in the gold final, the Chinese were relegated (not DSQ’d) to silver after the lead rider failed to slow enough before the end of the change. Again, no impact on the result, and only discernable after the event on replay.
    In the men’s event, the Poles had a foot pull, their opponent (Venezuela?) slowed too, so they were given a rerun. Buggered if I know why, since a foot pull is not a mishap, and slowing down (by the Venez’ns) in sympathy doesn’t cut it either.
    But the biggest poop was the (ultimately) gold winning Brits, who had a bad start and the rider fell over deliberately; no mishap; no foot pull; just a deliberate fall. Both they and their opponent got a rerun.
    What a crock. Who is that Chief Commissaire?

    (I blame the regulations being vague and open to a wide range of interpretation on them being written in French)

  30. I’m all for equality, I just don’t like the reduction in events in order to achieve it, there’s potentially the four fastest ever individual pursuit riders on the planet right now, and all have chosen to follow other paths because of the change to the olympic programme.

  31. An argument that confuses equality with parity.

    That the women’s Olympic Road Race is shorter than the men’s isn’t a sign of inequality, it’s a sign of a lack of parity. the two sports should both race over the same distance.

    What you might have mentioned (but, oddly, didn’t) was the lack of moral equality – women’s sports have less status and that shows in funding, TV attention and general interest. Arguably, cycling is well ahead here. The Women’s ORR was as well attended and covered as the men’s and several commentators noted that it was a better spectacle.

    What was your argument again?!

  32. Why is everyone talking about distance?

    Why not start thinking about the duration of events where distances are long in terms of time it takes.

    eg Men’s road race: 250km. 5h45m.
    Women’s road race: 75km. 3h 35m.

    Aim for both to last say 4h, which sets distances at say 100km (W) and 150km (M).

    Stil a discrepancy, but you have a better justification for a valid difference, and both sexes are likely to be in a similar physical condition at then, rather than having shot-to-pieces women after 250k and 12 hours if you equalise distance.

  33. Interesting that an article just like this appeared on SBS world news website yesterday (Monday). I couldn’t find any attribution – did they contact you?
    (still looking for the article after finding it on my mobile on the train this morning)

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