This weekend my race was in Lenzerheide. All in all it was a good experience – we raced four loops around the Tour de Ski trails, with one extension and the steepest ‘A’ climb cut out.
That turned out to be a good thing, because the first rough part of the race is that it was in the middle of a snowstorm. I can’t complain too much because we have been wishing and begging for snow – the race was actually supposed to be a point-to-point but there wasn’t enough cover, hence the loops of the World Cup course – but it slowed things down considerably. Whereas the weekend before I had felt like I was flying, this weekend not so much. In the slow conditions I guarantee I would have been single-sticking up that ‘A’ climb by the fourth go-round. At least on the long grinding climb out of the stadium, which lasts for 2/3 of a kilometer, I felt like I was moving.
I struggled with the start, where skiers were packed shoulder-to-shoulder and then trying to skate all over each other’s skis, and immediately lost a lot of ground (though luckily no poles or baskets!). The few women were scattered throughout this pack and the others, having done these races before, seem to have figured out something about how to deal with the start that I have just totally missed. I caught and passed one woman after five kilometers and wanted to shout as I went by, “how did you manage that!?”
Overall it was a fun racing experience. Crossing the finish line and feeling like you have given it your all, no matter how fast or slow that ended up being, is such a great feeling. Going home feeling like you have really worked yourself over and earned your dinner is I guess what keeps us endurance junkies going.
After the race though, I had a bit of a sexist experience. I was hanging out with Jackson Bloch and Tyler DeAngelis, the gentlemen from 477 Kilometers who had come for the chance to race at a World Cup venue. We enjoyed some phenomenal cake at the post-race lunch and laughed our way through the awards ceremony which was, of course, conducted all in Swiss German.
The organizers called up the women’s podium: Sereina Boner had won by five minutes and, according to the timing, outsprinted the seventh-place man at the line. Go Sereina! Fellow Olympian Bettina Gruber was second, and Claudia Schmid third. The emcee did nice little interviews with each of them after handing out the awards.
Then it was time for the men’s prize ceremony. Remo Fischer had beaten Valerio Leccardi by a minute; as in the women’s race, both were Olympians. Leccardi outsprinted two others to earn second.
But… after calling up the third-place guy, the organizer just kept going. Where the women’s ceremony had featured the top three, the men’s featured the top eight.
What!? We looked at each other like, hmm, that definitely doesn’t seem right.
It’s true that many fewer women entered the race: 42 compared to 285. That is something I see every weekend and it always makes me sad.
And it’s true, full disclosure, that if they had called up eight women I would have been up there. But as I think you will see, this is definitely not why I’m mad.
Even if the women’s field is so much less deep, there is such an incredibly obvious value judgement going on when more men are recognized as prize-worthy than women.
Switzerland is a country which has already shown me all I need to know about its attitude towards women’s sports. There are many fewer female athletes at almost any co-ed sport event.
“Practising a sport in a voluntary club does not seem to be a very popular approach with women, particularly older women,” a 2011 report by the Council of Europe stated. “In Switzerland, many more men are members of clubs than women (30.6% compared to 18.9%)…. women account for only 36% of trainers and managers. This proportion decreases the higher up the sports hierarchy one goes, reaching 19% in elite sports. It is very likely that this situation has an impact on the development of women’s sport although we do not yet have any precise data on this link. On the one hand, the under-representation of women in sport’s managing bodies may mean that it is considered less necessary to implement policies designed specifically to increase women’s and girls’ involvement in sport (Koca & al., 2010). Secondly, the woman trainer represents a model with which many girls identify when they take up organised sports such as football, basketball or rugby. As a result, the over-representation of men among trainers may prevent girls from starting such activities.”
The women’s soccer team is called the Nati-Girls, which seems insulting to full-grown, elite, full-time athletes like Fabienne Humm who scored a hat-trick in just five minutes against Ecuador in this summer’s World Cup, setting a new record.
As in many places, professional athletes who are women get paid much less than their male counterparts. Their teams get less attention from the media and sponsors.
This lack of female participation or recognition extends outward from the playing field. As of 2011, although there were more and more female journalists in Switzerland, not a single newspaper had a woman running its sports section, for example.
This is not to say that there are no female athletes. Of course there are. Boner won the Ski Classics series three different years; Switzerland’s alpine skiers are phenomenal; the ice hockey team won bronze in Sochi and the curling team won 2015 World Championships; Nicola Spirig won triathlon gold in London 2012. That’s just to name a few, and there are obviously many more. These women are adored and admired by their fans.
But there’s no denying that women’s sports are generally underdeveloped and underemphasized in the country.
So when you go to a weekend race and twice as many men get recognized at the prize ceremony as women, what message does that send? Does it send a message that people are trying to fix the problem?