• Alex 50km Lahti Champion
    • Gender Equality in Sport

      September 24, 2015

      Sophie is a member of CNEPH. The Women's Committee is not taking a position on the issue she raises but we think it's an interesting discussion to have!

      Gender equality in sports is a high priority for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). One of their goals is to have an equal number of men and women athletes competing at the Olympic Games. At the London games, in 2012, there was a record of women that participated. More than 44% of participants were women. This is a step forward compared to the 1988 summer Olympics, where only 25% of participants were women (1).  To keep improving women's opportunities in sport, the IOC has to communicate and work with the different national federations. This inequality is not new to sport. Even if women have the same rights and status as men in many countries, in sport, the population continues to view women as the weaker part of the game. The reasons for this are complex, which makes it very difficult to break the trend. Cross Country Skiing became an Olympic sport in 1924, and still has differences (which are viewed as inequalities in this opinion article) between female and male skiers. The inequalities are in the different distances raced by men and women. In this sport, both men and women train eleven months per year to achieve greatness in many facets such as power, speed, endurance and technique in order to reach the podium. It’s only when the races start that the difference occurs, in that the women race significantly shorter distances than men. The focus of this article is not strictly on the difference in the number of kilometers raced by men and women, instead the emphasis is put on questioning the reasons to keep these distances different, the role of the media in the inequalities of sport and how this affects the development of Nordic skiing and women’s sport in general.

      When the sport started, in 1924, there were only two distances in Cross Country for the men: the 50km and the 18km (2). In the 1950’s women were introduced into the sport but only did 5km and 10km distances because women were not seen as being capable of doing more. As time has passed, the sport developed and more distances have been added to both genders. Women also had and have now the opportunity to race longer races, for example the 30k. Women's races are much shorter in time than the men's (except in the sprints1). A typical women’s competition might include a 5k, 15k pursuit, and, the longest distance, 30k. Comparatively, a men’s competition would include a 10k, 30k pursuit, and the longest distance, 50k. If a female skier doubts her ability to achieve the majestic 50k, Marit Bjoergen, one of the strongest skiers of all time, said in an interview with TV2:

       “It’s really no tougher for us (women) to race 50 k than it is for the guys, and we are totally prepared physically to race it.” 

      Going quickly through results of the 30k and 50k of the 2015 World Championships out of 57 male skiers, 12 did not finish the race; while only two women out of 49 did not finish the 30km. This race is tremendously difficult, regardless the gender. Are women not tough enough?

      Other Olympic individual sports do not have differences in distances. Triathlon and track and field are just two examples. One of the most iconic Olympic races is the 42k run (the marathon). It’s a race where men and women impress the whole world by running an incredible distance with even more impressive times. The prestige of the race is then equal. In the Nordic sport, this prestige is in majority given to men.

      The media has its role to play in keeping the inequalities in sport. Men often have more attention and broadcast time than women. Without deriving from the focus of the article, media doesn’t cover genders equally. Many studies have been done on this subject; there is an example below (3). Women are often objectified, and not seen as strong and dedicated athletes. Those qualities are usually used to describe male athletes. The media is not the direct cause for the different distances for men and women in Cross Country Skiing. Though, giving an opportunity to the media to continue to publish women as weaker isn’t the best way to support women’s sport.

      The possibility of specialization in certain races has already started: in national teams, some athletes prefer to do all distances, some race only in the longer distances, or others only race in sprints. Many athletes still perform in every type of race. The specialization seems to differ between genders. Looking at the world cup standings of the 2014-2015 season, in the top 30, four men and nine women were in the top 30 in sprints and in distance races (4). It’s significant enough to catch the eye, but not necessarily conclusive. In the long run, by developing the sport and adding more athletes to the mix, this gap could be conclusive. Ironically, men wouldn’t have as much medal opportunity as women.

      To conclude, this issue will probably not be resolved in a simple matter. I think that there is an inequality in the distances for men and women in this sport and that both genders should race the same distances as in other individual sports. Maybe we want our sport to be different? Maybe there is a compromise to be made. It is a fact that women are not viewed equal to men in sports. And as a skier with high hopes and dreams, it frightens me to dive into this unequal world. What do you think?

      1. Women in sport comission, Olympic.org, Graph of the development of women's participation in the Olympic Summer Games http://www.olympic.org/women-in-sport-commission?tab=advocacy
      2. Service recherche et référence / Centre d’Études Olympiques / http://www.olympic.org/Assets/OSC%20Section/pdf/QR_sports_winter/Sports_Olympiques_ski_ski_de_fond_fre.pdf /[email protected]
      3. Exemple d’article sur la mediatisation du sport féminin: EOIN J. Trolan, The Impact of the Media on Gender Inequality within Sport, (page consultee le 20 septembre), URL:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042813025512
      4. Fédération internationale de Ski, Résultats, URL : http://data.fis-ski.com/cross-country/results.html

      1. Sprint races are between 800m and 1600m. Usually the difference in distance between  genders is 0m to 400m.