Words by Zoë Leverant, Intro by Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
This past Sunday thousands of women joined forces to ride in solidarity for the Rapha Women's 100, many of us followed that watching La Course with equal enthusiasm (and burritos!) Unfortunately, the most powerful images of women and the sport of cycling from this past weekend are going to be of Chris Froome and podium girls. Here at PDF we felt the need to address this issue. While we strive to take a positive tone in everything we publish, we just can't see a reason for there to be podium girls in 2015. There are so many women athletes who have actually earned their place on the podium, yet media outlets broadcast images of objectified beauty queens instead. We turned to our friend, freelance writer, and cyclist Zoë Leverant to summarize the disparities in racing today and the objectification inherent in the continued use of podium girls. Our sport can be better than this.
Another summer, another Tour de France. Another Tour de France, another conspicuous absence of substantial women’s race coverage. And, despite this being 2015, another batch of podium girls planting kisses on the cheeks of men in yellow jerseys. Another way the pro cycling world reminds female cyclists that we are of interest to the sport we love not for our training, but for our bodies. It’s time to listen when we demand, to the Tour and every race that follows: we’ve had enough. #nopodiumgirls.
By using podium girls while continuing to exclude women from most of the race, Le Tour is – intentionally or not – telling elite women that models, not athletes, belong in front of the cameras. Media ignores our races because “no one will watch them”, despite the fact that women’s sports break viewership records when properly covered and marketed. It would be a boon to women’s cycling if the only race the rest of the world cares about also showcased the full strength, grit, and ingenuity of world-class racers like Anna van der Breggen. But instead, broadcasts watched across the planet feature women as prizes to be won, objects to pose next to with victorious arms raised. Van der Breggen and the rest of the women’s peloton are nearly invisible, their efforts relegated to a single stage offered only after years of their own grassroots campaigning.
So few podiums being available to women isn’t a coincidence – it’s written directly into the rules. UCI regulations specifically limit the duration of women’s stage races to 6 days when men’s can run for up to 23; restrict the average length of a stage to 100km in comparison to men’s 140km; cap the length of a one-day race at 140km when men get 280km; and, most gallingly, require a minimum yearly salary for men but not for women. Male and female bodies are different, but not so much that women should be denied half the opportunities afforded to men and guaranteed no income for their work. Add podium girls and the message is clear: your bodies are too weak for cycling, but if you’d just show us a little more of them, we’d pay attention.
This is, of course, not a condemnation of the podium girls themselves. (I use the term podium girls, not women, because it is what they are called, and an illuminating distinction.) The male cyclists who passionately defend the practice protest that these women volunteer for the job, eager to represent their hometowns on a hallowed stage. Since cycling affords women few opportunities to enjoy the spotlight, participating in this way is understandable. Podium girls fulfill a role they did not invent, and they are neither wrong nor shameful for their choice.
Rather, it’s cycling that’s shameful for providing it, for pandering so transparently to the straight male gaze. It is not innocent fun to use women this way; one need only look to the podium of the 2013 Tour of Flanders, where the second-place finisher groped Maja Leye while she delivered a kiss to the winner. Leye reported feeling frozen to the spot and wanting to slap the racer, but deciding against it. “I had to stay professional,” she said in an interview. “There were millions of TV viewers.” She knew that fans and media would punish her, not her assailant, for reacting negatively to the violation.
The assault became a joke in an advertisement for this year’s e3-Harelbeke race, which featured a slogan translating to “Who will squeeze them at Harelbeke?”
The outrage that followed led e3-Harelbeke to replace the ad, though without comment or an apology. Also absent was UCI president Brian Cookson, who last year found the time to condemn the Colombian women’s team for their kit; surely he could have taken a few minutes to condemn e3-Harelbake for turning sexual assault into a punchline.
Podium girls have been around almost as long as competitive cycling, originally a local beauty queen or two presenting flowers to winners. They’re not exclusive to cycling, either: most testosterone-overwhelmed sports (particularly motocross and auto racing) award them. But their presence is particularly insulting in a sport whose women have, in the last five years, finally started to gain ground after decades of being shut out. Cookson talks endlessly (and, considering his refusal to change the organization’s rules, unconvincingly) about how committed he is to women’s cycling – as does the cycling media generally about the importance of women’s racing. But judging by the lack of substantial action, those claims ring hollow.
Tradition is no longer an acceptable justification for this woefully outdated practice. Universally retiring the use of podium girls would be perhaps the most cost-effective way for professional cycling to signal to women that it truly wants us: the change would require no recalculations of maximum stage lengths, no budgets for new races, no training for additional personnel. One need only look to cyclocross, the fastest-growing cycling discipline, to see that no disaster befalls elite races that omit podium girls from their award ceremonies. Cycling must recognize we live in a time where treating women as ornamentation is not just disgraceful, but totally unnecessary.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Cookson, UCI, or race organizers will step up anytime soon. So, it falls to the cycling media (particularly major publications) to stop cowering in fear of backlash and take a stand against the use of podium girls. Don’t couch demands for their disappearance in words like “controversy” or “debate”, and for heaven’s sake, stop putting scare quotes around the words sexism and misogyny. Omit images featuring podium girls from race coverage and slideshows, and instruct photographers to shoot ceremonies with this requirement in mind. Take every reasonable opportunity to ask officials and race organizers why podium girls are still common practice. Challenge them publicly when they remain silent. Be brave. Do the right thing.
If media and race organizers gave up on pandering to male fans’ libidos and outdated opinions, women might finally believe it when we’re told our contributions to the sport are valued. It is not much to ask that pro cycling stop using us as objects – and to stop so vigorously defending that use – in favor of recognizing us as athletes. We look forward to the day when there are #nopodiumgirls and, instead, thousands of women racing toward podiums worldwide. Let’s make it happen soon.