Gender equality is progressing, but…

Sophie Carrier-Laforte

Sophie Carrier-Laforte

In a recent article, Sophie Carrier-Laforte made a very interesting commentary on the subject of women in sports with particular reference to the situation in cross-country skiing.

Some of her points give food for thought, so much so that this article will be the first of three on the subject.

by pierre shanks

Should men and women compete over the same distances in cross-country ski as is the case in athletics? If this is physically possible, why is it not already the case? Is the International Ski Federation (FIS) too conservative? There was certainly no “breaking down of barriers” when they wouldn’t allow Lindsay Vonn to compete with the men at Lake Louise…

There is no easy answer here, as this is a complex issue. The 50K event is undoubtedly the most prestigious distance in this sport, and just like athletics, it is usually held at the end of a championship. However, unlike athletics, the 50K cross-country is raced only by men, where women are limited to 30K.


Read also:
On sexism and the image of female athletes
Gender equity in x-c skiing a matter of time


If we contemplate levelling the playing field, the women’s program would look somewhat like this : a sprint, followed two days later by the 30K skiathlon, the team sprint the next day, 2-3 days later, the 15k event, two days after that the 4x10K relay and the next day the 50K race. The Norwegians have enough elite skiers to put up a team, but what of the other nations?

A small clarification concerning the 30K and 50K races at the 2015 World Championships. The Men’s 50K was raced under ghastly weather conditions, which probably explains the greater than usual dropout rate. At the 2013 Val Di Fiemme Worlds, 6 DNF on 73 starters in the Men’s 50K against 5 on 44 racers during the Women’s 30K.

Time gaps

The time gaps are what we’re interested in. In the 2015 Women’s 30K, Therese Johaug beat out Marit Bjoergen by 52 seconds. Third placed Charlotte Kalla was more than 90 seconds behind! In the Men’s, the first 16 finishers within 33 seconds. Staying with the 30K, in 2013 the top three were within 10 seconds, the fourth at more than 90 seconds. With the men, the top 16 finishing inside a minute. And so on…

Marianne Vos could probably take on 3,360 km in 23 days on an identical Women’s Tour de France, but when she and Emma Pooley publicly suggested this, a number of their peers voiced doubts. All the same, the idea of a simultaneous Women’s Tour over shorter distances (at least to start with…) is slowly gaining traction. In 2016, we will finally have a Women’s World Tour… at last, some progress!

Perhaps the question is less as to whether women are capable of a 50K, but more rightly, what kind of spectator sport would be the outcome? As a competitive sport, is cross-country ski at this stage of it’s development? It’s also impossible to ignore TV broadcasting of the sport and sponsor expectations. Women are already much more spread out than men in a shorter distance, so the time gaps would be exponentially increased in a 50K. In the short term, that may not serve the athletes or the spectators very well.

Inspiration from Biathlon?

Zina Kocher

Zina Kocher

The wisest course may be to adopt the format of a related sport… biathlon, where the gender equality issue has been resolved in two ways: distance tied to time and mixed gender races.

Rosanna Crawford and Zina Kocher are two veterans of the Canadian team. They both raced in the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics and Zina had previously taken part in the Turin Winter Games. Both women agree heartily on the idea of equal status through time based races. “I don’t feel there is a real inequality issue in biathlon”, says Zina.

“Although our distances are a little bit different (max 5K difference), the race times are very similar. Thus one could conclude that we have equality because we race almost equal amounts of time, just not the same distance.

“In the mixed event, the men race 7,5K and it takes them roughly 19 min. We race 6k and it takes us roughly 19 min. Same time, but the best woman has a slower speed/km.”

“But from a purely philosophical point of view, of course women can ski just as far as men, and it’s insane that women weren’t allowed to run the marathon until 1984!” adds Rosanna.

“Both men and women at top international levels train a lot, continues Zina. However, there are not too many women training equal amounts to the very top men in the field of x-c or biathlon. Physiologically we are different and that is a proven fact!”

Take note… Different, not inferior!

Rosanna Crawford, Audrey Vaillcourt

Rosanna Crawford tagging Audrey Vaillcourt in a women’s WC relay 2015 in Oslo, Norway

Could cross-country ski take the biathlon example and base the distances on course duration?

The long distance event (30K & 50K) would become «The Marathon», a 50K race for the men and a 40 some km race for the women.

Cross Country Canada’s (CCC) Women’s Committe is not taking an official stand on the issue but it’s president, Madeleine Williams, ex-member of the national team, brings an interesting personal outlook.

“Women’s skiing has developed into a very different form of racing from men’s skiing because we race different distances, she says. You note the larger gaps in women’s distance racing, in my experience this is because women race flat out from the gun rather that skiing as a pack for the majority of the race. This is a tactic that likely developed because of the shorter distances and in my opinion is what makes women’s racing so impressive to watch.”

CCC and FIS’ views

We have submitted this issue to Tom Holland, High Performance Director at CCC. He is also Canadian representative at FIS Cross-Country sub-Committee World and Continental Cups and so can respond on FIS’ stand.

“There is no question that women can do the same distances as men, however, I am not sure this is a key factor in creating gender equality. I would argue that it is better to have women race at the same speed rather than the same distance as men.

“If you are watching a women’s 10K and a men’s 15K event, it is the speed of the athletes and the closeness of each competition that makes an exciting event, not whether men and women are racing the same distance.

“Observation of the times of the winners women’s 10K and men’s 15K at the World Championships in Falun 2015 demonstrates that their pace is close to equal per kilometre. They were skiing at similar speeds and it is the speed that is the crucial viewing factor which makes women’s races as exciting to watch as men’s races.

“In the same Championship the winners of the women’s 30K and men’s 50K are also completing their event at similar per kilometre pace.

“I have not heard any discussion or desire within FIS to change to “distances tied to times”. The athletes have representation on all FIS committees and do annual athlete surveys – if the athletes want to see this type of change they could bring it forward to the Cross–Country FIS Committees.

The impact of television

Rosanna Crawford, Megan Imrie, Megan Tandy, Zina Kocher

Rosanna Crawford, Megan Imrie, Megan Tandy, Zina Kocher

For Rosanna, like for Sophie, there are other questions of great importance in the world of sports. “Equal prize money, prime time airing of women’s events on television, and an overall culture shift away from physical appearance towards ability, for starters.

“Also, the lack of female coaches and the continued quitting of sports by girls in their early teens who have so much to gain from being active are the issues on my mind, says Rosanna.

“We are ahead of many sports in Biathlon, where women get the same prize money as men and women get equal amount of TV time.”

The two biathletes acknowledge the essential role of television. “Most if not all aspects of the IBU, races, competition venues etc, are dictated by TV, it’s viewers, sponsors, timings of other sport viewing etc, says Zina. Thus if we women did the same distances as the men, we would be taking longer, thus more TV time.”

From her observations, Zina as well points out that in Europe, women’s races get the same TV coverage as men’s events. This is critical, as it is on the road to equality.

When we talk about TV, it also implies the image of female athletes as projected in the media… our next article, prior to tackling the subject of mixed races.

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