Road to the Olympics: Why Women's Sports Are Still Behind
As a cyclist who has lived in cold weather for a number of years, I can remember a number of occasions when I wondered what it was I was trying to prove. Clearly, spending 60% of my disposable income to move at a snail’s pace during a blizzard warning with both my water bottles frozen solid was not the textbook definition of strong survival skills. And if it were pure masochism (as some of my friends have suggested), then I’d nix the whole sport thing altogether and just stand in that blizzard in shorts and a sports bra.
But there’s that saying, “People were meant to live, not merely exist.” It always gives me a jolt of perspective—it encourages me to try new and sometimes risky things and reminds me that an athlete is more than just a well-trained entertainer at some repetitive, physical activity. Athletic events inspire us and challenge us and help us push our personal boundaries. I would even argue that athletics is what teaches us to live, not just exist. The determination, discipline, resilience, and ability to lead and work with others are all qualities that define any role model and are all qualities that are necessary to be successful in sports.
It is therefore reasonable to believe that athletes are natural role models, and the forum in which they lead are arenas in which we should all be able to participate. After all, an Olympic marathoner can inspire not only other top-level marathoners, but also the average person thinking about running her first 5K.
But what happens when we stop supporting those who have the potential to inspire and lead us through example? What happens when we close the doors to those athletes striving for greatness, pushing their bodies and their minds? What happens when we fail to spread news of these athletes to the general public, or if we are selective in only showing one type of athlete? What happens to the young girl, sitting in her living room, thinking about running her first race, when all she sees are men—when she gets the message that only men can be athletes, or at least commercially valuable ones?
Every girl deserves to know that when she is older, she can do what an Olympian can do—that she can break records, win races, and represent her nation with pride through the self-discipline and the sacrifice she endures as an athlete. But the truth is, we have a long way to go to get there.
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Baronness Grey-Thompson DBE said in October 2011, a year before the London Olympics, “In reviewing investment in 2011, we asked ourselves the question, ‘Does women’s sport have a real commercial future?’ Independent, authoritative research answers resoundingly: ‘Yes, it does.’”
The statement from Grey-Thompson, Chair of the Commission on the Future of Women’s Sport, in conjunction with the Women in Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) in the United Kingdom, came as a response to the published data by the WSFF showing that between January 2010 and August 2011, women’s sports received a mere 0.5% of the UK’s sports sponsorship, while during that same period, men’s sports received 61.1%. The age-old argument remained—there wasn’t enough commercial interest in women’s sports and the risk was far too high for sponsors and sports federations given a volatile economic period.
But it would both be naïve and wrong to believe that this ratio—less than 1/100—represents the respective interest in women and men of sports’ watchers. According to WSFF statistics, “The best women’s events enjoy large television audiences that compare favorably with men’s. Seventy percent of viewers for women’s events are male sports fans, highly sought-after by advertisers and sponsors attractive to broadcasters.” In its survey of sports fans, the WSFF found that “almost two-thirds would take a greater interest in women’s sports if the best events were shown on TV.”
So where is the media bottleneck happening? Why aren’t more women’s sports on TV? When we get to the nitty-gritty cause and effect, the answer is, as expected, complex. Let’s defer to some basic economics for an explanation:
A market failure in microeconomics is often described as a state of the world in which the participating agents are not pareto efficient. In other words, there exists a state of the world in which the economy can operate at a level that serves everyone in that economy better, in some way. Examples of this can include areas where there is demand that is not served, or products are that are produced in oversupply. In both cases, the economy “could” potentially improve by operating at a level where the demand is equal to the supply.
The issue with media coverage—and funding, and opportunities—in women’s sports represents a vast market failure on every level. Data show that for consumers to be engaged, the media and broadcast volume of women’s sports needs to increase—the demand would be there, but consumers can’t want something they don’t see. Because of this perceived lack of interest from viewers (or, a lack of demand), media companies, sponsors, and national sport federations argue that they cannot supply the funds and means to support more professional women in sports.
But the truth is, the market for women in sports exists—just take a look at the crowds of thousands of viewers standing in the cold rain for hours during the Olympic women’s road race in London—but that untapped market needs the initial investment of media and national sport federations before the returns on that investment are realized and women’s sports can be more commercially successful.
So why the lack of investment? Maybe female athletics is perceived as a risky asset for media companies, most of which are accustomed to serving male sports watchers. Those risks, however, can be mitigated if media companies take the time to understand how to engage female audiences. Marketing 101 will teach you that the ability to relate and emulation are key components to audience engagement. So a key question in solving the problem is: How can we enlarge the athletic female community?
Unfortunately, it is an already well-known fact that there is a ghastly disparity in funding, publicity, and support for women’s sports from many governing National and International Sports Federations. Emma Pooley, professional and Olympic cyclist for Great Britain, was quoted in a Telegraph article published on September 4, 2012 about the international governing body of cycling, the International Cycling Union (UCI):
[Men’s and women’s cycling are the] same sport but get treated totally differently. To start with, not many of our races are on television and the UCI doesn't seem to have any interest in furthering our side of the sport… We could get more help from the UCI, like forcing WorldTour teams to have a women's equivalent… Unfortunately, though, there's no point in having teams if there aren't any races. There real problem in the past few years has been races getting cancelled. And that's also, because the UCI doesn't encourage them… They seem to just spend all their time regulating saddle angles and so on when they could be helping to further develop the sport."
If the sport itself can’t receive support from its governing federations, then athletes can hardly expect to receive the support of the media. Further, the governing federations have a direct role in developing public interest in the sport by setting up races or games that are accessible to the public—both men’s and women’s. If they don’t? It will be felt at every other step, from funding an Olympic gold medalist to participation in high school sports.
So, to the members of the sports federations, I ask you: Who would you like your daughters to emulate? Would you like them to see the thousands of magazines published each year that preach to them that their value is made by the perceived fad of the time, a look that’s most likely unreal and computer generated? Would you like them to emulate the women who make media status—the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the world? Or would you like them to know that they can be confident and strong like professional athletes? Every year we do not support athletic women, we are losing important role models for a generation of young girls.
Now, athletes, you have a responsibility, too, to take a stand and to demand more. Understandably, women are afraid of speaking out against their national organizations for fear of losing the few, coveted positions available to them. But, women like Emma Pooley and Lizzie Armistead are proving that athletic women are no longer afraid of speaking out. Armistead said publicly, right after her silver medal in London, "Pat McQuaid [UCI President] came and shook my hand and it was the kind of moment where you want to say, ‘Let’s sit down and have a conversation after this, Pat.’ It's something that can get overwhelming and frustrating, the sexism I experience in my career.” Female athletes are beginning to realize that they can’t win if they don’t speak out, and if they lose because they do, they’re playing a sport they no longer want to support.
Next, as athletes, we also need to consider what we give back to the communities that support us. My own sport of cycling can often be thought of as a very selfish one—one that is dominated by power numbers, hours on the bike per week, and isolated intervals on a turbo trainer. From an outside perspective, it’s difficult to see the community value here. It is, therefore, our responsibility to show this value, to give back, to inspire. Athletic immortality is not made by a record or a medal—all records will be broken at some point, and medals will get dusty. What makes an athlete immortal is what she can give back to her community, what she can leave behind as a legacy.
So, reach out to your communities. Go to schools and talk about what you do. Tutor those who are new in your discipline. Share the joy you get with them, as sharing the love of your sport only perpetuates its support, and you will recognize the power and fulfillment of being a role model.
And finally—I say to all the viewers out there: Where my women at? We cannot ask others to support us if we do not begin with supporting ourselves. We need to show our loyalty for sponsors and race directors who promote women’s events. We must also take an interest in what other athletic women are doing, and we must see one another not as competition or as a threat, but as passionate advocates for the same cause.
Writing this Olympic series has taught me as much as a good race does—I see what was and is being done right, and I see the immense amount of work ahead of me, but I’m determined to do better because I’m inspired by the things I’ve been part of.
There is, without a doubt, a huge hurdle for women’s sports to reach the heights of men’s. However, it is no longer something that is put aside and forgotten, relegated to the responsibilities of the individual sports. These London 2012 Games have shown that we have so much to gain if we support the entirety of women in sports—and far too much to lose if we don’t.
I have no children of my own, but when I do, I want them to live in a society where my son and my daughter can have the same opportunities to be exposed to good, true role models, men and women whose dedication and perseverance pushes them to set new boundaries for the human limit. I want my future daughters to look up to Marianne Vos or Missy Franklin and by watching them, learn that they can be strong, determined, successful, and also loved by society.
I want my future daughters to be as dynamic and spirited as the women I have interviewed during these Olympics: to fight for other girls as Molly does, to aim to perfect something as Miranda did, to take risks like Mel has, to represent her country as Nina has, to overcome tremendous challenges as Tess did, to take setbacks with a smile as Kathryn, to win like Taylor, and to be able to have it all like Anne and Elise have shown is possible.