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Equal prizes for all?

Juliet Elliott

In the wake of the UCI’s decision to award equal prize money to men and women, Juliet Elliott examines the arguments for and against.

As a woman in the action sports industry, I’ve long believed in equal opportunities for men and women; I make no apologies about my feminist standpoint and champion female athletes over their male counterpoints in an effort to redress the balance, skewed as it is by many centuries of womankind being forced into the background.

Not so many generations ago, women were still denied the opportunity to travel independently, participate in any sport or free themselves from either the kitchen stove or a boring life of embroidery and poetry and while we’re undeniably on a more even footing in the 21st century than at any time in the entire history of humankind, millennia of hiding in the shadows of our husbands and fathers cannot be brushed away without trace.

Thankfully, the darkest days are behind us; fast forward to 2013 and I feel like we’re getting somewhere. There may not be a women’s category in the Tour de France, but we’re adequately catered for at many cycling events including the UCI Downhill World Cup. Though we may be lumped in with the Masters and Juniors, most local races now include a women’s division and separate prizes.

Sure, the X Games may still be shying away from adding a women’s BMX street class, but other major contests such as the Simple Sessions are finally taking women into account. So far, so good.

But with prize money far from equal in the majority of competitions there are a tiny number of women able to make a living competing professionally. All but a miniscule minority struggle to make a full time living out of their sport, whereas go further down the male rankings and you’ll still see a large number of riders getting by on both sponsorship and prize money.

How is it fair that women put themselves through the same training, ride the same courses, take the same risks, but are compensated less?

The issue of equality in prize money is one on which, strangely for an outspoken person like myself, I still have mixed feelings. There are so many arguments for and against, and I see validity in most (if not all) of them.

The main one wheeled out by those in the ‘against’ camp is that there are fewer women competing so it’s easier to place well in a contest.

Well be that as it may, but if you’re one of the women who have put in the effort, why should you be penalised for the small field of entrants? You’re still the best on the day, you may even be the best in the world yet you’re being punished for the fact other people aren’t there?

Having said that, some downhill mountain bike races struggle to get five female entrants, so yes, you only have to beat four other people to come first. With men’s races having a field of at least a hundred, you’re going to have to beat a hell of a lot more people to take gold so should that mean more money? You’ve also got to consider the number of entry fees contributing to the prize purse; is it right to divvy up the cash equally when so few women have contributed?

Another argument against equal prize money and investment is that the female market is smaller, women receive less coverage and ultimately they’ll sell less product. Two problems with this one: firstly, the smaller pool of female cyclists achieving greatness actually receive a very high amount of coverage and idolatry; Rachel Atherton can barely eat a sandwich without someone tweeting about it and swooning over her, such is the allure of this supremely talented cyclist.

Secondly, give the women poorer time slots, less TV exposure and less prize money and you’re effectively ensuring that the female market is smaller and will remain so.

I’ve seen first hand what investing in women’s snowboarding has achieved. Since canny marketing people first saw the wisdom in harnessing the spending power of our lady snowboarders and the X Games committee gave the go ahead for equal prize money, the level of riding has sky-rocketed, uptake has grown exponentially and a band of talented and supported athletes have inspired a new generation to take to the slopes and populate the contests.

For me, the way forward should be to strengthen the sport through inclusion, to invest now rather than leave women as an afterthought. In the words of Kevin Costner, “if you build it, they will come.”

I think times are changing, and it’s about time those with the power to make things progress further make a bold statement by offering equal prize money. The UCI has put its money where its mouth is, and as of this January, all UCI events will compensate male and female winners equally, with the exception of the road team time trial, a move I applaud.

What do you think?

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