What really constitutes gender equality? Forty years after Title IX opened the floodgates of opportunity for women’s sports at the scholastic level, women are receiving more — and fairer — opportunities to showcase their athletic skills in the same settings where male athletes form their own legends.
In the Olympics and at other elite events, women race on the same marathon courses and running tracks as men, swim the same distances in the same pools. In tennis’ Grand Slams, Serena Williams and the rest of the women of the WTA compete on the same Wimbledon grass, Roland Garros clay and the hard courts of Melbourne and Flushing Meadows that hosts Murray and Djokovic and Federer and company. Even at Augusta National, the site of the Masters and long a bastion of male-only membership, women have been admitted into the exclusive club.
But in cycling, women have consistently been afforded far fewer opportunities — whether in terms of race opportunities, sponsorship offers, prize money available, equipment or coaching. World champion Marianne Vos, teaming up with ESPN’s Kathryn Bertine, Olympic time trial silver medalist Emma Pooley, and Ironman triathlon world champion Chrissie Wellington, has her mind set on changing these discrepancies at the most identifiable venue in the sport.
In a petition to Amaury Sport Organization, the organizers of the Tour de France, the group is appealing for the century-old race to allow women’s teams to compete. What they ask for is not a separate race, as the Tour Feminin has offered in different watered-down guises since the 1980s, but the ability to challenge themselves on an equal playing field (or road, as the case may be).
Like a marathon, women should undoubtedly have the chance to see how their bodies hold up to three weeks in the Pyrenees and Alps and around Le Grande Boucle. There is no physiological reason to deny women the same challenges that we can see men undertake day after day during the month of July.
The main question falls in whether women should compete for the same maillot jaune and other prize jerseys available in the race. The petition, as written, requests the entry of women’s teams into the race as it currently exists — essentially reducing the opportunities for elite male cyclists by eliminating at least one team spot, cutting by factors of nine the chance to achieve their lifelong dream.
If I was Christian Prudhomme, the head of the Tour de France to whom the petition is directed, I would counter with an offer of a separate women’s race to run concurrently with the men’s Tour. Reviving the Tour Feminin, run on the same day as the men’s race but with a staggered start, would allow the women to enjoy the publicity that comes with the already established global spectacle and to challenge themselves on the same routes every day. With ASO’s backing, the race would have a greater chance of attaining sponsorship deals that will make prizes more equitable, and we would finally get to see how women’s times compare to men’s on the same road courses in truly equivalent race settings.
It is far beyond time to allow elite female cyclists to tackle the tests that only the Tour de France can offer. But just as women compete for separate medals at the Olympics and different hardware at the Grand Slams, they should also have their own yellow (and green and polka-dot and white) jersey to reward the best of the best in their own race. The struggle for gender equality in sports is best served when it expands opportunity for all rather than abridging the rights of one party to suit another.