Friday, January 20, 2017

No More "Podium Girls" For Pro Cycling?

As a sport, bicycling has a woman problem. Long considered primarily a sport for men, bicycling has struggled to attract women in recent years, and every time the sport, or the industry, takes what appear to be positive steps to make it more inclusive, something else will crop up to show just how far there still is to go.

Remember these?
These tacky socks were handed out to all attendees at Interbike 2015.
Or this?
The grotesque "Signorina"  bike was displayed at NAHBS 2015 
One questionable element of bicycle racing that has come under fire in recent years is the tradition of the "podium girls" (or "hostesses" as they are officially known). It's a familiar sight at the end of any major bicycle race to see a couple of beauty queens planting kisses on the winner -- a blatant display of objectification and pandering if there ever was one. The fact that it is still commonplace in the current era is a bit of a head-scratcher anyhow, but it seems to me that the curiosity graduated to outrage after the 2013 Tour of Flanders when 2nd place finisher Peter "Mr. McFeely" Sagan grabbed himself a handful of podium girl Maja Leye:
What are the women there for, if not to be groped, right?
Leye later reported that her instinct was to slap Sagan, but stopped herself because she feared that such a reaction would probably result in more consequences for her than for her violator. She was probably right - and if that doesn't perfectly explain the problem, then I don't know how else to explain it.

And just to show how tone deaf people in the sport and industry can be, after that well-publicized groping incident, E3 Harelbeke decided to make it part of their promotional campaign in 2015.
The headline translates to something like "Who will pinch them at Harelbeke." Though I've read that it can also be translated as "Who will be afraid . . .?" which seems frighteningly befitting.

One of the things that I think is really disappointing about the podium girl issue is that there are so few ways for women to distinguish themselves in bicycle racing -- the number of women's races being so much fewer than for men. UCI leadership has little to say about the issue of podium girls, but has all kinds of regulations and limitations on women's racing that almost seem to send the message that appearing as a "hostess" is somehow a more legitimate or acceptable way for women to stand on a winners' podium or to participate in the sport.

Of course, the fact that podium girls are also used at women's races just seems especially awkward:

At some women's races, promoters have taken the "enlightened" step of having male "hosts" (podium boys?) to present awards to the victors:

I'm not sure this looks any less awkward.
So where am I going with all of this?

Well, it seems that somebody in the sport has decided to do something to address the issue. At this year's Tour Down Under in Australia, which is like the season opener of the UCI racing calendar, there will be no podium girls handing out the awards. The South Australian government, which apparently provides some funding and support for the race, withdrew support for having female models on the podium. Instead, junior-level cyclists will present awards -- a move that they hope may help to inspire young athletes far more effectively.

As a father of two girls, I can say that I would much prefer to see them aspire to making it onto a podium as race winners than as models to be ogled -- valued for their strength as much as for their looks.

Not all races on the UCI calendar will be taking this step. In fact, it's more than likely that most of the big races, like the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France will still continue the outdated tradition. It may be a long time before the change becomes widespread.

Though it isn't saying much, we should at least take comfort that cycling's podium girls aren't treated like the women in professional motorsports like Formula One and Grand Prix racing:

Seriously - is it celebration? Or assault?
Oh wait, there's more. . .

And why is it that every one of these guys look exactly like the @$$hole frat boys I absolutely hated when I was in college? Most of them look like they're having a lot more fun than their targets.
In fact, it seems that humiliating the women on the podium in auto racing has become a major part of the "tradition." Run a Google Images search for "Grand Prix (or Formula One) Podium Girl" and the majority of the images that come up are of women being treated in similar fashion.

I know there are lots of people who think it's all just good fun, but just because there are women willing to sign up to be podium girls doesn't mean it isn't a problem. It's a question of value and opportunity. Looks are valued over other attributes to the extent that lots of girls grow up thinking that it's the only way to be accepted or valued. And the opportunities to prove themselves in other ways are limited or downplayed. It probably doesn't even occur to many that they could be the winner - and not just the prize.

I'm going to have to give "cheers" to the Tour Down Under for taking a stand, and hope that others may follow suit sooner rather than later.


  1. Related (though not a bike thing): "Booth babes"* at Electronics/Video Gaming events are becoming pretty much a thing of the past.
    Historically, any convention/event geared toward the electronics/gaming industry got racier and racier with the ladies that were being hired to populate a vendor's display booth. It was getting to the point where it was darn-near pornographic**. Then, just to make sure that the point was driven home, any media coverage (magazines and web-sites) would have just as much, if not more, attention in their reports devoted to these "booth babes" than the products or services that they were supposedly representing.
    It seems to me that this practice in the Video-gaming community has taken a pretty sharp turn-around in recent years, though, after much public back-lash.

    *"Booth babe" is the generally-used and known term, sorry, I'm not trying to be offensive. There have been other, much more offensive, slang terms for the ladies over the years.

    **Obviously, there are some segments of this field that are, literally, pornographic. It seems that measures have been taken to bring this out of the public spotlight, or at least make it moderately less "in your face" as it used to be.


    1. The reluctance to use the term "booth babe" (or at least the awareness that it's potentially offensive) is similar to my own use of the term "podium girls" -- They aren't girls, they are adult women. The fact that they are widely described as "girls" by people in and out of the bike industry and racing circles just underscores the demeaning attitude. It bothered me a little to use the term so much -- but that's exactly the point I hoped to make.

  2. Back when i still occasionally watched TV, and a particularly egregiously sexist advert came on, i'd turn to my daughters (if either were in the room,) and ask them,"What's really for sale here?" (i also did the same thing with similarly themed billboards and posters.)
    Call it "liberal-lefty indoctrination" if you will, but i believe the lesson sunk in.

  3. Mike and Retrogrouch--It sounds like you are good parents.

    N/A--I think now of the bike trade shows I attended years ago. It seemed totally ludicrous to me, even then (when I was young and living as male) to see a perfectly coiffed and made-up blonde bombshell in skin-tight team kit--and four-inch heels--riding on a trainer.

    What was being sold? Indeed!

  4. When did this sort of foolishness start? I've never seen "podium girls" in photos of Merckx, and even a quick Google of Lemond showed none of this. Did it start during the '90s?

    And why did it start?

    Anyway, a good custom to disappear.

  5. Cheers to the Australian government and the tour down under, good example for the rest of cycling (and motorsport as well)

  6. What is next?
    Doing away with doping?
    Please keep the "girls". Just give us more info about them in the photo captions/

  7. I'm all for encouraging women and girls to partake in cycling, but having scantily-dressed women prance about the podium as sexual objects doesn't do it. Thank you, Tour Down Under, for taking the first step to rid the sport of this sexist crap. Bertin also raises a good question: when did this modern "tradition" of podium women start? It's one thing to take a celebratory gulp of milk after the Indy 500 race; requiring women to plant kisses on the winners, and open themselves up to sexual assault, is another thing entirely. The former is a harmless tradition started in the very earliest days of motor sport; the latter is very harmful and methinks, started rather more recently.

  8. I commented to my brother about how sports press coverage seems to be male-centric. There are lots of female competitions, in cycling, football (soccer for you, USA), golf, etc. But they are methodically averted by the press.

    By the way, have you ever noticed how eurocentric pro cycling is? Riders are largely white, caucasian males. Is there a reason black & Asian people are not as present in cycling as in other sports?

    That strikes me as odd, since cycling is so ingrained in Asian countries and track racing is a HUGE sport in Japan, with massive audiences that even hold bet on racers.