Inequality In The Open Water – Part 2

The Disappearing Female Athlete commentary courtesy of Mallory Mead, Manhattan Beach, California.

I recently won the women’s race at the Dwight Crum Pier to Pier Swim in Manhattan Beach, California.

One of the largest and most competitive open water races in the US, there were almost 1,100 swimmers who stepped to the line that day. I had an incredible race, starting with a physically demanding start that can best be described as a bar fight in the water which lead into roughly 2 miles and 40 minutes of gradually picking off my competitors one by one. It was also one of my most exciting finishes ever, as I got stuck in a rip current and struggled to make it up to the beach finish line, breaking free just in time to finish one second ahead of the second place female finisher.

As I ran across the finish line and they announced me as the first place female finisher, I was deliriously happy. There were other reasons why my win was exciting. I placed 13th and in the top 1% of all competitors, male and female. I knew winning a highly competitive race like the Pier to Pier had the potential to increase my exposure and attract media, supporters, and sponsors. This could mean additional income to support my professional [marathon swim] racing career.

Ultimately though, the media coverage of the event was disappointing, albeit not surprising. USA Today covered the race, but failed to mention that anyone, male or female, won the race. The Times Record only reported the winner of the men’s race. Easy Reader News featured the men’s winner in the headline, while only reporting on the results of the women’s race at the end of the article.

Only one publication, The Beach Reporter, reported on the men’s and women’s race equally, unless of course you count USA Today which I can summarize as ‘Nobody got bit by a shark, nobody got hit by lightning.’ Even the Dwight Drum Pier to Pier Facebook page posted a photo of Ryan Bullock congratulating ‘the winner,’ without acknowledging that there were two winners that day.

This is but one example of the systemic inequity that divides men’s and women’s sports, and it represents the sort of obstacle that has plagued my career and the career of female athletes all over the world and across sporting disciplines. It’s also why our female athletes are disappearing.

Female athletes are afforded fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, and it all starts with media coverage.

Earlier this year sports journalism got a heavy dose of embarrassment when Andy Murray was declared over and over again to be the first Brit to win Wimbledon since 1936. Feminist writer Chloe Angyal was prompted to tweet “Murray is indeed the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years unless you think women are people.” Angyal’s sentiment struck a chord with the public, and her tweet has since been retweeted 19,014 times.

Watching the live streaming of a major Ironman event is a frustrating event for fans of the female competitors. Even as the men and women race the same course, the same day, at the same time, it’s easy to forget there is a women’s race at all until you get a glimpse at the female frontrunner just long enough to be reminded.

Women have been afforded fewer opportunities to compete, with less compensation available.

Twenty five years after women were shut out of competing in the Tour de France, a group of elite female cyclist have banded together to fight organizers to allow women to race the Tour. So far, the Tour has only agreed to open 2.5% of the course to women while maintaining an attitude that “keeping the course open for a women’s race isn’t feasible. Too hard to organize. Too expensive. Impossible logistics.”

As Juliet Macur writes, “What he and other race directors are really saying, though, is that women’s sports are just not worth the trouble.”

Widely recognized as one of the best goalies in the world, male or female, Finnish hockey player Noora Räty recently announced via Twitter her retirement at the age of 24, citing financial hardship of professional competition. Molly Seely writes, “The problem (…) is that not a single player on the USA Women’s Olympic Hockey Team has a chance to make even the NHL’s minimum salary of US$525,000 playing their sport and doing it better than many of their male counterparts. The problem (…) is that Noora Räty has to retire so that she can pay her car loans.”

In professional marathon swimming, FINA regulations call for the 80% of the prize money to be allocated for the mens’ and womens’ purse, and 20% to be allocated for an overall purse. This practice essentially ensures that the winners of the men’s race are paid twice, while the winners of the women’s race are paid once.

Take for example the prize money breakdown for the 2014 Maratón Hernandarias-Paraná, an 88 km river race in Argentina. The prize allocation breaks down like this: the first place male took home US$2,100, first place woman US$900, second place male US$1,500, second place female US$800, third place male US$1,200, and third place female US$700. In fact, the third place male took home 25% more than the winner of the women’s race. She finished but forty-five seconds behind him.

I attended the Maratón Hernandarias-Paraná in 2012, but due to weather conditions the race was cancelled and a much shorter alternative race was announced with a reduced prize purse. Even though the alternative race was not sanctioned by FINA, and thus was not subject to the traditional purse allocation, the race organizers originally announced the purse as such, until the top Argentinian woman protested.

A spirited argument broke out in Spanish between the men and women and the translator conveniently stopped translating, effectively excluding all but two of the women from the discussion one of which was married to one of the top male swimmers. Undeterred by being largely outnumbered, the Argentinian woman convinced the race organizers to reallocate the overall prize money equally between the gender purses. I later learned that one of the male swimmers had shouted in Spanish “What’s the big deal? It’s not like you aren’t going to get paid!

The next day I placed third in the women’s race and was awarded US$600 which covered roughly one quarter of my travel costs to get there. I returned home with an impressive-looking trophy and a substantial debt to settle. Racing is prohibitively expensive, let alone the costs and opportunity cost of spending over twenty hours a week in the pool.

There are fewer sponsorship opportunities for female athletes than male athletes, and more often than not the opportunities available to them are based on sexual appeal, not athletic ability.

Sponsorship dollars are largely unavailable for female athletes. Even in the UK in the year leading up to the London Olympics, women’s sports attracted only 0.5% of the total corporate sports sponsorship dollars. In the same period, men’s sports accounted for 61.1% of the market, and mixed sports for the remainder.

What is available is more often in context of the female athlete’s sexuality. The women who do attempt to capitalize on their sexuality are often met with criticism for doing so, even though it may be the only way they can stay in the game. Take a look at this slideshow from Rant Sports entitled “15 Hot Female Athletes Only Famous for Their Looks” and notice #13 Lolo Jones, who competed at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics for track and field and the 2014 Winter Olympics for bobsled, yet as it is noted she “failed (sic) to medal in any of her events.”

This isn’t just about female athletes. This is about women.

Historically, women in athletics have played a major role in breaking down barriers and redefining gender roles and assumptions. They also serve as heroes and role models for the next generation of women, inspiring their athletic participation in a way that male sports stars cannot. Young girls who participate in sports are more likely to have higher self-esteem, set bolder goals, and succeed better academically. When female athletes achieve and the world takes notice, all women benefit. The fact that even the best of the best female athletes in heavily spectated sports are forced into early retirement so that they can afford car insurance, while their male counterparts enjoy long, illustrious, and financially rewarding careers is unacceptable in a modern society championing equal opportunity.

While the inequity in women’s sports is a complex issue involving many different factors, there exists a very actionable first step: give them a voice. Give them opportunities to race, then celebrate their accomplishments. Name them in the headline, interview them. Show strong images of these women in action, at their physical peak, so the world doesn’t come to think of them as bikini models who sometimes compete. The media needs to take the lead in introducing female sports stars to the public so that we come to know them, follow their careers, tune in, and change the game for female athletes. It might just change the world.

Inequality In The Open Water – Part 1 is here.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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