This spring semester I have been taking a course in Women's Studies. As an option course, I thought it would be a nice change in pace from my usual Human Kinetics course load. However; the curriculum has been surprisingly applicable not only to what I usually study but to my life as a cross country skier as well.
For our final project, we were asked to write a letter of protest to a real person regarding some sort of inequality issue. I chose to write my project to the Chairman of FIS, about why women should race the same distances a men in cross country skiing (you can read Karl's opinion on it here). This is my letter: (yes it is kinda long...sorry)
May 30th, 2012
Mr. Vegard Ulvang Chairman, FIS (cross country)
FIS Headquarters Blochstrasse 2 CH-3653 Oberhofen/Thunersee Switzerland
Dear Mr. Vegard Ulvang
I am writing to you from Canada not only as a student at the University of Ottawa, but as a competitive cross country skier. I would like to bring to your attention a gender inequality issue that has recently come to the spotlight of our sport. Currently, on the national and international stages in cross country skiing, women do not race as long a distance as the men in almost every event. Whether it be a 5km instead of a 10km, a 1.2km instead of a 1.6km sprint or especially when it is a 30km instead of a 50km, the lessening of distances in the women’s category has become ridiculous. Not only is this reality being questioned here in Canada, but in Europe some of the most elite athletes are crying out about the injustice. As the acting Chairman of the Federation International de Ski (FIS) cross country division, I feel that this subject can no longer be ignored by you or the rest of the FIS executive. As will be explained throughout this letter, there are many positive aspects behind the goal of athlete gender equality. For the promotion of self-confidence in female athletes, proven physiological rationale, as well as the public’s perception of the sport, female athletes should race the same distances in cross country skiing as the male athletes.
Being a competitive ski racer my whole life, I was always aware that I was racing shorter distances than my male counterparts but never really put much thought into it. Like almost everybody else, I just accepted that men were stronger and faster and therefore raced longer distances. The unfortunate result of this idea is that the men’s events have a prestige attached to them and are always the “main attraction” and the women’s events are just a side note. It was not until reading an interview with top female skier Marit Bjoergen of Norway last year that the absurdity of this inequality was truly brought to my attention. When talking about the fact that women race 30km when the men race 50km in Holmenkollen, Norway (the Madison Square Garden of cross country skiing), Marit states: “We have the fitness base and are tough enough to race 50 kilometers,... I would love to race a 50 k ... It’s really no tougher for us [women] to race 50 k than it is for the guys, and we are totally prepared physically to race it” (FasterSkier.com). As Marit points out in this interview, women are just as tough as men and are physically capable of racing these longer events.
It is common knowledge that yes, men are on average stronger than women, have higher oxygen consumption capacities than women and therefore will be faster in most sporting events than women. This does not mean that women cannot race at the same distance or level of difficulty as men or be as competitive. In fact, the logic of men-are-stronger-and-therefore-able to-endure-more is flawed and has been proven incorrect throughout history. As Juhas explains in her 2011 article, “[t]oday sports training enables women to run and achieve results in the long and the longest distance, as well as men. By breaking the myth of the physiological differences to the submission of long-term physical activity occurred in 1984, when was held the first official women's marathon at the Olympics. In the following fifteen years, the evidence was sought that women were capable of long term activity” (45). Not only in the sport of cross country skiing, but when we look at all endurance sporting events from a physiological perspective, it has been found that women are quite capable of racing longer distances. In Bang et al’s 2008 article discussing the gender differences in male and female physiological responses to ultra marathon running, it was found that “... extreme ultra endurance exercise results in similar IGF–IGFBP [insulin growth factor and binding proteins] responses in men and women reflecting a catabolic state” (712). In other words, a female’s body responds to the energy demands of endurance exercise just as efficiently as a male’s body, proving that women’s bodies are certainly tough enough to endure the same long distance events as men’s. As much as it is a fact that on average, women have “...smaller oxygen capacity, decreased red blood cell count, haemoglobin content, smaller content of iron in the blood...” (Juhas 45) than men, it is also important to remember that there are some women who do not fit this average category, many of which are elite athletes. As Juhas goes on to say in her article, “[t]he pure type of woman or man is more rarely found. There are usually expressed male traits in women and vice versa. A woman can be high, with long lower limbs, more compact structure of the skeleton, broad shoulders and narrow pelvis, more developed musculature and atypical fat distribution. Women [athletes] actually experience morpho-functional transformation and as such become physically capable of achieving better and more top sports results” (48). Therefore, I do not think that it is acceptable for every woman to be put into the category of weaker-than-men and be made to race lesser distances when as can be seen in everyday life, there are many exceptions to that category. Additionally, although it may be unintentional, Mr. Ulvang, what you and the rest of the FIS executive board are doing by having the women race lesser distances than the men is overtly showing women everywhere that they are not capable of these extraordinary male feats. Not only is it a blow to the popularity of the elite women’s events but it is a message to girls everywhere that they could never do what the boys do.
I believe that the lack of self confidence is something that plagues today’s women and girls. One major way in which girls become more self confident, according to Lirgg’s 1992 article, is through sport. As well, women with an increased self efficacy lead happier lives: “By increasing their self confidence, girls and women should be more able to pursue a wide range of activities and lead physically active, healthy, and confident lives” (Lirgg 174). However; if spectators around the world are being shown that the women cannot race as long as the men, what will this do to the confidence of future female racers watching? If they see that their events will never have as much prestige as the men’s, do they continue to pursue the sport?
These questions are important ones, the answers to which are probably not favourable to female participation in sport. I believe it is your best interest to have as many girls as possible participating worldwide in the sport of cross country skiing because the more people who partake in the sport, the more people will either watch it on television or live, the more sponsors will be interested in supporting the sport. However; in order for more girls to partake in the sport, I believe it must be shown to them on the highest levels such as the Olympics that what they will work their whole lives towards is just as important as the events of their male counterparts.
Since the 1954 Oslo Olympic Games, women have been competing in cross country skiing at the Olympics and today have an equal amount of races to the men (Olympic.org). This is wonderful, and certainly a great contribution to the female sporting world. However; if the women race shorter distances than the men, they will be viewed by the fans, other athletes and even themselves as the side-show to the main event. If gender equality is the goal, then this discrepancy in distances must be re-evaluated. As has been studied by many academics, although in general females are not as strong or as fast as their male counterparts, this does not mean that they are any less capable of racing for the same metric length. In order for more girls to participate in sport and for male and female athletes to be viewed as equally important, the distances they race must be the same.I hope you take this letter into consideration so that when my female teammates and I have our crack at the Olympics, we will be allowed to race the 50k and be seen as equally amazing as the boys.
I thank you for your time and I appreciate your open mindedness when it comes to this issue. Wishing you plenty of snow for the upcoming race season!
75 Laurier Street East
Ottawa ON K1N 6N5 CANADA
“FIS Cross Country Info Booklet”. Fis-ski.com. 5 September 2011. Web. 24 May 2012.
Inge Scheve. “Bjoergen Wants To Race As Far As The Guys”. FasterSkier.com. 8 February 2011. Web. 24 May 2012.
Juhas, Irina. “Specificity Of Sports Training With Women.” Physical Culture/ Fizicka Kultura 65. (2011): 42-50. SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Web. 24 May 2012.
Lirgg. C.D. “Girls And Women, Sport, And Self-Confidence.” Quest (00336297) 44.2 (1992): 158-178. SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Web. 29 May 2012.
P.Bang, et al. “Lack Of Sex Differences In The IGF-IGFBP Response To Ultra Endurance Exercise.” Scandinaviar Journal O Medicine & Science In Sports 18.6 (2008): 706-714. SPORTDiscus with Full Text, Web. 27 May 2012.
Research and Reference service, Olympic Studies Centre. “Cross Country Skiing: Participation During The History Of The Winter Olympic Games”. Olympic.org. November 2011. Web. 24 May 2012.