Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gender Bender

There are relatively few sports where men and women line up on the start line together and even fewer where they are competing for the same prize. Equestrianism is the highest profile example, with women competing and beating men in show jumping, three day eventing and flat and jump racing. No adjustments are made, they have to be as strong, as brave and as dedicated as their male counterparts.

In running, women almost always line up with men, but race within their sex. It's pretty recent history when women weren't 'allowed' to race over the same distances as men, and running in marathons and further was more than frowned upon.

Thankfully views have changed, and barriers have been removed. In professional sport, prize money is more often than not at parity, although again, this is a very recent change. It sends out all the right signals about equal opportunity, promoting the sport and enabling women to make a living at doing something they love. Something men have had the privilege of doing for much longer.

But it is early days, and what didn't strike me, until I started writing this post, was how few women appear in TV commercials here promoting brands and products. Whilst that's hardly evidence based it does demonstrate how few women are instantly recognizable in sport. Or maybe it indicates they aren't prepared to sell their soul for a pizza. I would :)

Two Oceans prize money equal for both sexes
What got me thinking was our beloved trail running, and an upcoming race that is offering apparently the biggest prize purse in South African trail running. Great news for the sport if it has aspirations to grow, be recognised nationally and internationally, receive increased media coverage and therefore attract more and better runners to the sport.

A typical WP road race - again no gender distinction
The problem? This is a team event, with two runners in a team, both who have to finish each day's stage (its a three day race) together. Winning men's team R15,000, winning mixed team R15,000. Winning  women's team R5000. The first women's team receives a THIRD of that of the men's and mixed teams. If I was an elite woman trail runner I'd find a strong male runner or not run. What message does this send out to women runners and the wider general public who see images of smiling winners with cheques for vastly different amounts? Or see a quality men's field and sub par women's field. The alleged reasoning is that the men's and mixed fields are vastly more competitive than the women's field as there are relatively few elite trail running women and those that are racing are sponsored by different brands and therefore are not able to race together. This argument falls down somewhat when you see that one of the leading female trail runners (Contego and Vivobarefoot) has teamed with a leading male runner (Hammer and New Balance). Competing brands. No one can blame the runners who are merely targeting the more lucrative categories in a sport where prize money is rare.

ABSA Cape Epic prize money - equal including vets, mixed and masters
But something is wrong if this doesn't start a debate on the equality in sport. I'd argue that if you offered a couple of the leading women R15,000 and you secured lets say Rene Kalmer and another high profile female athlete, you'd receive at least as much publicity as the men's winners, if not more.

It would set an uplifting example to offer the highest SA prize purse for women don't you think?