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?


  1. Hey Ian, correction, Katya and Noel run for VivoBarefoot in 2014. I think some context to this prize structure is also needed, in 2013 the prizes were on equal footing, but as an incentive to attract the best competition and thereby hype up the event the prize money was raised in 2014 for the most competitive categories in 2013, which were mens and mixed teams. I think that it's a bold move which sends a message which is misunderstood. They are trying to grow their events publicity and hopefully if this strategy gets them their results they may be making it equal across the board in 2015.

    1. Anonymous? Thanks for the correction on the footwear front. I still do not believe it is in the interests of equality to increase mens and mixed and leave the women to play second (actually third) fiddle. It sends out the wrong message. I havent seen a woman who agrees that it plays to the strongest woman or is anything less than discriminatory.

  2. I completely agree Ian. The 2 ladies that won had an incredible race and deserved nothing less than equal the prize for the other 2 categories. They will never make it more competitive by offering less, it doesn't make sense.

  3. I could say lots on this and the whole thing about prize money. lets look at Oceans, the 10th guy has to be a good athlete and race hard, while over the years the 10th lady is often just a solid runner... I look at the local road races here (Cape Town) and while you will get a pack of men out front racing for the top prises that just doesn't happen with the ladies. If I was rolling in money I would sponsor races on a sliding scale so if you wanted to win good money you had to run good times.

    Now trail, I can see why the organises went this way and yes it's fair. In SA at the moment there are a growning number of top men. African X had 3 strong mens teams and I can think of another 4-6 top guys who could have made up another 3 team all looking for the win. The women on the other had... there is no depth, and it could be hard (for you as a women) to put together a strong women's team, but you can now race for the same money as the guys, and the sponsors not to feel that they are just giving the money away.

    If it was my money I would want to see people race for it... It the moment in SA trail there is no ways you could get the 6 top ladies to team up and race one race. Maybe next year!!!