When the UCI announced their allocation of Olympic slots for road cycling at the 2020 Tokyo Games—130 for men, 67 for women—cycling fans and athletes erupted in disapproval. Rightfully so. The inequity is glaring. Archaic. Sexist. Wrong.
Yet here’s what makes the discrepancy even worse: The Olympic quota gender imbalance has been in place for 36 years. When women’s road cycling was added to the Olympics in 1984, 45 women stepped to the line for their inaugural debut, and USA’s Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg delivered a one-two punch for gold and silver. Perhaps fans were so caught up in the glory of the medals and the debut of the women’s race, that we didn’t pay enough attention to the fact the men’s field had 90 more contenders, topping out at 135. Perhaps we dismissed the inequity because, way back then, women’s fields and depth of elite cycling were smaller. No one batted an eye over the next 36 years as the UCI kept the women’s road Olympic field at half the size—sometimes even less!—than the men’s field. To this day, the gender gap in road cycling allocation has not closed. Here are the numbers for the Olympic field size from 1984 to 2020:
- 1984 – 135 men, 45 women
- 1988 – 136 men, 53 women
- 1992 – 154 men, 58 women
- 1996 – 184 men, 61 women
- 2000 – 152 men, 57 women
- 2004 – 200 men, 67 women
- 2008 – 144 men, 66 women
- 2012 – 144 men, 67 women
- 2016 – 144 men, 67 women
- 2020 – 130 men, 67 women
Over 10 Olympics, the UCI never chose to allocate their approximately 200 Olympic quotas from the IOC evenly: 100 to men, 100 to women. And while the UCI’s reputation for sexism has not changed, the women’s pro peloton has. The women are stronger, faster, and in far more abundance than three decades ago. The women’s peloton is thriving, growing, and surpassing expectations of viewership, visibility, and media coverage. Data is proving it and paving the way for growth. In 2017, women’s road racing at televised UCI events raked in an outstanding 124 million views. The depth of the women’s field is undeniably strong. And it aligns perfectly with the International Olympic Committee’s mission.
The IOC’s creed declares they “support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with… the principle of equality of men and women.” In fact, IOC has declared that participation in the 2020 Games is estimated to be 49 percent female, and will be the most gender-balanced Olympics to date. If this is true, then why is the UCI allowed to get away with disparity and not comply with the IOC’s creed? Likely for two reasons. First, no one has called out the UCI or pressed charges of blatant discrimination. Second, it is possible the IOC has no idea this gender discrimination is actually happening within the UCI (I asked and they hadn’t gotten back to me by press time).
But the IOC should know. It’s their job. The IOC needs to continuously confirm that all national governing bodies are in compliance with their Olympic creed. I’ve called out both before, going on record with an IOC representative in 2015, and communicating with the UCI in 2011 and 2012 during my own Olympics quest.
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The allocation of road slots is not the only Olympics inequity coming from the UCI. In Tokyo, the men will race 234 kilometers, while the women will race 137. The men will climb Mt. Fuji and Mikuni Pass. The women will not. Like the quota inequity, this disparity is not new. In the 119 years UCI has governed the sport of cycling, women have had fewer races, shorter courses, and less opportunity. Despite the fact physiologists have proven women excel at longer distances, the UCI still has a rule that no women’s Olympic (or world championship) race can be longer than 160 kilometers. Men, however, may race 280 kilometers.
And here’s another ridiculous flaw in the Olympic qualification system: There is no separate qualification for the time trial and the road race. The athletes who want to race the time trial must qualify in the road race. Cycling has changed over the last 36 years; there are more women who excel at individual disciplines than before. Time trial specialists and road specialist are not usually the same person. That’s like asking a 1500-meter freestyle swimmer to qualify in the 50-meter butterfly. Can some do it? Maybe. Can most? No. The UCI’s ridiculous system of numbers and standards makes no sense.
The UCI is a good ol’ boys club of “dinosaur mentality” leadership that’s passed down a chain of white, male European presidents. This is not hyperbole. Since 1900, there have been 11 UCI presidents serving an average of 11 years in office, rotating between eight European nations. There has never been a female UCI president, or a person of color, or a non-European citizen. And the current 18-member UCI Management Committee has just two female members (no surprise, neither are in leadership roles). When presidencies continue to repeat patterns devoid of adaptation and growth, traditionalism yields a dangerous minefield of ignorance, apathy, and laziness.
I often joke that the UCI can’t possibly allow women to qualify, race, and climb the same distances as men. They’d never get back to the kitchen in time to cook dinner! One thing I’ve learned as an activist for women’s rights: Always keep a sense of humor. If we can’t laugh at the UCI and IOC, then the march toward equity becomes too exhausting to sustain. Laughter is the unsung soldier in the ongoing battle for change.
Laughter—and hope. I was first compelled to expose the inequities in the Olympic qualification system when I was going through it myself. In 2008 and 2012, I attempted to qualify for road cycling in the Olympic Games. Racing for St. Kitts and Nevis (I’m a dual citizen)—where I have six national titles, three Caribbean titles, eight trips to the World Championships, and five years on a professional team—I got a first-hand education in how UCI keeps talented athletes from smaller, underfunded nations from qualifying for those 67 coveted spots to the Games. Under the UCI structure, athletes from certain nations are not allowed to go to certain qualifying races. Some nations with athletes who rank lower than other nations are given a berth to the games through outdated loopholes in the UCI system. To this day, an athlete ranked as low as 549th get a spot ahead of an athlete ranked 116th in the world. The UCI has geographically outgrown its own international qualification structure. Sometimes politics and nepotism are at play. Sometimes even tiny clerical errors on office paperwork will render a national champion ineligible for the Games.
After watching this quagmire of discrimination unfold, not just for myself but for many talented athletes from smaller nations, I couldn’t stay silent. The result was my film Half the Road, a documentary that highlights the UCI’s injustices. It wasn’t backed by Disney or ESPN. It was financed by cycling fans, and it went on to win three film festivals, screen in 16 countries, and gain international distribution. All because people believed in speaking out and sharing the message that gender discrimination has to stop.
The film led to a petition for women to have access to the Tour de France. We won, and we created La Course by Tour de France in 2014. Also won in 2014: the battle to eliminate the archaic UCI rule that women’s pro teams couldn’t average over the age of 28. Also won: the beginning of salary equity; in 2020, there will finally be a base salary for women at the World Tour level. The Homestretch Foundation, which I founded to help support pro cyclists who struggle with the gender pay gap, will begin its fifth year in 2020.
All this change happened because we exposed the gender discrimination of the UCI, IOC, and ASO (the Tour de France organizer). I still get plenty of pushback (from annoying internet trolls all the way up to UCI presidents), which is sometimes exceedingly unkind and difficult to take. But I keep at it because exposing corruption is the only way to end it. One victory might not transform a system that’s been in place for 119 years. But many victories will. And we’ve already won important ones by using our collective voice.
I never made it to the Olympics, and that’s okay. But I cannot sit by and let the archaic, patriarchal structure and corrupt inequity of UCI and IOC hold our sport and our future Olympians back. Together we can fight for change. Change begins with educating ourselves, sharing with others, standing up, speaking out and holding UCI and IOC accountable until the problem is solved. I’ll keep fighting, and I hope you’ll join me.
Kathryn Bertine is an activist, author, filmmaker, former pro cyclist, current Ambassador for Equality in Cycling with Trek, and founder of Homestretch Foundation. She is at work on her next book. www.kathrynbertine.com Twitter & FB @kathrynbertine IG: @kathryn_bertine