Ah, the Winter Olympics, when the world’s best athletes compete on a seemingly level playing field for the glory of an Olympic medal. But while the medals given out are surely the same, the events themselves actually aren’t quite as equal as they may seem when it comes to gender.
It’s 2018 and we see some men’s events that still don’t have a women’s equivalent at all. (Ski jumping off the large hill? Doubles luge? Not for women.) And some events have totally different rules for women than for men, like shorter distances covered in skiing and some speed skating events. Then there was the women’s Snowboard Slopestyle competition, which ended up differing in format itself thanks to a seemingly totally arbitrary decision.
When it comes to Olympics, sexism is a historical part of the design. After all, the modern games were founded by a guy who said he wanted to bring them back “for the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism.” That guy, Pierre de Coubertin, was a French aristocrat helped write the Olympic charter and acted as the first President of the International Olympic Committee and is known to have said:
“Women have but one task, that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands … in public competitions, women’s participation must be absolutely prohibited. It is indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a women being smashed before their eyes.”
While de Coubertin is long dead, his legacies live on. Forty-three percent of the 2,952 Olympic athletes in Pyeongchang are women, but in a number of sports, their playing fields are anything but level.
Women’s Singles: 1,201.82m
Men’s Singles: 1,344.08m
Men’s Doubles: 1,201.82m (the “women’s start”)
Women’s Doubles: Just doesn’t exist.
The sport in which you lay on a sled and hurtle yourself down an icy track the fastest wouldn’t immediately seem like it has any kind of bias favoring athletes of one gender or the other. But think again! The women competing in Pyeongchang will barrel down a track that’s 10.6 percent shorter than the men’s. That’s a difference of just 142m. And when it comes to doubles, women don’t have an event at all. Apparently only two dudes can lay on top of each other and fly down the ice on a sled.
This obviously isn’t about physiological differences. Jaime Schultz, associate professor of kinesiology at Penn State University and author of “Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport,” says these rules are continued ramifications of pseudoscience that have historically held that women don’t have the same endurance as men, even though research consistently shows the opposite to be true.
“For instance, women ran the 800m race at the 1928 Olympic Games,” Schultz explains, “but ‘fake news’ (if you’ll forgive the term) had it that of the ‘11 wretched women,’ five ‘dropped out before the finish, while five collapsed after reaching the tape,’” she says. “In fact, the top three finishers broke the world record in the event and only one woman, who’d been injured, faltered during the race. Even so, the IOC struck the event from the Olympic program until 1960, making the 200-meter race the longest available to female Olympians. Never mind that men regularly faltered in long distances and were applauded for their perseverance.”
Individual Men’s: 15km
Individual Women’s: 10km
Men’s Sprint: 1.8km
Women’s Sprint: 1.3km
Men’s Team Sprint: 1.8km
Women’s Team Sprint: 1.3km
Men’s Skiathlon: 15km + 15km
Women’s Skiathlon: 7.5km + 7.5km
Men’s Relay: 4x10km
Women’s Relay: 4x5km
Men’s Mass Start/“Classical”: 50km
Women’s Mass Start/“Classical”: 30km
Cross-country skiing was introduced to the Olympics, for the menfolk, back at the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Women’s events were added at the 1952 games. But even more than half a century later, every single cross-country ski event is a different distance for men than for women. Is there any reason for the women to not go as far as the men in the same events?
In the sprint it’s a difference of just 500m. “That’s just really difficult to take seriously, like .5km is somehow meaningful,” says Cheryl Cooky, associate professor of American Studies at Purdue University and co-author of the forthcoming No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Unevenness of Social Change. “Often the science and data doesn’t bear out the justification for differences in events we see.”
She says the roots of the Olympic philosophy have more to do with it. “[Pierre de Coubertin] made it clear that women’s physicality was unattractive…Whereas men’s performances embodied the idea of pushing the bounds of their physical capacity, the same idea is suppressed or contained in women’s performances…one of the ways this is done is by setting up shorter distances in certain events.”
Men’s Downhill: 2,857m with a 825m vertical drop
Women’s Downhill: 2,710m with a 730m vertical drop
Men’s Slalom: 575m with a 211m vertical drop
Women’s Slalom: 556m with a 204m vertical drop
Men’s Giant Slalom: 1,326m with a 440m vertical drop
Women’s Giant Slalom: 1,250m with a 400m vertical drop
Men’s Super-G: 2,050m with a 650m vertical drop
Women’s Super-G: 1,910m with a 585m vertical drop
That’s not a typo, it’s less than 20m difference in course length in the women’s slalom race, with just 7m difference in the vertical drop over the course. What could possibly be the logic for making the women’s race 3.3 percent shorter?
Whatever the justification, it’s not based in science. Recent data analysis by FiveThirtyEight, showed that in alpine skiing events going back to 1948, men and women reached comparable median speeds in similar events, except for in the downhill. (Although, women racing today are going faster in general than men racing the downhill were in the 1970s). They also found that even though courses have gotten longer in the same time period, women have gotten faster, so longer distances don’t slow women down.
Men’s races: 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m, mass start (16 laps) and team pursuit (8 laps)
Women’s races: 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 3000m, 5000m, mass start (16 laps) and team pursuit (6 laps)
In speed skating there’s more parity in the short-distance events, the 500m, 1000m and 1500m. But when we get to the longer-distance events a split happens. The women have a 3,000m and a 5,000m, while the men race a 5,000m and a 10,000m.
That means that during the longest speed-skating race available for each gender, men skate double the distance women do, implying that women just can’t hack such a long race. Cooky says this distance cap reminds her of the same thinking that kept women from competing in the marathon for so long: “[It] doesn’t make any sense because research has shown that women have a better tolerance for endurance sports than men.”
The result is a vicious cycle. Organizers mistakenly didn’t think women could handle long distances, so they never allowed them to skate 10,000m, and now people genuinely think the reason women don’t have a 10,000m event is because they’re not able to handle it.
“We set up the games so that they physically illustrate gender difference [with these different rules],” Cooky said, “then we see that there’s gender difference and it reinforces in our cultural mind the very notion that there is this gender difference in ability in sport.”
Men’s Normal Hill: Two training sessions and a qualification round. Final includes one trial jump and two competitive jumps. Highest combined score from two rounds wins.
Women’s Normal Hill: No qualification round. Just a final, including all 30 entrants who each get one trial jump and two scored jumps. Highest combined score from two rounds wins.
Men’s Large Hill: Two training sessions and a qualification round. Final includes one trial jumps and two competitive jumps. Highest combined score from two rounds wins.
Women’s Large Hill: None.
Men’s Team Event: Four jumpers make a team, each jumper gets two jumps off the Large Hill. Best combined score wins.
Women’s Team Event: None. Since you know, that Large Hill thing.
Women had no ski jumping event in the Olympics until 2014, and still aren’t allowed to jump off the Large Hill. Years of lawsuits brought by women ski jumpers finally brought the women’s Normal Hill event to the games, but even in these relatively enlightened times, gender-based pseudoscience is probably to blame. In 2006, the head of the International Ski Federation, Gian Franco Kasper, said that ski jumping is not: “appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” Which echoes loudly the beliefs of the primitive days of medicine that women’s supposedly free-floating reproductive organs would be dislodged if they attempted the ski jump.
Ann Travers, an associate professor of Sociology at Simon Fraser University noted in her paper on the women’s ski jumping lawsuit that appeared in Journal of Sport & Social Issues in 2011, that perhaps the resistance was because women could theoretically beat men in this particular competition. In fact, she points out, back during the legal challenge to include ski jumping in the 2010 Games, an American woman, Lindsey Van (not to be confused with Vonn), held the record on the 95m jump at Whistler Olympic Park—which would have placed her 11th among the 28 male competitors in the event during those Olympics. “Even more impressive when one considers the limited training and competition women ski jumpers have been able to access thus far,” she wrote.
This theory lines up with how Cooky sees the issue of barring women from some events totally. “I don’t know that this is the intentional motivation [of the IOC], but there’s something to be said about the fact that keeping some sports, like ski jump, male-only, maintains some small corner of the sports world as this men’s only space. It’s a way for them to say, ‘Well, we might have women entering into these spaces in other ways, but damn it if we’re going to let them do ski jump off the big hill or play football or run the marathon—it’s a way to maintain that masculine privilege in the space of the undeniable challenges women are posing to the gender order in sport.”
Snowboarding is relatively new to the Olympics for men and women—it’s only been around since 1998—so there’s a little more gender parity when it comes to how the rules have been set up. However, you may have noticed a bit of a difference if you watched the men’s final slopestyle competition on Feb. 11 and then the women’s final Feb. 12. The men had three runs each in the final, while the women each only had two.
This was a result of those super-high Pyeongchang winds kicking up during what should have been the women’s qualifying event on Feb. 11. Instead of delaying the women’s event in its entirety and playing through the competition by the rules, however, they simply canceled the qualifying event and put all 24 riders through to the final, granting them only two runs each instead of the three they should have had. Making matters worse, the winds were nearly as high on the day of the final round, leading to substandard performances and competitors worrying for their safety.
“The decision not to postpone the women’s event was egregious, and something I doubt they would have done to the men,” says Schultz. “It put women at tremendous risk of injury. It also meant viewers didn’t get to see the women’s best stuff—the competitors had to play it conservative in those treacherous winds. The Olympic stage is their chance to show the world what they can do, and it was heartbreaking that we didn’t get to see their very best.”
Just like the inscribed rule differences in some of the other events, deciding that the women snowboarders weren’t worth the time and energy to play their event—which they’ve spent years preparing for—by the rules, matters.
“[This all] sends a powerful message about the value of women’s sport,” says Cooky. “We may be picking up on this during the 2018 Olympics, but none of this is new. There’s a whole history of examples of similar things happening, it’s just that sometimes we have these moments where we can really notice how even in 2018, despite the tremendous gains we’ve made, women’s sport is still occupying second-class status.”
Maggie Mertens is a writer in Seattle who covers work, money and sports, with a focus on gender and inequality. You can follow her on Twitter at: @maggiejmertens.