Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Girls Can't Ski Far

It's 2010, and women's skiing is still stuck in 1980.

I mean, it's great that the women on the world cup get near-equal billing with the men, and near-equal participation. Relative to a lot of sports (*cough* road cycling), women's nordic racing is doing great. In fact, I only have one complaint: why don't they ski equal, or time-equal, distances as the men?

Fig 1: A group of fragile flowers who couldn't possibly race as far as the men

It's like the FIS (and by extension, everyone else) thinks that women can't race as far as the men. How else do you explain distance-discrimination at every single tier?

Fig 2: 2006 Olympic Distances

At the 2006 Olympics, the women's races covered a mere 56% of the distance of the men's races. Compare this to some other aerobic sports raced in the Olympics, like track and field and swimming. The women run and swim the exact same distance* as the men! It would be ridiculous to change the women's 1500m on the track to a 1200, right? And yet this is effectively what every World Cup sprint race does, cutting the women's course 10-25% shorter than the men's. Why? Because a woman can only make an anaerobic effort for 3 minutes instead of 3:30?

Even when the event is functionally identical, the FIS still has to get a little jab in at the women, to make sure everyone knows their race isn't as important -- check out the race distances in last year's Final Climb at the Tour de Ski! While the "final climb" portion (the part that mattered) was the same, the men skied a bonus kilometer at the bottom, so the women's race was listed at 9k and the men's at 10k. Why? So the fat sprinters didn't have to deal with getting "girled" by Virpi?

And this brings me to today, the 2010 Tour de Ski, where the FIS may have set a new standard for shortchanging women's racing. Let's look at the profiles for tomorrow's awesome point-to-point, over-the-pass, we-really-want-this-to-be-the-Tour-de-France stage.
Fig 3: Totally Awesome Men's 36k Race Profile

Fig 4: Boring Women's 16k Race Profile

In addition to setting a new record in race distance disparity (women ski only 46% as far as the men), it sets a new standard for race effect disparity. Check out that men's course, it's a freaking 35k point-to-point handicap start race with 600m of elevation gain. It is going to shatter the field. I have never been more excited to see how a race will turn out -- will gaps consolidate on the climb? How will the racers descend, in groups, after that much climbing? Can the heavier guys hang with the light ones? Will anyone get away on the descent? Or catch back on? How much time will be lost if you're having a bad day?

Meanwhile, the women's race is missing most of these elements -- it's a downhill pursuit at best. While it'll be interesting to see how the women descend, it will have minimal effect on the overall standings -- the race will basically come down to seeing who doesn't fall. And falling is nothing, compared to how much time can be lost or gained on a 600m climb. Ultimately, this stage won't have much to say about who wins the women's overall, unless someone crashes their way into the hospital.

Don't get me wrong, the women's race is still going to be cool, because I love crashes and descending in general, but come on, if there was ever a time to have women ski as far as the men it's this stage, which is clearly supposed to a be a showcase event, with a massive climb and descent, just like the Tour de France.

But the women aren't showcased, not like the men. The women's race will take all of 30 minutes, which much of it spent in a tuck; the men will be out for a well over an hour, spending most of that time climbing. Suffering on a climb is glamorous; crashing on a descent is not. If you're a casual viewer tuning in, there's no way you could watch these two races and come to the conclusion that women's nordic skiing is anything but a sideshow to men's racing.

And thus, by setting the women's race distance short, on a significantly easier course, the Tour de Ski given all of women's skiing a slap in the face. What else is new?

* - ok, so men have the 110m hurdles and the women have 100m. Close enough.


Anonymous said...

The womens race profile is ridiculous.
And as a person who enjoys raceing and not crashes it seems i migth not wanna see this race.

I tend to agree with you that men and women shud race distances that are more similar. But maybe not equal distance but as you say equal times.

I also think that sprints shud be shorter not longer shorten the mens sprint not increase the womens.

i would also like to see the 50k become a 60k or maybe even more. As i belive due to teck improvment todays 50k is cakewalk compertd to the old 50k

Anonymous said...

Like it or not there are physiological differences between men and women, hormonal, muscle mass etc. that suggest some differences MAY be warranted re equalizing the effort.

Kuan said...

Are you saying that running 26.2 miles in 2h30m is more of an effort than running 26.2 in 2h10m?

Anonymous said...

just look at the overall standings. The top 30 men are 1min apart, the top 30 women are 5 mins apart. If there was distance or time parity that would be 7-8min. Not very exciting. When the womens field becomes better overall I think you might be able to make this argument. until then I think the distances need to stay shorter so that some semblance of excitement exists.

Mountainmums said...

I'm always amazed at hjow much of an old boy's club XCskiing remains even today. As a woman racer,I'm appaled at today's women's race profile. The worst thing is that it takes away from strong skiers (think Steira) who probably would have stood a much better chance with a real XC race course. And thus takes away from the appeal of the women's event.
Even if there are physiological differences between men and women, it does not warrant these huge distance differences. In long distance races (such as Worldloppets) women race the same distances as men. Yes, women are able to race the 90k Vasaloppet. Many women regularly race 42ks, even though they are far from WC shape. They even beat guys... Really!!
As for the depth of field argument, I'm not sure it's all that relevant. The racing would surely be different if the distances are.
On a side note, a couple of years ago, Therese Johaug beat Norwegian National team members in an end of season uphill XC race. Just sayin we aren't as weak as some big old machos make us out to be.

Anonymous said...

Norwegian team doctor says there is no reason why the ladys can`t go the same distance as men.
It`S only done out of old habit

Personally i think womens races shud be longer so they take approximately the same amount of time as mens race`s and not be the exact same distance.

Anonymous said...

hey I am not saying that women cannot ski as far as the men, only that the TV ratings (something that is not relevant in loppets) would be very poor due to the lack of depth in the field. TV ratings are the deciding factor when it comes to World Cup Racing format. For those of you who do not think TV ratings matter, just look at the changes in formats in the last 10 years. Sprinting, mass starts, Tour de Ski all are made for TV.

Colin R said...

TV ratings are interesting.

It seems to me that the added length of the men's race just means more time for everyone to stand around and draft each other. Currently, I watch because I think "maybe this is the time someone tries attacking early," but if this racing style continues for five more years I will definitely become a "watch the last 15 minutes" kind of viewer, like I am with basketball.

Is a bunch of men skiing in a group, doing nothing, really that exciting?

Anonymous said...

sure, you may not think the mass start races are not exciting. I think individual start races can be pretty exciting myself. The fact remains, FIS is trying to create excitement for TV and therefore revenue with the formats. Women racing alone 5 mins apart from eachother over 50km is not exciting because the field has spread out so much is not exciting and would be a TV bomb. It is a big reason why women racing is shorter.
This is fact, I am not trying to convince you, only to help you understand.

Anonymous said...

Ulvang says he is considering extending the length of the womens races.

I agree with Colin with the exception of the 50k in Trondheim last year mass starts for men are extremely boring.
And that was a very hard course with a long loop. Something that is not common in the world cup.

And if you look at the relatively easy course of the Olympics well..

Christopher Tassava said...

Google's translation of that article that Anonymous mentions:

"During Wednesday's Tour de Ski was the boys 35 km, while the girls had to settle for 16 km. Then said the leader in cross-country committee in Skiforbundet, Hermod Bjørkestøl, to Adresseavisen that this was something that "hanging back" from Gamel days.

Now, Vegard Ulvang in FIS give girls the same challenges as the guys.

- It is true that Hermod Bjørkestøl says that it is historically conditioned that the girls are shorter than boys. But I see no reason why women and men should not go the same distances, "says Ulvang to Adresseavisen today.

He has the support of the Norwegian girls. In Adresseavisen Wednesday termed Kristin Størmer Steira it as "strange" that the girls almost consistent to go shorter than boys. Marthe Kristoffersen stated that "we are able to go the same distance as the boys."

- There is no physiological reason why this is so, says Ulvang.

For there to be change in the regulations, he is however dependent on the support of the national associations. Norway's sports chief, Åge Skinstad, is not alien to such a model.

- Wednesday in the Tour de Ski actualize the case. Trail of the girls were not complete. We should not strive for that all distances should be equal, but it is possible to customize. I think we should put in place a pilot scheme in which the girls can go longer distances, "said Skinstad.

Vegard Ulvang says that the only argument he can find to defend the current practice is the entertainment aspect."

Colin R said...

Vegard Ulvang's got my back!

Amy said...

Umm, as a female middle distance athlete in multiple sports I can tell you that there is no physiologic reason for women to race shorter distances (it would only be a valid argument if women were racing men). I have competitively rowed (2 k sprint, 5 k head race)and swam (500, 1000 yd and mile). We race same distance as the men, yes it takes different times- so what? Unless the worry is time on the course for logistical reasons (bullshit since road races don't change for women at marathon) there is no other rationale. I ski some- don't live northern enough anymore to get out often enough but i know how much XC takes out of you- so what? It might lead to a different profile and more racers not less if you up the distance... again, all to the good. There is no rationale that makes scientific, physiologic or any other sense for women to race shorter or different courses other than residual ideas that women are less capable. Yes it won't be the same race- again, so what????? Celebrate it for what it is, a bunch of amazingly tough women kicking ass on the course.