At the Olympics, women run half as many cross-country skiers as men. But that could change.
ZHIANGJIAKOU, China — At the end of her very first Winter Olympics competition — a 15-kilometre effort that left her slumped on the ground gasping for air — Julia Kern considered the idea of running twice as far.
“Personally, I like shorter distances,” said Kern, a rising American star. But, she added, “I think equal time makes sense to me.”
Fairness, however, remains an elusive goal for athletes competing in Olympic cross-country ski races here.
In the opening competitions on Saturday and Sunday, the women ran 15 kilometres, while the men ran 30. In the relays later in the Games, the men will ski 10 kilometer stages while the women will run the half the distance. And when the men ski a 50 kilometer marathon as their last event, the women will run 30.
A group of Americans, including Team USA‘s biggest star, Jessie Diggins, have launched a campaign to change that.
“I think it’s really, really cool to see people who are really good at long range shooting, and we have very few chances,” Diggins said. “We train just as hard, just as hard as the men. As I’m sure you can see when I cross the finish line, we give so much every race. And so I think we should have the same opportunities for a variety of distances.
Sports leaders say discussions about closing this gender gap are taking place internationally. But there is no timetable or firm commitment yet.
And while fans say they’ve made progress on the US national race circuit, they point out that it’s hard to get traction without change at the top. This is because athletes and coaches want to ensure that promising athletes are preparing to compete at the highest levels of sport.
In the meantime, the frustration persists.
“We wonder why women are paid, like, 75% of what men are paid,” said Molly Peters, a college ski coach from Vermont who leads the group called Equal Distance. “I just think if women are going to be empowered and feel equal, the races should be the same.”
The fastest women in the world increasingly agree with Peters and Diggins, according to polls by the International Ski Federation. But not all.
“I think it’s good that way,” said Teresa Stadlober, the Austrian who won a bronze medal in Saturday’s Olympic opener. “Men are stronger. They have different muscles than us girls.
Therese Johaug of Norway, the winner of this race, also said the 15 kilometer distance – compared to 30 kilometers for the men – “is good for us”. “Maybe we could do 20,” she added. “But 15 years is also very good for me.”
Peters acknowledged that the idea of equalizing distances isn’t universally popular among women, which she attributes to some athletes’ comfort with the status quo.
“You’re going to want to keep doing what you’re most successful at,” she said.
Differences have been built into cross-country skiing for decades. And until recently, calls for fairness have not had much success.
At the Olympic level, there are gaps between men’s and women’s events in several other winter sports. Nordic combined lacks female competition.
But of the sports where women compete, cross-country skiing has the most events with substantial differences between women and men.
Until recently, ski federation polls showed the majority of women on the elite-level World Cup circuit “didn’t see the need for change”, said Pierre Mignerey, director of cross-country ski racing. the Federation. Last year was the first time that a narrow majority favored races over the same distance.
The ski federation, known as FIS, has set up a working group to study the idea.
But the process comes with tricky questions. Should women run longer distances? Or should the federation shorten the men’s events? Meet in the middle? Or run slightly different distances that take men and women the same amount of time?
And what about races where distances are part of the tradition, like the 50 kilometer and 30 kilometer events for men and women, respectively, held every year at Oslo’s Holmenkollen?
These questions, in turn, intersect with an ongoing FIS debate over which race formats and distances are most appealing to Europe-focused World Cup television audiences.
“You’ll sometimes hear, ‘Well, it’s hard to find TV time for both genders to go 50K,'” said Matt Whitcomb, the USA head coach. “Well, find him. Or shorten men. Otherwise, it’s a sexist system.
Any changes to the racing program must be proposed to the FIS board by the federation’s 20-nation cross-country committee, Mignerey said in an interview. Which means, he added, that all decisions are likely to be made by the biggest players in the sport.
“Basically, if the Scandinavians in cross-country are convinced that it’s a good change, there’s a big chance,” Mignerey said.
In Sweden, at least, several stars have weighed in against unequal running distances, with Frida Karlsson, 22, last year declaring the difference between 15 and 30 kilometer skiathlons “almost a bit offensive”.
“In football, ladies and gentlemen have 90 minutes, plus extra time. It’s the same in most sports,” Swedish sprint star Linn Svahn told media in his country. “I don’t see why it would not be the same in cross-country skiing.It is a conservative tradition that we should run less than the boys.
Norwegian men’s coach Eirik Myhr Nossum, in an interview, said his country was also open to a conversation about distances, and he called gender equality a “very important issue”.
But, he added: “I’m not sure having them running the same distances is the right way to say it’s gender equality. Gender quality should be paid for equally and I think the situation in cross-country skiing is pretty good. (Men and women earn the same amount of prize money on the World Cup circuit.)
As the FIS investigates the matter, changes are already happening in lower level races.
Sweden held tie races at a top national event last year.
In the United States, organizers ran into a problem when they tried to schedule a 7.5 kilometer race for men and women at a high-profile SuperTour event last weekend: the rules of the FIS stipulate that men cannot score distance classification points for races under 10 kilometres. For women, the minimum is only 5 kilometers.
But other SuperTour events have been equal. And Peters has made progress pushing regional races on the NCAA Tour in the same direction — though she’s still waiting for other coaches to agree on a change to nationals.
Peters, who coaches the St. Michael’s College ski team in Vermont, said it was “incredible” to see the women on her own team racing the same 20-kilometre event as the men for the first time this year – a step up from the 15 kilometers they used to run.
“It was so difficult,” Peters said. “The women were like, ‘We did it! We ran the same distances and we’re so proud of ourselves. And there was so much talk.