sexism in cycling: podium girls and the ‘bum pinching’ incident
The Tour of Flanders is a famous road cycling race held in Belgium every spring, and is an important race in the European professional calendar. But the most recent Tour of Flanders is perhaps most well-known among the public for an incident that occurred during the celebration of winner Fabian Cancellara. As Cancellara was being congratulated by two “podium girls,” Peter Sagan – a Slovakian cyclist – was photographed grabbing the bottom of one of the women.
The photo quickly became a controversy in both the media and online, and Sagan apologised, stating that he had not intended to disrespect Maja Leye, the aforementioned hostess, and that it had been ‘just a joke.’ He even bestowed a bouquet of flowers on Leye and, with that act, considered the matter closed.
The Internet was soon awash with images of supportive Slovakians posting photos of themselves engaged in bum pinching, showing their solidarity with their countryman, and a Facebook group urging members to pinch strangers’ bottoms in protest easily gained 5,000 supporters. For some, Sagan’s pinch was just an example of “boys being boys,” and anyone who decried the act could be accused of being unnecessarily politically correct or incapable of taking a joke. How could Sagan be decried as a sexist when he was clearly just having a laugh? But the incident has also sparked debate regarding attitudes – not just Sagan’s – towards women in the cycling world, both as podium girls and as athletes.
The podium girl, or hostess, is a good-looking woman hired expressly for the purpose of congratulating the winner of a race. Sagan’s supporters have leapt to his defence by claiming that because Leye had chosen to take a job as a podium girl, she must have been complicit in the act – even potentially hoping that it would happen.
‘Get over it ladies,’ one commenter wrote. ‘Women who are paid to be Barbie dolls deserve to get their bums pinched…that’s what they are for…!!!’ Another commenter added, ‘Maybe she was “in” on it. If so, there’s no story and NO outrage….. what rot. Who cares. I’d like to pinch it myself.’ Leye herself was quick to repudiate such claims. In an interview she stated that she was ‘frozen to the spot… I really thought about it. I had to stay professional. If I had reacted, the incident would have escalated. There were millions of TV viewers in front of their screens.’
Even if Leye had not directly stated that the pinch had made her feel uncomfortable, the fact remains that Sagan and his supporters have displayed a flawed and sexist rationale. In any other workplace, someone pinching their colleague’s bottom would be regarded as harassment, whether “well-intentioned” or not. But because Leye has chosen a job that relies on her being attractive and “flirtatious” towards the winner, Sagan’s supporters have deemed it appropriate to say that she was asking for it. If she’s willing to show that she is “interested” in one man (even if it is in her job description to do so), surely she must therefore be receptive to any and every advance that is made towards her?
This attitude is not limited to the cycling world, of course, but it does betray the poor position of women in the profession. Nicole Cooke, a Welsh cyclist who recently retired, bemoaned the lack of opportunities available to women in a statement earlier this year. Women’s professional cycling remains worryingly underfunded and in need of strong institutional support, and many races that were once organised for women have gone by the wayside. Perhaps most alarmingly, the UCI Road Commission has stated that whilst a minimum wage is required for all male professionals, women professionals do not receive the same protection. The UCI, by the way, is the world governing body of sports cycling and, since its formation in 1900, has overseen international competitive cycling events. Its underfunding of, and apparent disinterest in, women’s cycling is a serious problem.
While Sagan’s “playful behaviour” has been dismissed by many, it has unwittingly revealed outdated sexist attitudes in cycling. In mainstream cycling, women have been relegated to the status of “podium girl”, a shamelessly exploitative role which opens them up to harassment by supposedly “professional” male cyclists. Meanwhile, female cyclists find themselves underpaid, unsponsored, and with fewer opportunities than their male counterparts to receive recognition for their efforts.