1. The story of the pinch
After the Tour of Flanders at the end of March, Cannondale rider Peter Sagan caused controversy in the cycling world and beyond by pinching the bottom/behind/butt (choose your country’s preferred slang as our readers are from all over the world) of one of the podium girls who was occupied planting a kiss on the cheeks of the winner. For those unfamiliar with the ways of professional cycling, that’s what podium girls do.
Jane Aubrey, in Cycling News, writes:
“The move by the 23-year-old was crass to say the least, but it was just another example of disrespect being shown against women in cycling. Ask yourself, on a day where the great Marianne Vos ticked off one of the few major races she had yet to add to her extensive palmares, why instead of celebrating another achievement by one of the most prolific athletes in the sport regardless of gender, we were again left to consider ways in which cycling sets women back and an industry that – at times – perpetuates a misogynistic attitude.”
Aubrey does a terrific job listing and tearing apart the excuses offered up in Sagan’s defense. He’s 23. So? A talented rider? Non sequitur. It was a joke? Of course. And the most pernicious, she was asking for it. Because podium girls, hired for their good looks for the job of kissing winning male cyclists, agreed to have their bottoms pinched? I don’t think so. It’s sexual harassment. Aubrey notes that we can clearly see the woman in question trying to move the rider in question’s hand. Receiving pinches isn’t in her job description.
You can read the rest of Aubrey’s piece here, The bottom line on Sagan’s Flanders podium pinch.
You can also get a flavour of the comments chucked about here where critics of Sagan’s pinch are called, “Humourless Puritans – ignorant knee-jerks since the 15th Century.” It’s not pretty. Some of the commentators claim that she was his girlfriend. She isn’t.
Here’s her side, from a story that focuses on her reaction, Podium girl Maja Leye says she fought to keep calm as Peter Sagan pinched her behind: 25-year-old says she was “frozen to the spot” and only the thought of millions watching helped her keep her composure.
“Maja Leye, aged 25, who was planting the traditional kiss on the cheek of winner Fabian Cancellara when Sagan touched her, told Het Nieuwsblad: “Suddenly, I felt this hand. I hadn’t seen it coming because I had my back to him. I understood quickly what had happened. I was frozen to the spot.”Leye admitted that she fleetingly considered slapping the Cannondale rider, but believes that had she reacted, the situation would have gone from bad to worse.”
2. An excellent question: Why are there podium girls anyway?
In a column in the Guardian Matt Seaton writes,
“But perhaps the controversy lifts the lid on an issue cycling needs to look at anew: is the use of models as some kind of uncomfortable hybrid of hostess and shamelessly exploitative “eye candy” now outmoded and inappropriate to the modern sport?
In amateur races, it’s not unusual for a woman to award the trophies to winners in men’s races, but she will often be a local dignitary of the host town. The clue is in the word “dignitary”. So does professional cycling really need to award winners kisses from “trophy” females?
The whole spectacle is unbecoming – not just tacky and embarrassing, but retrograde and demeaning. It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the institutionalized sexism of the “podium girls” convention is of a piece with entrenched attitudes that relegate women’s racing to “poor relation” status. Cycling is a sport that loves to celebrate its traditions, but this is one it ought to leave by the roadside.”
Yes, it’s time to to say goodbye to the tradition of podium girls. Even as eye candy, it assumes that all the male professional cyclists are straight. They aren’t.
3. My one time experience with something like podium girls
I was at an academic conference once with the equivalent of podium girls. It was a very odd experience. It was a meeting of The International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (IVR) in Granada, Spain. That conference was also notable for the most impressive piece of coloured parchment I’ve ever received. I needed to show my passport to pick it up. It was signed by the mayor of the city and it seriously looks more official than either of my university degrees. So I got a sense that it was an old-fashioned, bureaucratic event right from the day of my arrival when I was presented with my scroll. (I’d tell you what it says but it’s in Spanish.)
Granada struck me as an old-fashioned place. My hotel concierge told me the internet shut down in Spain for two hours after lunch for a siesta. I felt like a workaholic North American trying to argue about the difference between the internet being closed and turning off one’s hotel wireless.
It was also the only academic conference I’ve ever attended with an excess of conference staff. The women were young, thin, and beautiful and wore tight fashionable tailored suits with heels and mini skirts. They sort of looked like I imagine flight attendants looked back when they were called “stewardesses” or maybe even “air hostesses.” These women–I mentally thought of them as the doo wop girls, or our back up singers–accompanied us on sight seeing trips organized by the conference and for key note addresses they stood on stage flanking the speaker lest a pen be dropped or, shudder, a glass of water run dry. It looked like an easy job, except for the heels.
Philosophers are a naive lot. One American man said to me what a shock it was that all the women looked alike. They were all so thin, so beautiful. What a coincidence. Did all the women in Granada look this? (He also obviously hadn’t left the conference hotel.) Clearly it hadn’t occurred to him that it might be a job criteria, a ground on which they were hired.
Ditto the podium girls in cycling. They are another fine European tradition. There are no bad looking podium girls since being good looking is basically the whole job. That and smiling. And cheek kissing.
But not being pinched.
The IVR conference staff made me feel uncomfortable in the same way that I imagine women riders feel about the podium girls. They emphasize old fashioned and outmoded ways of being in the world, where men do (give academic talks and race bicycles) and women respond (kiss, applaud, refill glasses of water.)
That world is over, thank God, and it’s time to say goodbye to podium girls.
4. Where women belong in cycling, on bikes and in races
Oh, and here’s the best image from the Tour of Flanders, Marianne Vos winning. You can read more about her victory here.
5. Past posts on women’s cycling
Thanks AB for sending me the links.