My trip to gender equality in sports coverage

I just returned from a terrific work-related trip to the lovely and truly impressive Lund University in Sweden. When planning my trip, I realized that I would also be there for the Tjejvasan, a 30 km women’s cross-country ski race in the heart of Sweden. Unfortunately, with 10,000 women signed up for the event, the race was full. I nonetheless held out hope that I might find someone to sell me their bib (which is permitted). Sadly, I eventually realized that even with a bib, it would be logistically impossible to get myself from Lund to the race. I felt pretty disappointed. How often does one get the chance to ski a race with 10,000 other women, and in Sweden no less? The disappointment deepened when I realized I was also going to be in Sweden for the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships and there was no way I could be a spectator at any of the events.

But I ended up having an unexpected and really awesome vicarious ski experience in Sweden. It turns out that coverage of cross-country skiing in the Swedish media is terrific. Whenever I turned on my TV in the hotel, cross-country skiing was on. I asked one of the guys at the conference about this and he said “Oh yes, in Sweden we love our skiing!” The 90km Vasaloppet cross-country ski race is apparently the most watched sporting event of the year.

But what was most striking was the coverage of women’s skiing. They had full coverage of women’s events, complete with post-race commentary and panel discussions. It was on par with the coverage of men’s skiing. My experience of watching the Swedish women’s ski events was therefore kind of surreal: it was as though I was suddenly dropped into an alternate reality where women’s athleticism is valued as much as men’s athleticism.

Of course, Sweden still has a way to go towards women’s equality in sports and sports media coverage (through probably not as far as most other countries, including Canada). And a lot of this has to do with factors beyond Sweden’s—or any individual country’s—control. All of the women’s cross-country ski events in the FIS World Championships and the Olympics are set for shorter distances than the men’s events. These restrictions have no good rationale: women can unquestionably compete the same distances as men. And they prevent women from experiencing and showcasing their full athleticism.

These points are underscored by women’s participation in the 90 km Vasaloppet, the final race in a week of races that includes the Tjejvasan. The Vasaloppet is mixed gender and has a men’s winner and a women’s winner. While only 2000 of the 15,800 participants this year are women, they can be expected to do very well in the race. Last year, Laila Kveli won the women’s class with a time of 4:31:57.30, and did so without using grip wax – the first woman to do so in this race. The male winner – John Kristian Dahl – had a time of 4:14:33.75. (Also notable is the age range of participants from 19 to 89. If you are looking for life-long sporting passion, you can’t beat cross-country skiing!)

Anyway, as annoying as I find the gender inequities in competitive cross-country skiing, I am grateful for my encounter with Sweden’s media coverage of skiing. If only for a short time, I experienced what equality in women’s sports coverage might be like. This is one reason why I will be watching the 2015 Vasaloppet today—on Swedish SVT online.

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