Words by Sadhbh O’Shea | Photo by SWpix.com
The sport of cycling has long been a man’s world, where women fight for space and recognition. So, it was with plenty of fanfare that, for the first time in the sport’s history, an equal number of men and women would be awarded places at the 2024 Olympic Games. As with anything that relates to gender equality, it sparked a vociferous debate, particularly as equality for women came at the expense of the men.
Cycling has five disciplines at the Olympic Games with road, track, mountain bike, BMX and BMX Freestyle park. Parity already existed the last three and it has been moving towards that on the track, but the road has long been behind the curve in gender equality – as it has been away from the Olympic Games. Gender parity has been a goal for the UCI at the event, but it was a very easily won fight given the drive by the International Olympic Committee to achieve the same.
Cycling is not alone in this and the 2024 Games will be the first where all events have equal participation between genders. It seems like a good moral victory, but the UCI will need to continue doing much more to provide any sort of equality for women in the sport.
In this newly equal Olympic world both genders will have 90 competitors on the road – which includes the road race and time trial – down from 130 for the men’s and up from 67 for the women. Track cycling, which had already made some strides towards parity, also struck its balance with 95 places each, compared to 98-91 in favour of the men. Unlike previous years, this has not been done by removing an event but moving additional rider quota over to the women’s team sprint. The change results in a loss of 17 places in the road racing overall and a gain of one in the track.
It is disappointing and a little frustrating to see the overall number of cycling spots cut, particularly as breakdancing is added to the Olympics, but it comes as the competition looks to trim the number of competing athletes. Almost 400 spots will be cut across the entire spectrum of sports.
The number of riders competing in the men’s event has never been a fixed figure and it has moved around drastically over the years. However, the last time it was ridden by such a small field was the 1956 Melbourne Olympics where just 88 rode. Back then, women didn’t even have any cycling events, in any discipline. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1984 that women got their own road race with just 45 competitors. The men’s entry list has only ever been smaller in the first ever modern Olympics in 1896. The women were gifted a single track event in 1988 and another the following year. It wasn’t until 2012 that men and women were granted the same number of medal opportunities.
Since the announcement of the change in qualification spots, my thoughts on it have oscillated. I would rather that women’s numbers were pulled up to that of the men than the men’s numbers being pulled down, but that was never going to happen with the IOC’s drive to reduce participants across the board. The only way that women were ever going to reach parity in this setting was to reduce the number of male participants. With this in mind, I’m delighted that at least in one cycling arena women will have parity. It has taken over 120 years to get there but we finally have it.
The changes will have an impact on both events, but the biggest is most likely to be in the men’s road race. It will mean that the ability to use the allocation in one discipline to help bolster another – as France did by entering track sprinter Grégory Baugé into the 2012 men’s road race – will be significantly diminished. It’s also likely to mean that some smaller nations will miss out on cycling spots altogether. Primarily, however, it will change how the road race is contested. We don’t yet know what impact the change will have on size of teams, but they are more than likely going to be reduced from their already diminished size. Smaller teams will make the race even harder to control than usual and increase the odds in the favour of a small breakaway, something that is not unusual for the Olympic Games anyhow.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, I saw a comment that said cycling was ruining the men’s race in favour of equality for women. It is far too early to say if it will damage the spectacle of the men’s race, but the women have been giving us exciting contests with far fewer riders over the years. Perhaps, this is not something that has been taken away from the men but an opportunity to see what can be done differently. I for one and excited to see what it means.
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