The Tokyo Olympic Race Paradox

Earlier this August, the UCI unveiled the men’s and women’s road race courses for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. The men’s race course has three climbs and the inclusion of the lower slopes of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji. However, the women’s course is nearly 100 kilometres shorter and well over 2000 metres less hilly, and doesn’t include Mount Fuji or its challenging and potentially race-determining climbs.

Sports writers, commentators, fans, and some riders have openly criticized the differences from the moment the courses were announced. Many of the harshest critics pointed out that the UCI and the International Olympic Committee have put forward equality measures and promises, but that the disparity between the men’s and women’s races shows that there is no real progress – yet another example of women’s cycling being undermined. But is that really what the riders want? 

“A side-by-side comparison: Men’s race = 130 riders, 234 kilometres and 4,865 metres of elevation. Women’s race = 67 riders, 137 kilometres and 2,692 metres of elevation.”

Inequality is one of the main challenges facing women’s cycling, but this situation is more complex than just one race in our calendar. While much of the fire raged over social media, The Cyclists’ Alliance reached out and spoke to a number of riders from all corners of our sport. We also held a short poll over our Facebook page to get additional viewpoints.

The women’s peloton is stronger than ever before, as evidenced in the increasingly competitive and exciting Giro Rosa or the hilly La Course races these past two years. We are more than capable of tackling the world’s most punishing climbs and simultaneously putting on a great show. Viewership of women’s racing is increasing, while TV viewing of men’s racing hasn’t changed much over the past 10 years.

But it is also hard to ignore some of our recent race courses, such as at last year’s Bergen (NO) World’s where the women’s time trial course omitted the exciting Mount Floyen hilltop finish, or even the upcoming World’s in Austria where the potentially decisive 28% climb up Gramartboden will not be contested by the women. 

Adding to the perception of inequity – and despite the growing strength and depth of our fields – the men’s Olympic field will consist of the world’s best 130 riders, but the women are limited to just 67 riders. The 2024 IOC commitment for “all team sports/disciplines/events to ensure an equal number of teams and where appropriate, an equal number of athletes for both genders” does not explicitly address road cycling and the disparity between rider quotas.

It is therefore understandable that 2012 Olympic champion and UCI commissions member Marianne Vos would tweet, “Riders make the race, but the signal that goes out from this different course types for men and women is not the equality #IOC aims for.”

2016 Olympic bronze Medalist Elisa Longo Borghini gave a similar impression. “I’m not saying I want to be treated exactly like the men. We don’t have to race 250 kilometres, but in terms of our capabilities, our worth, I think we are once again being underestimated,” she said.

“I want a course with the same features as the men’s race. At least give us Mount Fuji. Not only is it a challenging climb, it’s an icon. It’s a symbol of Japan and of the Olympic Games and we are more than capable of climbing it. The level of women’s cycling is really, really high right now and I want to put that on show in Tokyo.”

“I don’t agree with the course but I think the priority here in terms of equality is having an equal amount of riders, which means a stronger peloton – Elisa Longo Borghini.”

The course has many merits, even though it does not tackle Mount Fuji a second time before the fan-friendly finishing circuit on the Fuji International Speedway. It will by no means be an easy race,and in terms of public exposure and athletic ability, it will provide our sport a huge opportunity to connect to a truly global audience.  Marianne and Elisa make valid points about the difference in difficulty, but have also hinted at a more important concern: opportunities for more riders to race.

It is often assumed that the women’s peloton has a desire for our courses to be the same as the men’s, but our poll and outreach showed a different side to how women in the sport truly see the inequity in the situation. In the results of our sampling, it is actually the smaller size of our entrants which is the greatest concern: 62% of the respondents think the course is just right, but want more recognition with a bigger and more representative field.

The riders would instead like to know why women’s teams in the road race are competing with half as many athletes as the men’s teams, and if this will be addressed in time for the 2024 road race. Capping our field to just 67 riders, at a time when the depth of our talent pool is rapidly expanding, is limiting the opportunities for women riders to showcase themselves on the Olympic stage.

“There was a lot of reaction when the Tokyo courses were announced, but I’m generally not one to complain about the courses; I think the riders make the race and if you look at the course in and of itself and not compare it to the men’s race, it’s actually quite hard,” commented US National Champion Coryn Rivera.

“Perhaps we should stop comparing our side of the sport with the men’s. We are our own sport and I don’t think this is bringing the right kind of attention to the sport. I know the peloton is split on this, but whether the course changes or not, I think it’ll be a really good race.”

Gracie Elvin, a TCA Board Member and an Olympic hopeful, has a similar perspective. "I think that the course is actually going to be really good and make for an exciting race. It has plenty of climbing but leaves open the chance for the all-rounders to come back late, or even survive the main climb, and make the finale on the Speedway very entertaining and unpredictable.”

In fact, with 2,693 metres of elevation gain over just 137 kilometres, the Tokyo course is significantly more challenging than the 2016 Olympic road race course in Rio — which turned out to be a real nail-biter of a race — and, in comparison to other courses on the women’s calendar, it’s one of the hardest we have yet seen.

“I think I have many opinions about [the women's racing at Tokyo 2020]. I don’t agree with the course but I think the priority here in terms of equality is having an equal amount of riders, which means a stronger peloton,” said Longo Borghini.

Rivera, a proponent of the course, agreed, saying, "On this Olympic level, the greater debate is the number of riders who get to compete. We usually race with six riders to a team and at Tokyo the most riders allowed on a team is four riders. That’s not enough and to me, that’s the more important fight.”

“Perhaps we should stop comparing our side of the sport with the men’s. – U.S. Champ Coryn Rivera”

The “Olympic Paradox” for women cyclists is exactly why the Alliance is trying answer the question of what true equality looks like. Is it race opportunities or parity in course distances and features? And will it take more rider input and representation of women in cycling’s governing bodies to have a say in those competitive decisions?

We are continuing to gain insight, and we want to hear from more riders – current professionals and those who have recently retired from our sport – and not just the loud few.

Equality in elite level cycling is a complicated matter, and we should not wait for others to solve the issue for us. Together, we can influence all of the important factors which will help our sport to flourish and improve your careers in cycling. But we can't succeed without your voice and your help.

If you are a member, continue to share your views and insights with us, and if you haven't joined The Cyclists' Alliance, please consider doing so today.

Our aim is to be the united voice of the peloton and to represent the common goals of the riders and advocate for fairness and equality in cycling. No matter where you stand on this issue, or any other issue concerning women's cycling, we want you to be able to share it with us and the peloton so that we can begin to make better decisions for our sport in a fair and collective manner.

We believe that if the riders can come together and have a bigger input into the decision making process, the appeal and profile of women's cycling will also increase – and it is clear that the women’s peloton agrees with us on this point. Therefore, fighting for an equal quota for the 2024 Olympics will now be one of our main objectives.

Written by Anne-Marije Rook

Leave a Reply