The most powerful images of women in competitive cycling and motocross? Not the ones of female competitors with sweat dripping from beneath their helmets or powering through the final bend. Instead, they’re of the bikini-clad podium girls, women hired to wear tight clothing, hand out prizes to the competitors and get sprayed with champagne.
This week, cyclist Zoe Leverant summarized the disparities in men's and women's racing and called for a need to put the brakes on the use of podium girls in an essay for Brooklyn-based cycling blog Pretty Damned Fast, saying that "by using podium girls while continuing to exclude women from most of the race, [the Tour de France] is — intentionally or not — telling elite women that models, not athletes, belong in front of the cameras."
And in 2015, when most action sports have finally begun to level the scales with more positive images of female athletes and improving equality in prize payouts and televised coverage, podium girls need to go. That's why she's calling for growing support for the #NoPodiumGirls social-media campaign, a viral protest against podium girls.
"Kora Colasuonno started the hashtag, and we are happy to add our voices to the growing chorus," says Pretty Damned Fast cofounder Anna Maria Diaz-Balart, who said she knew she needed to publish Leverant's essay after getting kicked off one of her favorite social-media feeds for asking that they not post podium-girl photos.
"I was stunned that merely asking got me removed from the community. We are bombarded with sexualized and objectified images of women all day long. Was it really too much to ask producers of new media to focus their lenses on something else?"
— CycleCam (@cyclecam) March 31, 2013
"They are a sad distraction, and they suck up media time that should be spent on competition," she adds. "Payouts and coverage should be equal, but they aren't. Podiums with models on them are certainly not part of the solution.”
Leverant is quick to clarify that her views are not a "condemnation of the podium girls themselves … [they] fulfill a role they did not invent, and they are neither wrong nor shameful for their choice." Rather, she says, cycling and motocross are shameful for providing it.
It's not all just innocent fun, either. In 2013, the second-place finisher of the Tour of Flanders race groped podium girl Maja Leye while she kissed the cheek of the first-place winner. Her assault became a running joke among tour organizers, who used a picture of a woman's behind and a slogan asking who would "squeeze them" at the competition this year.
Pretty Damned Fast hopes the growing conversation among cycling fans will spill over into other action sports — especially motocross, where it took until 2013 for a woman to be awarded an invitation to the freestyle motocross event at the X Games.
"Not only is [motocross] a male-dominated sport where women are trying to make strides, but the podium girls are treated even more grossly," says Pretty Damned Fast cofounder Taylor Dube. "Sexual assault, champagne spraying and tight outfits are the norm."
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