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Last updated 11:05 03/04/2013

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Sometimes I wonder if the reason race winners so often get a bottle of Moet upon completion of their sisyphean effort (aside from the obvious phallic implications of giving everyone a spray) is to keep their hands occupied.

What happens if they don't have something to fiddle with on the podium, you ask? If cyclist Peter Sagan's behaviour this week is any indication, why, they reach for the nearest female bottom.

Second-placed Sagan thought it would be completely hilarious if, while Tour Of Flanders winner Fabian Cancellara was being congratulated by two 'podium girls', he went for the grope. Grinning like a schoolboy who has just composed a thrilling new verse of Diarrhea, Sagan aped for the gathered press as he pinched the blonde model's bum. What larks!

Many of Sagan's peers, as well as the greater cycling community, sprang to the defense of the model; British cyclist Michael Hutchinson gave Sagan a serve via Twitter, scolding the 23-year-old, "Shame that Peter Sagan has so much class on a bike and so very little off it".

Eventually Sagan offered a trite apology, seemingly stunned that the world hadn't appreciated his sparkling wit: "Was not my intention to disrespect women today on the podium. Just a joke, sorry if someone was disturbed about it."

Whether or not Sagan is a dropkick isn't really the point here. The greater issue is why, in 2013, "podium girls" are still a feature of the competitive cycling circuit. (And you can substitute in grid girls, cheerleaders, half-time dancers, or whatever other skimpily dressed babes are relevant to your men's sport of choice.) My answer would be "no", and I'm certainly not alone in thinking they are a relic of another less enlightened era.

Discussing the debacle in the Guardian's SportsBlog, Matt Seaton argued as much, too: "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."

When I was a young teen, my dream was to become a racecar driver when I grew up (I wasn't particularly fussy about which sort, though the prestige and blood-curdling danger of F1 usually won out). Once it became clear that female drivers were not only exceedingly rare but, when they did get a chance to hit the track, marginalised to ridiculous levels, at the age of 21 I ditched the driving dream and became a grid girl at the V8s instead. (I'm sure I don't need to illustrate how profoundly depressing a dream downgrade that was.)

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My shaky justification for the decision was something along the lines of "I might get to meet The Enforcer" mixed with a bit of undergrad third-wave feminist "logic" about infiltrating bikini parades and a shake of " it'll be good material".

Standing next to the car on the grid, holding a "lollipop", was fine; you got to talk to the crew and had a good view of whichever F-lister was singing the national anthem that race. My experience "at the track", on the other hand, was hellish. My dream of having anything vaguely meaningful to do with motorsport were dashed as it became clear very quickly that we were there to serve one purpose only: as attractive pieces of meat.

We were instructed to move through the crowd in groups of two or three, allegedly so one of us could take photos of the other with motorsport fans who were dazzled by our abbreviated bright orange Lycra "V8 Supergirl" playsuits. We were groped, catcalled, kissed, breathed on, had beer spilled on us, were harassed and, just like the 'podium girl' who had the misfortune to stand next to Sagan, had our bums pinched.

Though my time in that environment was mercifully brief, it was enlightening: how could female drivers hope to gain opportunities or respect, I thought, when the only other women in the racing universe were there to serve as sex objects?

There's certainly a school of thought that sees sports like the V8s or NASCAR as a bit declasse; of course, runs the logic, meathead sports events attract caveman gender politics. But as Peter Sagan's grabby hands have demonstrated this week, the same question can be asked of any sport that still employs women as any sort of "prize enhancer" or morale booster, even a "gentleman's sport" like cycling.

- Daily Life


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