Contributing Editor for The Master Skier
J.D. Downing is a master skier and coach from Bend, Oregon and is the National Director of American Cross Country Skiers (AXCS).
The demographics are startling! Every recent survey or measurement of the North American cross country ski population shows that women comprise at least 50% of all XC skiers. In some cases, research shows that women are slightly ahead on the total head count.
Yet in nearly every corner of the U.S., if you pick a copy of race results and factor the ratio of men to women competitors, the numbers tell a far different story.
In some cases during the 1999/2000 winter, prominent U.S. events saw a ratio of 4:1, men to women.
The disparity is so bad that organizers are often impressed when they see a ration of 2:1, ...let alone the rare situation where women will equal or outnumber men.
It can (and does) happen from time to time but when the total participation numbers are virtually equal, the critical question remains why aren’t more women competing in XC ski races?
I conducted an informal poll last winter at the St. Paul National Masters and other major events and found a few possible explanations.
Of course the problem in this very unscientific poll was that I was questioning women who were already competing. To get the really valuable information, a survey needs to be taken on female skiers that are NOT competing.
At any rate, in many cases the women who were polled cited the intimidation factor of competing next to males as a big reason for not competing or being hesitant to enter races.
Numerous examples were given of males using their size and speed to advantage off the start, only to later fade and block trails.
When women tried to pass, a common complaint was of males “refusing to be passed by a women”, speeding up then later slowing down to block the trail again.
The process repeating throughout races. Other stories were provided ranging from terse verbal exchanges to direct physical contact from both male and other female competitors.
Beyond the anecdotal evidence, one can take a quick look at race marketing efforts to see how little is done to encourage participation by average women.
I can testify that this is often a logistical issue rather than desire. When preparing promotional materials for the 2001 Subaru National Masters (with a female organizing chair and a female graphic artist), we literally could not find suitable pictures that featured average female competitors.
Further, in talking with a few female non-competitors (several very good athletes in other endurance sports), XC racing presented itself in such a complex logistical way, that they preferred to simply ski and hardly ever compete.
Everything from waxing to the difficulty of downhills were mentioned as major disincentives for entering races that they otherwise would have loved to participate in.
But why is this relative lack of female racers a problem for all of us?
The short answer is that it explains a great deal about the relative lack of growth within performance XC skiing over the past decade.
This has implications ranging from the sheer cost of races to the choice we all have in products and programs over the next ten years.
At the 2000 National Masters had we seen a 50/50 ratio of men and women, instead of 600+ competitors the total number would have been closer to 800+.
For a ski company selling “X” number of pairs of skis...they would see an overnight increase of 20-40% in sales.
Additional examples abound where increasing the number of females competing would have a massive positive impact on the sport.
What to do about the problem is another matter.
In the short term one thing that all Master skiers can do this winter is simply to make an effort to encourage female race participation by thought, word and deed.
Just having a few thousand advocates for female racing would make a tremendous impact.
On a more tangible level, women only events are being held with significant success in places like Traverse City, Michigan and Anchorage, Alaska.
While often not “races” per se, these participation events may indeed set the stage for future participation by female skiers.
Finally, it is reasonable to ask that more race organizers and the overall ski industry reevaluate how we present racing to the skiing public and public-at-large.
The marketing approach that works for a 20-something male can be a real turn-off for a 40-something female.
Targeting what will work and what needs to be done to get the gals out there is a challenge our sport must face or risk the consequences.
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