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‘Girl races’ risk diminishing women’s sports

Medal from the world’s oldest women’s running race, the New York Mini 10K. Women’s sports races have since become a huge success, but there are many participants who don’t feel comfortable.

Women-only sports races have become a strong trend and fill an important need. But the races are often framed and marketed in a way that reinforces stereotypes and risks contributing to a diminishing of women’s sports.

Karin S. Lindelöf conducts research on women’s sports races.
PHOTO: JULIA BENJAMINSON

Women have long been excluded from sports races. There are a lot of stories about women who attempted in various ways to participate in races they were excluded from. Women could participate in competitive sports when they were young, but sports races have been a strictly male arena. Today, women’s races are an important part of the broad spectrum of fitness sports.

What is often called the world’s first women’s race, the 10-kilometre New York Mini, was launched in 1972. It is since served as an inspiration and model for women’s races in various sports around the world. These races are called ‘women’s races’ worldwide, except in Sweden and Norway, where they are instead referred to as ‘girl races’.

“When they first appeared, women’s races met a need and a desire among women, who wanted a free zone without being compared with male athletic norms,” says Karin S. Lindelöf, PhD in Ethnology and Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Research at Uppsala University. “I’ve interviewed many women who say that they will never again participate in a mixed-gender race. They mention things like elbows to the face at the starting line, unsafe environments and being constantly measured against male norms.”

Lindelöf leads a research project on ‘girl races’ as a cultural phenomenon and collects data through participant narratives, interviews and archives. Some data is also collected as field observations through the researcher’s own participation in the races.

‘Swedish’ framing of the New York Mini 10K

Lindelöf and project colleague Annie Woube participated in the New York Mini 10K as part of the research project and decided to travel with a Swedish travel agency that arranges trips to running competitions around the world.

“It was interesting,” she says. “The Swedish travel agency added a framing for the Swedish participants, with a jam-packed schedule, as if no free time was allowed. One of the activities was a group picnic in Central Park after the race – something that the American organisers do not have.”

It was not by chance that the first women’s race was a running event. Running is a fast and effective form of exercise, while other sports, cycling for example, require much more time for training.

“There were, and still are, cultural norms that prevent women from taking time for exercise – they can’t be away from home too long,” she says. “Running therefore became an accessible form of exercise for women.”

Pros and cons of ‘girl races’

There is a tension in the ‘girl race’ circuit today, says Lindelöf.

“Of course women’s races are a good thing, but the way they are often framed risks diminishing women’s sports and could contribute to reinforcing stereotypes.”

She shows examples of marketing materials for the Vasaloppet ski race, in which the organisers advertise pre-race evenings for men and for women. The men are invited to learn about waxing skis, while the women are offered a festive evening with ‘extra everything’ about shopping and fashion, with male pop stars as emcees.

“We’ve interviewed and read narratives from many women who have participated in various ‘girl races’ and many of them are quite torn,” says Lindelöf. “They participate in spite of the framing, but find it rather irritating. The women describe the women’s races as a great feeling, with a broad line-up spanning all ages, from elite athletes to recreational joggers. Women’s races become a motivation greater than oneself and therefore fill an important need despite the framing that many women do not identify with.”

Women’s sports threatening

In recent years, this framing has been given increasing attention. It is not uncommon for there to be debate about logotypes, images or the types of gifts presented after the race.

“It is still the case that sport as an institution is male-dominated and women’s sports are viewed as threatening – something that has to be kept on the sidelines and not really considered sport under male norms.”

But the findings of the research project are beginning to spread throughout the sports world and organisers of women’s races have begun to contact the researchers to find out more. A clear example of this change is the Tjejmarathon running race.

“They’ve come full circle,” says Lindelöf. “The Tjejmarathon started in 2012 as a bit tougher, longer ultramarathon for women who compete while also raising money for charity. Then they turned things around and invited men to participate in the race as well.”

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Facts

The research project ‘Girl Races as a cultural phenomenon: conditions for women’s fitness sports’ is carried out in cooperation with the Nordic Museum, the National Sports Museum and the Institute for Language and Folklore. The project is financed by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences and the Swedish Research Council for Sport Science. The primary focus of the study is the women’s races Tjejvasan (Vasaloppet ski race), Tjejvättern (cycling race around Lake Vättern), Tjejmilen (10K running race) and Vårruset (5K running/jogging/walking race).

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2017-03-31