Lizzie Armitstead is one of the U.K.’s Olympic darlings. On Saturday, she won a silver in the 140 kilometer bicycle road race — the first medal for the host country.
But while Armitstead was thrilled with her win, she also took advantage of the limelight to bring attention to something that was annoying her — Olympic sexism, and a lack of leadership on the issue from those who head up athletic associations.
Asked about her meeting with Pat McQuaid, president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), Armitstead brought up sexism, saying, “It was the kind of moment where you kind of want to say ‘Let’s sit down and have a conversation after this’”:
“It’s something that can get overwhelming and very frustrating, the sexism that I experience in my career,” she continued. “But it’s something that as an elite athlete that you just get used. At the moment there’s not much I can do to change it but after my (athletic) career I hope to.”
Asked to elaborate on the sexism, she said it was “obviously just a big issue in women’s sport.”
“The obvious things like salary, media coverage, just general things that you have to sort of cope with in your career. Like I say if you focus too much on that, you get very disheartened and I try to focus on the positives.”
Armistead said plenty could be done to improve the problem “but certainly I think we could get more help from the top — which is the UCI. Just certain things like forcing perhaps pro teams to have an equivalent women’s team et cetera, but I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives really.”
She raises a great question here about where it becomes McQuaid’s responsibility to step in. No one could have expected UCI’s president to to police the playground where Armitstead was teased as a kid, but it’s not unreasonable to think that a President of a major athletic league could influence, say, salary scales for athletes. Or give Armitstead a professional stage to perform on.
Armitstead could have given McQuaid a piece of her mind. It would have shown a different kind of leadership, and might have been gratifying for her. But ultimately that single action won’t change ingrained sexism in an institution. She says she doesn’t have time for anything bigger, like organizing female cyclists or filing a lawsuit. As she rightly points out, “the problem is we are elite athletes training every day trying our best every day. So it’s very difficult to try to come together when I’ve been at home five weeks this year, to try to tackle that massive issue.” That’s why it’s up to leadership to listen to its athletes and come up with solutions. It’s just that they too often don’t.
If Armitstead wants to fight sexism after her athletic career, she will be in good company: There are a record number of women athletes in the Olympics this year, many of whom are also experiencing sexism. And Olympians, when they are not in training, do have a stage on which to spread their message. It could be a long time, though, before 23-year-old Armitstead is done with cycling and ready to tackle sexism. Even then, she may not feel empowered to step up. When a reporter asked her point-blank if she’d seek legal action, Armitstead said, “it’s something I’m not qualified to even think about. I’m just a cyclist.”