Vicious cycle: the 'troublemakers' tackling sexism in elite sport
British Cycling has delivered some of the UK’s most stunning sporting triumphs over the past decade. But success has brought scrutiny – alongside parliamentary committee hearings about mysterious jiffy bags and reports of a slack approach to governance has been a relentless undercurrent of stories and testimony about sexism in the sport.
Most memorably perhaps, Jess Varnish went public with allegations against British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton in 2016. She claimed he had dropped her from the squad and told her “to go and have a baby”. He denied saying this.
Two years before this, gaining less public attention, Nicole Cooke documented with meticulous detail the sexism encountered throughout her international cycling career in her autobiography The Breakaway. And in evidence given to a Select Committee hearing, the road race gold medal winner from the Beijing Olympics said she had been branded a troublemaker. Both Cooke, and track cycling star Victoria Pendleton have spoken out in support of Varnish’s integrity and against the culture that became established in their sport.
That stack of evidence will only grow now that former road world champion and London Olympics silver medalist, Lizzie Armistead has raised the issue in her upcoming autobiography Steadfast. She includes the uncomfortable admission that she was perceived as the “plaything” of male cyclists at a party when she was a 19-year-old hopeful.
Perhaps more tellingly, however, you can also feel her reluctance to tackle the issue of sexism and a desire to set apart sporting achievement from that context. In an interview with the Guardian, she said:
I want to be world champion again, and that is the best way for me to represent my sport. Win it fiercely, win it impressively and excitingly. The equivalent man isn’t sat at every interview defending his sex, so I don’t feel that’s what I have to do.
This is a critical point about what it means to be a successful female athlete and to publicly tell a story of sexism in your sport.
Western contemporary culture has become defined in part by so-called “post-feminism”. We can best describe this as a kind of popular feminism where the idea has emerged of the “pretty and powerful” woman. Perhaps the iconic moment in the construction of this archetype came with the 1990s pop group The Spice Girls. The concept they popularised of “girl power” usefully illustrates the overemphasis on individual women’s so-called “empowerment”.
In recent years, post-feminism has been linked to an increase in the visibility of female athletes in the sporting media. Female athletes are often (self-) represented as strong and resistant to gendered limitations. This reinforces their seemingly abundant opportunities for liberation and upward mobility in elite competitive sport.
And so post-feminism demands that successful high-profile female athletes embody the normative signifiers of heterosexual femininity and competitive advantage. Many do – and their achievements as both “pretty and powerful” are hailed by post-feminism as proof of equal opportunity in western societies as well as in elite competitive sport.
For critical feminists, the warning is that when individual women “can have it all” we are not actually combating systemic gender inequalities. This is because the idea and actuality obscure the subtle, lived reality of everyday sexism. The idea that women can have it all ends up reassuring people that feminism is no longer necessary. Problems are turned into stories about conflict between individuals, a tactic used to disparage feminism and to silence voices that divulge details of discrimination and abuse. All the while, the faults in the system go unaddressed.
We can argue that elite female athletes are offered freedoms and individual choice at a cost – to their own integrity and to a broader, collective feminist politics. Such a process promotes individual choice, causing us to overlook the practices and cultures that propel the systems of gender inequality in sport. British Cycling has emerged as a useful reminder of this dynamic and, equally, those who are speaking up are a useful reminder that so-called “troublemakers” are exactly what is needed to challenge it.
Risk and reward
There is a cost. There are considerable cultural expectations for female athletes to fulfil the “pretty and powerful” post-feminist ideal. Athletes who break these conventions are taking a personal and professional risk. At the very least, they may limit their post-career marketability.
In her autobiography, Cooke challenged post-feminist sentiments. Instead, she drew from a more traditional feminism to offer a critique of how the structures of elite competitive sport treat women athletes as not equal to their male counterparts. Cooke, we suggest, is an unusual voice of active feminism in sport. Her autobiography can be viewed as a political intervention to break the cycle of silence surrounding sexism and an important model for how to deal with gender trouble in sport. Her example may well have paved the way for Varnish, Pendleton and Armistead to speak out.
Feminism’s dilemma really lies in the popularity of post-feminist ideas among women and girls who incorporate them into their sporting experience. We should be aware that feminist advocates and role models might be as unpopular with young women as they are with some men. The “pretty and powerful” post-feminist success story is more palatable and less troublesome.
If Cooke’s story had gained the traction it deserved, then we might not have been so surprised by the allegations from Varnish. Cycling – and women’s sport more broadly – would benefit from a conscious awareness of the post-feminist filters through which we all view it. Such awareness might ensure that women who do speak out about sexism are not drowned out or dismissed as individual troublemakers.