Billie Jean King

Women’s Tour de France revival is reminder that ‘the fight for equality is far from over’

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Former pro cyclist and filmmaker Kathryn Bertine is careful when choosing how to describe the 2022 Tour de France Femmes, which concluded on Sunday with Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten cruising to victory.

“Too many headlines are reading, ‘the first,'” says Bertine.

Other stories went with ‘inaugural’ which is more accurate — definition: “the first in a series of planned events” — but still misleading. “I think the general public just equates ‘inaugural’ with ‘first,'” she says.

For Bertine, this distinction isn’t just about semantics. It’s about making sure history isn’t erased.

Progress in women’s cycling isn’t a straight line

If you want to talk about the “first” women’s Tour de France, you’d have to go back to 1955. That year, 41 athletes competed in a five-stage, one-off race that was contested separately from the men’s competition.

Nearly 30 years later in 1984, Tour de France organizers hosted a women’s race in conjunction with the men’s event, marking the first official Women’s Tour de France. Female cyclists competed on the same — albeit shortened — courses as the male riders.

“It didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t keep going,” says American Marianne Martin, who won the 1984 Women’s Tour de France. “It definitely felt like the beginning. And this was how it was going to be from now on.”

It wasn’t.

The Women’s Tour de France was held five more times until race organizers dropped female athletes from the program after 1988. While other attempts were made to revive the event in coming decades, the official “Tour de France” name was off limits.

“We had to fight for women to even have access to the name, ‘Tour de France.’ Because that’s what ASO took away in 1989,” Bertine explains.

1984 Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon of France and Marianne Martin of the United States celebrate on the podium. (AFP via Getty Images)

In 2013, Bertine — along with Emma Pooley, Marianne Vos, and Chrissie Wellington — launched ‘Le Tour Entier’ (French for ‘the Whole Tour’).

They submitted a petition — signed by over 98,000 people — to Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme demanding that women be allowed to race the Tour de France. “While many women’s sports face battles of inequity, road cycling remains one of the worst offenders: fewer race opportunities, no televised coverage, shorter distances, and therefore salary and prize money inequity,” the petition read.

Bertine, whose film ‘Half the Road’ examines gender inequity in professional cycling, says she heard from some athletes who were supportive of the petition, but concerned about retaliation if they spoke out publicly.

“Many were afraid to rock the boat because they were nervous that their own contracts with their teams could be (in jeopardy),” she says. “A number of women reached out to us and said, ‘I’m behind you 100% but I have to remain quiet because I’m worried about my job.”

Tour de France organizer ASO — after initially not publicly engaging with the petition — eventually created “La Course by Le Tour de France,” a one- or two-day women’s race that was held annually between 2014 and 2021.

It is this history that gave Bertine pause when she heard the words “first” or “inaugural” used to describe the 2022 Tour de France Femmes.

“I want Marianne Martin to have her recognition. I want to make that we don’t forget about the women of the 1955 Tour de France. And the women of ‘La Course.’ Because that’s a huge part in understanding how long it took for this race to actually come to fruition.”

In return of Women’s Tour de France, reminders that the work isn’t done

While this year’s eight-stage Women’s Tour de France was more than a “token gesture,” the full mission of “Le Tour Entier” has not yet been met.

“I think being grateful is one of the worst things we could be,” says Lizzie Deignan, a pro cyclist for Trek-Segafredo. “That’s the trap that a lot of women fall into… you have to sometimes be brave and be bold and be outspoken. It’s not always comfortable.”

One of the most glaring disparities between the Women’s and (Men’s) Tour de France is the number of race stages: eight from women, 21 for men. It’s especially stark when you consider the fact that when Martin won back in 1984 — notably, the same summer that female cyclists and marathoners debuted at the Olympics — women raced 18 stages at the Tour de France (compared to 23 on the men’s side).

The peloton passes through Avize vineyards during the 2022 Tour de France Femmes.
EPERNAY, FRANCE – JULY 26: The peloton passes through Avize vineyards during the 2022 Tour de France Femmes. (Photo by Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Many female cyclists also want to see a time trial added. This year’s (Men’s) Tour de France included two.

“I think it would make the race a lot more dynamic and I think it would help create a more well-rounded winner,” Kristen Faulkner told VeloNews.

But equality isn’t as simple as just adding 13 race stages.

“There are complex issues around why the Tour de France Femmes is not three weeks yet,” Deignan says. “It’s never about our physical ability to complete three weeks… Thirty-seven percent of the women’s peloton aren’t being paid a living wage, so to expect them to compete over three weeks — whilst maintaining a job — is just not realistic.”

Which leads to the issue of prize money: For winning, van Vleuten took home €50,000 euros (approx. $52,487 USD) of the total women’s prize pot of €250,000 euros (approx. $262,437 USD). In comparison, men’s winner Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard received more than $500,000 for his victory last month, while the men’s purse topped $2 million.

When you control for number of days raced, women made 29 cents on the dollar in prize money compared to their male counterparts.

This issue is not unique to the Tour de France. Cycling is further behind than most sports when it comes to equitable pay, though corporate sponsorships — including the one from presenting sponsor Zwift, plus a recent pledge from Strava — have started to bridge the gap.

“It’s about having more professional females on the start line,” Deignan said of Strava’s pledge. “And that’s what we’re missing: the next generation. Those barriers to participation at the professional level are still huge.”

Annemiek Van Vleuten celebrates her win after the eighth and final stage of the 2022 Tour de France Femmes. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s also the issue of race coverage. “They’re only giving (the women) two, two-and-a-half hours of coverage, starting in the middle of the race,” Bertine said of the Women’s Tour de France broadcast. “That’s not ok… especially if the men are getting a full six hours of coverage.”

It is a familiar issue in women’s sports, where there is a long history of investing less money and time in coverage and marketing — and then blaming the players and product for not generating a larger audience.

Deignan, who is currently pregnant with her second child, had a bit of an epiphany while watching the British National Championships at home from her couch.

“(The broadcast) was done with onboard motorbike cameras. That was it. There was no helicopter footage… it was a very basic package and it wasn’t great to watch. And it was like, wow, this is what women’s cycling is like to watch a lot of the time because we just don’t have the same level of production, and production makes a huge difference. Sport is entertainment.”

Deignan, who was born five months after the last Women’s Tour de France was held in 1988, says she’s been inspired by Billie Jean King‘s message of not settling for bread crumbs.

‘It’s taken my full lifetime for us to secure this race again… ” she says. “We have to keep fighting because, as soon as we rest and accept these small steps, that’s when progress pauses again.

“The fight for equality is far from over.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Brittney Griner: Rapinoe calls on fellow athletes to speak up about detained WNBA star

Megan Rapinoe at the 2022 ESPY awards
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Soccer player Megan Rapinoe admonished her fellow athletes for not doing enough to speak out and encouraged them to support detained WNBA star Brittney Griner at The ESPYS on Wednesday night.

Griner was arrested in Russia in February after customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of transporting drugs.

“For me, the most striking thing is that BG’s not here. BG deserves to be free, she’s being held as a political prisoner, obviously,” Rapinoe said while accepting a trophy for best play at the show honoring the past year’s top athletes and moments in sports.

“Like what are we doing here dressed up like we are when our sister is detained abroad? We haven’t done enough, none of us. We can do more, we can support her more, and just let her know that we love her so much.”

“First, bring BG home. Gotta do that,” tennis great Billie Jean King said.

Griner has pleaded guilty in court and acknowledged possessing the canisters but said she had no criminal intent.

Rapinoe urged her fellow competitors to keep Griner’s face and name on social media.

“Every time we say it in interviews, it puts pressure on everybody,” she said. “It puts pressure on the administration, it puts pressure on Russia, it puts pressure on Putin, it puts pressure on everyone, and it lets BG know also above everything that we love her and that we miss her and that we’re thinking about her all the time.”

NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry hosted the show and joined WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith in calling attention to Griner’s plight.

“It’s been 153 nights now that BG has been wrongfully detained thousands of miles away from home, away from her family, away from her friends, away from her team,” Diggins-Smith said. “All throughout that time, we’ve kept her in our thoughts and in our hearts even though we know that ain’t nearly enough to bring her home, y’all.”

Wearing her Phoenix Mercury jersey under his track suit, Curry noted the effort being made to free Griner.

“But as we hope for the best, we urge the entire global sports community to continue to stay energized on her behalf,” he said. “She’s one of us, the team of athletes in this room tonight and all over the world. A team that has nothing to do with politics or global conflict.”

They were applauded by Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, who was in the audience at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

Katie Ledecky takes home ESPY for best athlete, women’s sports

Olympic swimming champion Katie Ledecky won best athlete in women’s sports.

Ledecky earned two golds and two silvers at the Tokyo Games last year, giving her 10 career Olympic medals. She received her trophy from Maybelle Blair, the 95-year-old who played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

“I represent one of the few sports that is also a really important life skill, so I want to encourage all the parents here, anyone watching, to make sure your kids learn how to swim,” Ledecky said. “Our planet is 70% water, so it’s very important.”

Billie Jean King honors 50th anniversary of Title IX

King led off a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal legislation that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive government funding.

She was joined by Lisa Leslie, Brandi Chastain, Chloe Kim, Allyson Felix, Aly Raisman and Rapinoe, among others. They spoke against a background of black-and-white photos showing women athletes in action, on the field or in the streets advocating for gender equality. Their comments were interspersed with country singer Mickey Guyton performing her songs “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” and “Remember Her Name.”

Aliyah Boston declines last-minute ESPYs invite after social media outrage

The ESPYS were criticized by South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley for not inviting consensus player of the year Aliyah Boston to the show. Boston had hoped to attend and was disappointed not to be asked. She was issued a last-minute invitation but declined it.

ESPN said COVID-19 concerns and a smaller venue forced organizers to prioritize invitees to the show. Boston was nominated in a non-televised category that was handed out a night earlier. She lost to Oklahoma softball star Jocelyn Alo, who took part in the Title IX tribute.

Q&A: Billie Jean King still pushing for inclusion on Title IX’s 50th anniversary

Billie Jean King attends the inaugural IX Awards at Allegiant Stadium on June 17, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
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NEW YORK (AP) — Billie Jean King admired a portrait of Patsy Mink, considered the “Mother of Title IX,” at the U.S. Capitol on the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

“She knew exclusion firsthand and she had the confidence and leadership to challenge and change discrimination through the law,” King said at the portrait unveiling in Statuary Hall in Washington on Thursday.

Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in any education program or activity that receives federal funds, allowed more women into universities and expanded sports participation. There’s still work to do: 1.1 million more boys play sports in high school; women made up 44% of college athletes in 2021.

Donna Lopiano, a Title IX expert in more than 40 court cases and former women’s athletic director at Texas, says “90% of institutions are out of compliance” at the Division I level. Title IX requires equitable scholarships and sports roster spots based on the gender ratio of the student population.

King, a champion of gender equality for more than a half century, won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She recently spoke to The Associated Press about the anniversary. Here are her insights, edited and condensed.

AP: In 1972, women could barely attend college, let alone play sports. What do you recall about the culture when Title IX was passed?

KING: It’s really an educational amendment because we had classroom quotas before 1972. The quotas were 5% of the class could be women and schools would turn people away. Places like Stanford or if you wanted to be a doctor at Harvard. I was a pre-Title IX college kid and worked two jobs. Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith had full scholarships (to play tennis). In those 37 words of Title IX is the word “activity.” That word is the only reason, really, we have women’s sports. (Then-Indiana Republican) Sen. Birch Bayh said they almost didn’t put “activity” into the law. As a catch-all, they said, “Let’s just leave it in, you never know.” We have 60% women going to college today.

AP: A year later, you famously beat self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match viewed by millions on TV. Why was the win so important?

KING: I do think it helped push the idea of equality and women’s sports and scholarships. I knew it was about social change and we were only in our third year of professional tennis. I wanted to change the hearts and minds of the country to believe in Title IX, believe that women deserved equality. We couldn’t get a credit card on our own when I played Bobby. When I started the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974, I said we have to be the guardian angels of Title IX and really help protect it.

AP: Since the passage of Title IX, what progress is most obvious and what areas still need work?

KING: I think probably Title IX has helped suburban white girls the most. In the next 50 years, we really have to concentrate on getting more and more girls of color. We’ve got to make sure we take care of girls with disabilities. I know a lot of schools are not in compliance. The Office of Civil Rights is supposed to enforce everything. It’s very small, not enough people to be a proper police force.

AP: What’s your opinion of transgender people participating in sports?

KING: We have to help the LGBT community and especially trans athletes. I’m very big on inclusion, so I want everyone to have a chance to play, but I also want it to be fair. Some people tend to think they shouldn’t be allowed at all. I always worry about every person having a chance to play and compete. It’s not cut and dry. Those things are for the next 50 years, because it’s still about equality and equity.

AP: You recently invested in the new pro women’s soccer team Angel City FC in Los Angeles, along with Natalie Portman, Mia Hamm and others. Do you think female ownership is the wave of the future?

KING: (Wife) Ilana (Kloss) and I went to the first Angel City game, it was amazing, they sold out. It’s the first soccer team run mostly by women, along with Serena’s (Williams) husband (Alexis Ohanian). Absolutely, I want more and more women to be owners in everything. We also are proud to be part-owners of the Dodgers. I’d like to see more professional leagues in softball and ice hockey. I’m encouraging girls to become owners — you have power, you can make decisions.

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