• Sophie Smith Interviews Nathan Haas at the 2018 Tour of Oman. (Getty)Source: Getty
On International Women’s Day I hope the ASO appreciates the magnitude of the decision it is being publicly pressured to make over the podium girls debate.
Sophie Smith

Cycling Central
8 Mar 2018 - 9:47 AM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2018 - 7:26 PM

We’ve officially heard from all parties of an industry divided except for the Tour de France organiser that has the most power to effect change.

The ASO’s decision will be the tipping point on the issue and create a ripple to either support or discourage a global discourse on gender equality and women’s rights propelled by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

The Vuelta a España did away with the concept of flower giving, trophy models last season, but Giro d’Italia organiser RCS Sport has since dismissed the impetus as no more than a “temporary trend” it won’t follow.

The debate within the WorldTour is perceived as controversial because of the current political climate, so I was pleased when RCS Sport cycling director Mauro Vegni openly answered my questions over it last month without hindrance or delay.

Giro organiser unmoved by podium girl 'trend'
Major industry stakeholder and Giro d'Italia organiser RCS Sport won’t scrap podium girls from its races, with cycling director Mauro Vegni describing the current turn as a “trend” that will pass.

Some of the riders I spoke with at the Abu Dhabi Tour were reticent in response, afraid of a sensationalist report that would either make them look sexist or perhaps too sympathetic if not false.

Two cyclists turned the tables and asked me what I thought after they shared their viewpoints – one mixed, one for the girls staying as a fixture of the sport. At the time, I didn’t have a firm take.

“How can you not have an opinion?” one rider came back and countered after he was presented on stage for sign-on.

Vegni undermined the current global focus on women’s rights, which in sport has translated to retiring grid girls in F1 and walk-on models in darts, by labelling it a “temporary trend”.

The summation could be interpreted as a dismissive eye-roll that I’ve been acutely wary of my entire career. I work around the world as Australian national and registered British press. Australia is the worst when it comes to gender equality.

I’m not a feminist but up until a couple of hashtags ago, speaking about discrepancies and female experiences in the workplace was a good way to get ostracised. The ethos has been to suck it up silently and get on with doing your job or be eye-rolled out the door and miss being a part of anything in future.

The 15.3 per cent gender pay gap that has the nation 35th on the 2017 global gap index, between Argentina and Colombia? Deal with it. The fact corporate businesswomen are excluded from wheeling and dealing outside the boardroom at places like The Australian Club, which only offer membership to genteel men? No reply.

Subject to workplace behaviour friends have described as sexual assault? It’s part and parcel. I can’t be bothered with the sleeping around chestnut.

Podium boys are not an answer. You can’t argue the role objectifies women and then subject men to the same. Nor is this a man-hating exercise. Plenty of women objectify and undermine their own in the name of the game or other ill motives.

And, most importantly, not all men act like they don’t have daughters or mothers. It’s typically the one, two or three per cent that when protected make the loudest noise and secure the most damaging silences.

Today, and in the wake of an Oscars break from tradition that saw four Hollywood women, the ones driving this global “trend”, present the lead actor and actress awards, I hope ASO sees the bigger picture.

Unlike RCS at its Abu Dhabi Tour in the UAE, the ASO didn’t employ hostesses at the Tour of Oman where female journalists, soigneurs and race organisers were told to cover-up in regard to local customs. However, Paris-Nice, an ASO race that has previously had podium girl fanfare, is underway with no official statement on the matter.

I can reason with Vegni and others that say some hostess duties are akin to hardworking event management, but I can’t reason anymore with that eye-roll. I’ve always been more Lara Croft than Cinderella though have worked too long in an unforgiving environment to believe Prince Charming can also be sincere.

A frightening number of my contemporaries published #MeToo on their social media, relating to professional abuse they’d not even confided in each other about.

Professional sport is glamorous from the outside but ask anyone who works within it and they’ll tell you the arena is far from pretty. So, lose the decoration. Invest those cheques instead into women’s cycling, free media wifi or a fund that will help to secure a financially unstable WorldTour.

ASO at the Tour of Oman took the press on an excursion to a local international school where all of the boys sat at the front of the classroom, and all of the girls behind them in the back. There, several western reporters observed the separation as a clear power dynamic taught in a society literally divided.

Hostess tasks in the way of sun shading, kissing and parading on principle aren’t different. Neither is getting paid less to do the same job, only being allowed into a private club as a man’s guest, or having professional achievements belittling credited to “sex appeal”. There’s just no western propaganda saying it’s bad.

ASO has the command to deal with this issue once and for all. Continuing to employ podium girls front and centre stage would be a demoralising nod to that eye-rolling, oppressive guard, which a significant part of the global community is now fighting to overhaul.

The underpinning movement is much larger than cycling or even international sport. However, both have the ability to motivate and influence the masses. Eliminating subtle nuances and axing podium girls, if not just their perfunctory tasks, from the Tour de France, is a symbolic step toward changing outdated societal norms. And that I can firmly say I am for.