• Podium girls are currently a fixture at most major races, including the Tour de France (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The organisers of the Tour de France have missed a vital chance to lead the way in promoting cultural change within cycling, writes Stephanie Constand.
Stephanie Constand

18 Jul 2018 - 7:58 AM  UPDATED 18 Jul 2018 - 4:41 PM

It’s an enduring and all-too-familiar image to those who follow the sport of professional cycling. As he stands atop the podium, the lycra-clad victor raises his hands aloft, flanked by two attractive women whose sole purpose is to deliver a ceremonial peck on the cheek and a branded bouquet of flowers before shuffling him off the stage.

Debate surrounding the appropriateness of this ceremony protocol in modern cycling has experienced something of a revival recently, stirred up in no small part by talk the ASO, Tour de France organiser, would scrap podium hostesses for the 105th edition of the race.

However, the ASO appears to have entirely reconsidered this decision, with the podium girls as present at this year’s race as ever. With this gesture, the Tour has relinquished the opportunity to bring about a much-needed change in the sport by doing away with the concept of women as podium fixtures.

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From what could be termed the more ‘classy’ display provided by the Tour de France podium hostesses, to the more egregious spectacles we have had to endure at races such as the Giro d’Italia, in which sash-adorned women of ample upper proportions parade around in the leaders’ jerseys prior to the stage, the sexist undercurrents inherent in the uniquely female role of the podium hostess are undeniable.

Having worked in a variety of roles in professional cycling, I've had my fair share of discussions about the appropriateness of the role of the podium hostess with several colleagues over the years.

The reactions I have encountered never fail to surprise; ranging from a female soigneur’s unapologetic admiration of the elegantly dressed podium beauties, to a male sports director’s passionate derision of doing away with these ‘girls’ as an indication of the grievous state of our modern society, one in which political correctness has “gone mad.”

In a similar vein, when the Tour Down Under discontinued the use of podium hostesses in 2017 at the South Australian government's behest, the move was lauded by local spectators and media alike, but not necessarily by those who would potentially grace the podium. 

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To my surprise, several riders displayed a less than an enthusiastic reaction to hearing about the amendments to ceremony protocol. I half-jokingly asked one young Belgian rider if he would be any less motivated to win a stage or jersey with no podiummissen to greet him atop the dais, he briskly dismissed my tongue-in-cheek enquiry, stating bluntly, “cycling is changing, and it’s not necessarily for the better.”

Why is the trend away from the objectification of women in our sport not for the better? I fail to see how the ceremonial peck can be described as merely an innocuous gesture. Nor does the podium hostesses’ presumably willing compliance with this outdated tradition somehow mitigate the sexist undertones of the entire display.

It remains one in which, particularly in the case of the Tour de France, women are paraded in front of a global audience as aesthetic commodities, gracing the podium not by virtue of their own athletic achievements, as is the case with their male counterparts, but rather only for their ornamental value.

This widely-disseminated spectacle merely serves to entrench existing gender scripts about women in sport, narratives remarkable athletes in the women’s peloton like Annemiek van Vleuten, Amanda Spratt and Anna van der Breggen constantly undermine and rewrite through their performances.  

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A sport that claims to take gender equality seriously cannot simultaneously support such outdated podium protocols that sometimes prove to be awkward, cringeworthy, yet always problematic. Nor should it leave itself liable to the embarrassment of egregious incidents such the infamously inspired marketing campaigns produced by E3 Harelbeke involving female undergarments, or the monumental fiasco that was the 2015 Flanders Diamond Tour’s inclusion of swimwear-clad maidens as a tasteful element of its podium presentation, or whatever else the next unfortunate incident proves to be.

In response to growing support for the removal of this archaic podium tradition, distressed cycling fans, under some veneer of benevolent concern, express fears these ‘poor girls’ will be left bereft of a job if the vocation of ‘podium girl’ is relegated to the history books.

It is questionable, however, to contend this is the only vocation listed by these women in their tax returns. Additionally, many of these women also often assume other duties at races behind the scenes. A well-known example is the Flanders Classics hostesses who, even prior to the elimination of their roles as ‘flower girls’ in 2018, were also employed by race organisers to work in marketing and public relations for the rest of the year.

Even at events such as the Tour Down Under, where podium girls were scrapped altogether and replaced by young local athletes, I still come across former hostesses backstage who have now been assigned to other duties.

The Tour de France is no different, and there is no reason it should continue to endorse anachronistic podium practices.

Given the sheer scale and notoriety of the race, the conspicuous absence of podium hostesses from this year’s Tour would have done much to erode the ubiquity of the outdated image of the ‘podium girl’ within our sport.

With a viewership in the millions spanning more than 190 countries, the Tour’s adoption of a more modernised ceremony protocol would have done more in this regard than any other race in the UCI calendar.

In response, to the young Belgian rider’s dismayed realisation that “cycling is changing,” he is right. Our sport is changing. However, it is entirely disconcerting to see this change not also heralded at this year’s Tour, the undisputable doyen of all cycling races on the calendar.

It’s time for flagship races such as the Tour de France to reflect and contribute towards this new reality.

Stephanie Constand has worked as a press officer for several WorldTour cycling teams and race organisers. Originally working as a lawyer and in academia, she has written for many publications, both on cycling and a range of other topics, and is currently writing a book. She’s on Twitter at @stephconstand and online at www.creativecyclingpr.com 

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