Two days before the 2013 UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships, USA Cycling gathered its top riders in each race category for a press conference at the race’s media center, set up in the building that houses the University of Louisville women’s rowing team.
Women’s rowing is one of the sports that colleges and universities added to comply with Title IX, which mandates equal opportunities for sports participation by men and women. Soccer and cycling are also sports that saw a boost at the collegiate level as a result of Title IX.
The general growth of women’s sports in the United States owes a lot to regulations like Title IX that increased the opportunities for women to participate in sports. With those opportunities came more participation that, in turn, produced a larger pool of elite female athletes.
In 1991 the U.S. women’s soccer team won the first FIFA World Cup tournament for women. The U.S. women accomplished something that the U.S. men's team, still outclassed by European and South American national soccer teams, only dreams about.
One explanation for the U.S. women dominating a sport in which the U.S. men have struggled at times to remain relevant is that the United States enacted regulations like Title IX and invested in facilities like the University of Louisville’s “boat house.”
When FIFA finally got around to holding a women’s tournament, the sea change in U.S. women’s athletics was well underway. This was not the case in countries with strong men’s soccer teams and a culture that viewed soccer as a masculine sport not fit for women. Most European and South American soccer nations did not encourage women’s soccer, Germany being the notable exception.
The result was a U.S. national soccer team that dominated the competition in 1990 and continues to be one of the top national teams in the world.
The first women’s cyclo-cross world championship was held in 2000 and won by a German rider Hanka Kupfernagel. American Alison Dunlop placed fifth.
With four medals, the U.S. women have the fourth highest medal total in women’s elite cyclo-cross. This year in Louisville, the U.S. women placed second overall in the team competition with Katie Compton claiming her third world championship silver medal.
Surprisingly, the Belgian women have won only a lonely bronze medal in any women’s UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championship. Surprising—because the men absolutely dominate the sport. The elite men claim 25 more world championship medals (59) than second place France (34). The U.S. men are tied for eighth, earning just a single silver medal in 2007.
Women’s cyclo-cross has something in common with women’s soccer. In both sports, the strongest men’s national teams are not accompanied by the strongest women’s national teams. The U.S., by contrast, has strong women’s teams in these sports but relatively weak men’s teams.
Do the same forces shape the outcomes for both of these sports?
At the press conference, I asked Compton, the 2012-2013 World Cup points winner and U.S. National Champion, if her success and the success of American women in cyclo-cross bears any similarities to the success of women’s soccer in international competitions.
Katie paused at first and remarked that it was a question she had not really thought of before and didn’t know if she knew the answer to it. Then without missing a beat she offered a novel answer.
She said that because women’s lives have different circumstances, they approach sports differently.
I think some of the women, we get started later, but we’re also more focused when we do it. Women, generally, if they decide to something they are going to do it right the first time so they’re not kind of like, eh, I’ll kind of work at this, work at that, take a lackadaisical approach. They definitely start focused. They’re putting off having kids, putting off getting a job, most of them have a master’s degree, even a PhD. They’re educated, they’re smart, they work hard.
The result, she surmised, is a talent pool that produces faster results than the men’s talent pool.
Women can race into their 40s and get results if they are talented and hardworking. Women get into racing a little bit later. They are more mature, more focused, they train harder and more efficiently from the beginning, so I think those results just show up sooner.
She finished the thought with a simple numbers argument, saying, "There is also less women doing it so our pool is smaller than the men’s pool. So if you’re really dedicated you can rise to the top more quickly, half the time of men."
She then put an exclamation point on the element of hard work: "All of the women are focused, there is no half-assing it."
I must confess that I had never heard this explanation before but it makes perfect sociological sense. It isn’t an argument about the different biologies of men and women, but rather how their different circumstances produce different pathways to success, underscoring the huge effort they put in to get there.
I pressed her with a follow-up question about those different circumstances. Did she think that the “masculine” label attached to cyclo-cross and soccer in many countries, a label that isn’t as prevalent in the U.S. for cycling and soccer, present an opportunity for her and other female athletes to excel in these sports?
You know, I think that sport in general in Europe is like that, especially in parts of Belgium if the women are exercising, going out for a run, and if you are like that, they’re like, what are you doing, why aren’t you at home cleaning house and having babies? So it’s kind of a different mentality. In the U.S. we’re encouraged to do sport, Title IX is huge, and with obesity being such a problem in the U.S. I think we’re all trying to get kids into more activities sooner. It’s normal for a girl to go out and play with the guys, where in Europe it's not looked on as a normal thing to do and it’s definitely more of a tomboy thing to do.
Here Compton had slipped in another novel argument: Our increasing concern with obesity is creating even more opportunities and encouragement for women to get out and do sports.
She was certainly correct about cyclo-cross women being smart.
Compton is proud of the rise of U.S. women’s athletes to the top of sports that are new to American culture. She believes this will contribute to raising the overall status of women’s sports and thus sports in general:
I think the more the U.S. (women) athletes do well in sport, go to the Olympics and win medals, get good results and can be both strong and feminine, that will help grow all sports and bring more attention and more media to women’s and ultimately all sports.
I don’t know Katie Compton. I saw her for the first time this weekend, but I was really struck by the way she handled herself after the race, a race she was expected to win on her home soil. When asked the inevitable “how do you feel” question she immediately gave all the credit to her opponent and said it was an honor to finish second to such a great rider.
Her class as an athlete, her intelligent answers and the easy manner with which I saw her interacting with race fans, volunteers and the media lead me to believe that she is a fantastic role model for women athletes and an awesome representative for her sport.
If that counts for anything, cyclo-cross will soon drop the “next” from in front of “big sport.”