(Ed. Note: Thompson-Graves was the author’s coach at Dartmouth College.)
A recent addition to the International Ski Federation (FIS) Ladies’ Cross Country Committee, Cami Thompson-Graves, the women’s head nordic coach and director of skiing at Dartmouth College, noticed something this winter.
Not as many women as men were starting on the World Cup.
In the first weekend of racing, a three-day mini-tour in Kuusamo, Finland, 78 women and 82 men finished the tour. That was pretty equal. But the next weekend in Lillehammer, Norway, 70 men finished the 30 k skiathlon but only 54 women finished the 15 k skiathlon. In Davos, Switzerland, 80 men finished the 30 k and 46 women finished the 15 k. It went on like that.
Having only been to one meeting of the committee so far, Thompson-Graves is still trying to decipher what is within the group’s mandate to tackle. But figuring out why field sizes are so different and what’s happening to unused women’s quota spots might be a place to start.
“I have a love-hate thing with being a woman who’s involved with this sort of stuff,” Thompson-Graves said. “I just want to do it! I don’t want to necessarily – I don’t have the skills to analyze the ‘why’. I want someone else to do that, so then we can work on getting more people participating!”
FasterSkier caught up with Thompson-Graves this week to talk about her concerns and what the next steps might be.
FasterSkier: Do you have any ideas so far about why the field sizes are so different on the World Cup?
Cami Thompson-Graves: I’ve been thinking about it. I did actually send Kikkan Randall and Matt Whitcomb an email to see what their thoughts were on it. I guess I’m mostly just trying to get some information and see what’s out there, and see if it’s an issue that the FIS Ladies Cross Country Committee could tackle in some way.
FS: Let’s start at home. SuperTour fields are usually much smaller for women than men, but it isn’t that way at all ages. Do you feel the U.S. is doing well?
CTG: I have the sense in the U.S. in general that things are looking pretty good for women’s skiing. And I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the results by our women [on the U.S. Ski Team]. But last weekend [at the Bates Carnival] there were 106 racers in the women’s sprint and 94 men. I feel like that his been the case for the last few years in college skiing. Maybe not by quite that margin, but they have been pretty close.
FS: What’s your sense on this male-to-female racing ratio outside the U.S.?
CTG: I had a pretty interesting conversation with a woman on the Cross Country Canada board, and Canada is really struggling right now. They don’t have a lot of women participating. I was just sort of curious why.
My gut feeling is that a lot of it is cultural. That I think women want to enjoy it. Just being tough and training hard and being manly isn’t going to motivate a woman to stay involved. They don’t necessarily want to go a training center, and live in a dump, and train with the same three guys day after day after day. That isn’t going to cut it to make women get excited about sport.
I think women really respond to good group energy and fun and all those things. Not that they aren’t more than willing to work hard and do what they need to do, but they are less likely to stay involved if it doesn’t have some element of reward.
FS: So do you think it’s an issue of, for example, having to decide where to spend budget money, or do you think it’s because women are really disappearing from sports at a certain age or level?
CTG: I’ll tell you what Kikkan and Matt said. Kikkan said it could be not enough funding, and teams are having to decide where to put their limited resources. And that may be men first, for a lot of countries. But also, it’s not enough recognition of the power of team training for female athletes. Not enough focus on the development of training groups around the top female skiers, to bring younger skiers up.
FS: You were racing internationally when women’s skiing was in a much different place. What was it like then?
CTG: Well, that’s what it was like when I was racing. I was the only woman traveling, one year, all winter. It sucked for me and it didn’t help anybody else, either. That’s where I think that Beckie Scott and Kikkan have done such a good job of fostering the younger skiers and helping motivate them, and bringing them up to that level.
FS: If it is a problem of participation, not of funding or organizational goals, then it’s a pretty complex problem to try to solve.
CTG: It would be interesting. Because if you’re in the national governing body of somewhere and you go to a race and say, look, there are five women and 25 men, why should we be spending money on the women when they really don’t seem that interested — how do you get women interested so that you have 25 women in the race, too? What is it that gets them interested?
I would think that a lot of it probably does come down to culture. Certainly right now in the U.S., being an athlete when you’re not in school is culturally very acceptable [for men and women]. And it is recognized as a really cool thing to be. There are more post-college teams for a lot of different sports and a lot of people keep doing things.
FS: What is the FIS Ladies Cross-Country Committee working on now?
CTG: I think a lot of what is going on is looking at how we can make it better for the women who are racing right now. And that’s pretty good. I think the next thing to tackle would be doing some research from different national governing bodies to see how many people they have skiing at different ages, and where you start to see that dropoff. Is there anything to keep them skiing after the age of 16 or 18 or 20?
FS: Do you think that other people at FIS would be receptive to discussing this if the Committee brought it to the table?
CTG: I do think so. The chair of the Ladies Committee sits on the World Cup committee, and [the rest of us] also start getting invited to all these meetings. My sense is that if I could get to know some of these people, I could say what I think. Just looking around the room and listening, there’s a lot of stuff that happens behind the scenes. At least at that level, it’s getting in the room and speaking up. That’s what has to happen.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.