Unequal Prize Money at Blink Festival Illustrates Challenges for Women’s Distance Racing

Chelsea LittleAugust 31, 2016
Tord Asle Gjerdalen (l) and Britta Johansson-Norgren (r) after winning the 2016 Marcialonga 70 k classic. In July, Johansson Norgren won the Blink Classics 60 k rollerski race - but received only 20% as much prize money as Petter Northug got for winning the men's race. (Photo: Visma Ski Classics)
Tord Asle Gjerdalen (l) and Britta Johansson Norgren (r) after winning the 2016 Marcialonga 70 k classic. In July, Johansson Norgren won the Blink Classics 60 k rollerski race — but received only 20 percent as much prize money as Petter Northug got for winning the men’s race. (Photo: Visma Ski Classics)

At the end of July, Norwegian professional cross-country skier Astrid Øyre Slind hit the podium in the new 60-kilometer classic race at her country’s Blink ski festival. She faced a payout that seemed unusual: a big discrepancy between men’s and women’s prize money.

At the competition, called Blink Classics and part of the inaugural summer season of the World Classic Tour rollerski series, the total prize money available for men was 190,000 kroner, or just over $23,000. For women, it was 50,000 kroner — about a quarter as much.

Accordingly, Slind’s second-place finish notched her 10,000 kroner ($1,200), while the second-place man, Andreas Nygaard, received 40,000 kroner.

And men’s winner Petter Northug took home 75,000 kroner, which was 50 percent more than the entire pot of women’s prize money.

“It’s an enormous difference,” Slind told Norway’s NRK broadcaster.

Sweden’s Britta Johansson Norgren, who won the women’s competition, did not return FasterSkier’s request for comment.

In most major ski marathons, women receive equal prize money to the men. At Norway’s Birkebeiner, the prize is 40,000 (Norwegian) kroner or $4,800 apiece; at Sweden’s Vasaloppet, the 2015 prizes went up to 91,000 (Swedish) kroner or $10,700; at Italy’s Marcialonga, it was 5,300 Euros or $5,900 for both men and women.

The American Birkebeiner pays $7,500 to both the men’s and women’s winners.

But Blink Classics is not one of these established marathons: it is a rollerski competition in its very first year of existence. It did, however, attract the attention of the Norwegian government, which was concerned that the festival was violating the country’s equal pay act.

“For us it has not been easy to have this situation with the girls,” Blink Festival press secretary Arne Idland told FasterSkier. “And then when they are not satisfied with the money it is really difficult. We will try as hard as we can to find a solution.”

Seraina Boner (l) of Switzerland and Team Coop and Petter Eliassen of Norway and Team LeasePlan Go won the 2015 Årefjällsloppet, receiving equal paydays. (Photo: Ski Classics)
Seraina Boner (l) of Switzerland and Team Coop and Petter Eliassen of Norway and Team LeasePlan Go won the 2015 Årefjällsloppet, receiving equal payouts. (Photo: Ski Classics)

New Race for a Booming Festival

The Blink ski festival is now a giant on the summer racing circuit, with athletes from all over Europe and even North America coming to compete on rollerskis in cross-country skiing, biathlon, and the famous Lysebotn Opp hill climb. Recreational and junior classes are also a big focus, making it accessible to fans and professionals alike.

But adding a long-distance race to the mix was not easy for organizers, who still have to make sure that the festival breaks even financially. Idland explained that Blink Classics had been in the works for three years.

“The main challenge this year is that we, for the first time, were going into car traffic — this race was on ordinary roads with traffic [rather than the city square], and we had to close it to traffic just like they do in cycling races,” he explained.

That entailed paying for policemen, for one thing. Having a fourth day of racing (previously there had been three, the Lysebotn Opp and two more days in the Sandnes city center) also meant more production by NRK, Norwegian national television, as it followed a long-distance race rather than staying in a set location downtown.

“If you have live production it has to be in high definition,” Idland said. “Then it’s really expensive.”

Then last autumn came the news from the Norwegian Ski Federation: none of the national team “A” or “B” team women would compete in the 60 k. The women usually focus on doing all three of the other days of racing, and adding a 60 k at the beginning of consecutive days of racing would be too much volume and intensity during the summer training season. Some of the men, like Eirik Brandsdal and Sjur Rothe, would do the longer race; Martin Johnsrud Sundby was interested but later pulled out.

Concurrently, Idland said, NRK was telling the Blink organizers that it wouldn’t be possible to broadcast the men’s and women’s 60 k competitions together. It would have meant following two races at the same time — double the filming budget and staffing — and deciding all the time which feed to broadcast and commentate. NRK didn’t have expertise in doing this and said that they needed to develop it. So they would only broadcast one, and with the national team women out of the competition but the national team men in it, organizers agreed it should be the men’s race.

“When I contacted the teams from other nations, I was open and said that this [women’s] long distance race will not be broadcast on TV and no women from the national team would start there,” Idland said of his communication with other countries’  teams last winter, before registration began. “So I advised them all not to start in this race, but to come do the three other races.”

As a result just four womencompared to 69 men, finished the 60 k classic race.

Johansson Norgren, the winner, is a mainstay on the Visma Ski Classics circuit and won the 2016 season title as well as numerous individual marathons. Masako Ishida, who finished third at Blink Classics, was the winter series’ fourth-ranked woman. So the podium at Blink was not so different than a podium one might see at a top winter event.

But the decision about prize money had been made long before.

“We said that we need good prize money on the men’s side, because the other competitions that we compare with have good prize money,” Idland said. “We also need some sprint primes. We had a total of 190,000 kroner, or about 20,000 Euros, for the men. And we had just over 5,000 [Euros] for the women. That was decided before we opened entry.”

Even for the women, it was more prize money than was available at the other competitions in the Blink festival, Idland said. In those other races, prize money is equal for men and women and each total prize-money purse is roughly 2,000 Euros.

“So it is double amount of money in this women’s class in any of the other races, including Lysebotn Opp,” he said. “We thought we were really doing well for the women. And it’s not every rollerski race having prize money, either.”

Kaisa Mäkäräinen (FIN) climbs to victory in the Lysebotn hill climb at the 2013 Blink festival. The women's hill climb is televised, unlike the Blink Classics. (Photo: blinkfestivalen.no)
Finland’s Kaisa Mäkäräinen climbs to victory in the Lysebotn hill climb at the 2013 Blink festival as a cameraman captures the action. The women’s hill climb is televised, unlike the Blink Classics. (Photo: blinkfestivalen.no)

Building Women’s Pro Fields Takes Time

But the discrepancy still felt unusual to some of the women, who are used to getting paid the same amount as their male counterparts for a win.

Prize money is the same for men and women on cross-country skiing’s World Cup. In fact, female superstars like Marit Bjørgen and Therese Johaug earn more than their male counterparts because they are more dominant, grabbing a bigger proportion of the total available prize money for themselves.

The gulf between men’s and women’s participation is greater in long-distance racing than on the World Cup. As a result, marathon organizers have to grapple with a somewhat different set of considerations as they develop the payout structure for their competitions.

Most of the biggest ski marathons in Europe — including the Birkebeiner, Vasaloppet, and Marcialonga — are part of the Visma Ski Classics series, where organizers have come up with compromise solution when it comes to year-end rankings.

Prize money is equal for the top three overall series finishers, but the men’s field also pays out to the fourth- and fifth-place athletes while the women’s field does not.

“For me it sounds very strange,” Visma Ski Classics CEO David Nilsson told FasterSkier in an interview last week referring to the Blink prizes. “We have in our rules that they must have the same first prize to men and women. It is also important to reflect on the percentage [of field size], and it shouldn’t be so much more difficult for the men to get [prize money] than for the women — but you can never do more than win, so of course that has to be equal for first place.”

In the winter, far fewer women than men are on Visma Ski Classics professional teams. But women’s races are hotly contested and often extremely dramatic, like Seraina Boner’s come-from-behind win at the 2016 Birkebeiner after passing Ishida and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk in the final kilometers.

In the 2016 season, 39 different women scored points toward the overall titles. There is even an all-women’s pro team, Sweden’s Team SkiProAm, whose top athlete finished eighth in the season rankings.

According to Nilsson, Visma Ski Classics has carefully tried to promote women’s participation, with equal prize money for first place being one component.

“We worked very hard on this,” he said. “When I started 6-7 years ago, we had 4-5 women that were competing [professionally] in long distance skiing because it was a bigger step for them from shorter distance [World Cup] skiing than for the men.”

While they left the women’s competition out of the spotlight this year, the Blink Classics organizers don’t think that should always be the case. Like the Visma Ski Classics, they want more women on the start line.

“Our aim and our goal is also to have the world’s best women at the start in future,” Idland said.

One reason for low numbers at Blink might be that long-distance racing just isn’t as popular among women in Norway as it is in neighboring Sweden, home of the Visma Ski Classics brand, said Nilsson.

“In Norway, which we all know is very strong in cross-country skiing, we don’t see so many female participants in long-distance skiing,” he mused. “They are more from Sweden. We don’t know why the Norwegian women are not coming more.”

The Blink 60 k is part of a three-race series of long-distance rollerski competitions called the World Classic Tour. Indeed, the second leg of the Tour was held in Sweden. Called the Alliansloppet, it is also a more established event.

Twenty-five women finished that 48 k race, including several past Visma Ski Classics champions and members of the Swedish national team (Hanna Falk, a three-time World Cup podium finisher, won the race). Prize money was equal for men and women, including a 10,000 Swedish kroner sprint prize ($1,000) for both men and women.

The World Classic Tour overall awards use a similar idea to the Visma Ski Classics, in that the men’s and women’s title winners earn equal paychecks but the men’s field will pay out to six places and the women’s to just three.

Yet the series does not appear to have a policy for its constituent races in how to organize prize money at individual competitions.

If organizers like those at the Blink festival want to develop a strong women’s competition, Nilsson suggested that they need to actually promote the women’s races.

“We also made sure that there was much more focus on the women [than there had been before],” he said of the Visma Ski Classics efforts. “The women should have be starting [wave] before the men to have their own competition… and have [television] production of the race and their own media. When we created the system, all the attention was on the men. Then we made it so the pro teams had to get points from both the men’s and the women’s classes. This together has made the increase of the women.”

Idland conceded that with more prize money, they might have drawn a slightly larger women’s field. But he believed the circumstances of the festival, with the three subsequent days of racing, were the bigger reason for low participation.

On the Blink Festival website, the news story about the 60 k Classics race features five paragraphs and three photos about the men’s race, but only one paragraph and one photo of the women.

Nilsson believed that some changes could be made without disrespecting the male athletes.

“When you have 100 men and not so many women registered, it wouldn’t be fair to get the same [prizes],” Nilsson said. “It would be easier for the women. So it has been for us to push the development [of women’s skiing] but not to be unfair to the men’s skiers. That’s the reason we have in the prize money, five men and three women. And that reflects a little bit to the female factor, to be honest, in terms of the number of participants and the amount of professional skiers. It has to be the same difficulty to win a prize in both categories.”

What Does Equality Mean?

Race organizers are continuously trying to come to a more perfect solution, and one common thread seems to be that prize money must be earned by quality racing and exciting performances. Until the women’s fields are deemed to have provided that, they might not see as much compensation.

Visa Ski Classics, for example, continues to make changes. For the 2016/2017 season, women will for the first time be able to vie for a sprint title, worth five percent of the total prize money, just as the men have done for years.

“The reason it wasn’t the case [previously] is that there weren’t so many women — last year was the first time that there was really a group at the front,” Nilsson said. “Before it was just one or two who went away, so it wouldn’t have been interesting. The same people would have won the race as the sprint bibs. Now both men and women get a sprint bib, which is a step forward. Our goal is to make it equal the number of participants and who gets prizes.”

Nilsson guessed that the availability of intermediate prize money may also change the tactics of the women’s races and contribute to an exciting spectacle on television.

For his part, Idland insisted that the Blink organizers’ decision about prize money was not sexism. It could have gone the other way, he wrote in a letter to the Norwegian government explaining the discrepancy in pay.

“I was trying to give an example with the opposite situation,” Idland said. “If Marit [Bjørgen], Therese [Johaug], Heidi [Weng], Charlotte [Kalla], and maybe some of the Americans said to us that this race we would very much like to do, and the men said they didn’t want to do it and just let the [marathon] specialists do it, then I am quite sure we would have done the opposite thing. We would have led the coverage with the women, if the level was higher.”

After being contacted by the authorities, the Blink Festival is trying to work together with the government to achieve equality.

“Our answer was that they would really much like to come in dialogue with us to try to make a plan for the future,” Idland said. “And that we try to build up this competition with a clear aim to have everything on an equal basis in some number of years.”

Chelsea Little

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.

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