By Amanda Valentovic and Naledi Ushe
Women can shred just as hard as men on the slopes, as you’ll see this January at the 2017 Winter X Games. It’s no secret that women in sports experience sexism and battle throughout their careers to prove themselves. Women are deterred from extreme sports in particular from an early age because they are perceived as too dangerous for girls, which discourages young women from developing the skill level to compete. The 2017 games kick off on January 26, and this time around the women athletes are hoping to be more visible.
“We’re not always given the same amount of attention,” says Maddie Bowman, a freestyle skier who has five X Games medals in the SuperPipe event. “But I feel like that’s slowly starting to change. ESPN started changing it last year. They gave us the primetime spot on Friday night and televised us.”
Bowman, who also skied her way to an Olympic gold medal at the 2014 Sochi games, still believes more could be done. “Just giving us more attention for what we are doing well would be nice,” she says. “It would help many girls get more sponsors.”
The original X Games were founded in 1995, but the winter games are only 16 years old. For the first 11 years the X Games Selection Committee consisted of only men until Cara-Beth Burnside, the president of the Action Sports Alliance, which originally started to foster the interest of young girls in skateboarding, was added to the committee. The male dominated committee did not grow female involvement.
Not only are women discouraged because there is less female representation at higher levels, but also because an athlete has a finite career and for women the promise of income after an athletic career ends is more uncertain. According to ESPN, “Across action sports, only two women have successfully continued working relationships with their sponsors following their competitive careers: Lisa Andersen, 42, a four-time world surfing champion whom Roxy built its beachwear brand around; and Barrett Christy, 40, who has won more X Games medals (11) than any other female snowboarder, and now acts as a designer for Gnu Snowboards and mentors young athletes with Nike 6.0.”
Unfortunately, women in extreme sports are unable to get the momentum going throughout their career to franchise their brand and instead become subject to exposure for a different kind of publicity. Often when searching about women X Games athletes the results are flooded with lists like “The 20 Hottest Female Professional Snowboarders” and “The 20 Hottest Female X Games Athletes” which are decorated with half naked pictures of women and no mention of their credentials as an athlete. Female athletes then become a part of this cycle that doesn’t give them an opportunity to make commission after their career without modeling for these revealing magazines, while simultaneously trying to get respect in extreme sports.
A woman can’t become an athlete if she is never introduced to the sport. “I don’t think it’s harder for us to do extreme sports, but it is difficult to get introduced to them,” says Bowman. “I think that girls aren’t always viewed as tough and as risk takers. I’m very thankful my parents showed me that side of sports, even though I think they get a little scared watching me now.”
Freeskier Ingrid Backstrom expressed similar ideas. “My mom skied, but for a lot of people maybe their moms didn’t. With a lot of the guys, their grandfathers skied. I think that a lot of it has to do with your examples and what you see in your life.”
Even when girls are introduced to extreme sports at a young age, there are significantly less of them than there are boys. Lindsey Jacobellis started competing in boardercross, a snowboarding event where athletes race down a course against each other, when she was 12, and she was the only girl in her age group.
“I did it at Stratton Mountain in Vermont, and they’d make these little boardercross courses…for all different age groups. That was my first step into the racing world, and they didn’t have any girls that were 12 and under,” says Jacobellis. “I was put in with the boys, so I was constantly racing the boys and I was getting bashed around and bullied a little bit, but I do think it’s what helped me be aggressive, and definitely stepped up my riding.”
Despite all of these challenges, the number of women in extreme sports is growing. While the type of skiing Backstrom competes in is not an X Games event, she did submit a video of herself skiing for the “X Games Real Women” competition, where she was judged by a panel and ended up winning the fan vote.
“I think they were looking to incorporate different sports and get more athletes involved,” said Backstrom. “Athletes that don’t just do the stuff that can be confined to a week or be done in a park.” (Most skiing is done on man-made courses; freeskiing is on real snow in the mountains.)
The video contest she participated in ties in with another way that Backstrom thinks extreme sports are becoming more attractive to women: they’re becoming more visible. “Before it was maybe a certain type of woman that was out there [doing extreme sports] and maybe not every young girl identified with that,” she says. “Now there’s lots of different types that you can see across social media and there’s maybe something for more types of young girls to identify with that attracts them to that sport.”
Jacobellis, who has won 12 X Games medals and an Olympic silver medal, says there only has to be a few women athletes to make a difference. Those numbers have risen since 2000. Though surfing is not Jacobellis’ sport, she described how women were more attracted to it after seeing girls compete.
“There was just a couple of girls that were out there that were untouchable and that inspired other girls. Then all of a sudden you have this wave of girls coming up and raising the level together,” she says.
The boardercross athlete then adds, “If anything, I can look back on my sport and no matter what I’ve won or been involved in, I have helped shaped this sport and raised the bar.”