Aussie Female Cyclists Lose Cycling Australia, Gain Promising Alternative

The athlete and sports fan alike often have a funny way of explaining bad occurrences within the realm of competition. Such pitfalls are commonly attributed to a superstitious phenomenon that transcends space, time, and even sport: the jinx.

That’s why some could make the argument that Union Cycliste Internationale’s (UCI) new president Brian Cookson doomed women’s cycling when he recently named it “the fastest growing section of the sport.” Just three months removed from Cookson’s promising comment, women’s cycling took a devastating hit.

Rochelle Gilmore. (Courtesy of Wayne Taylor/The Age)

Rochelle Gilmore. (Courtesy of Wayne Taylor)

Earlier this month, Cycling Australia (CA) announced that its women’s program would be suspended indefinitely due to budgetary constraints within the organization. CA, which relies on public funding, is a feeder organization dedicated to the development of cyclists that serves as a pathway between amateurism and UCI professional teams in Europe.

Women’s cycling has had a proud tradition in Australia for decades, as several Aussie cyclists including Kathy Watt, Sara Carrigan, and Rachel Neylan have experienced great successes at both the Olympic and World Championship levels. While the Australian men’s development program remains intact, CA’s National Performance Director Kevin Tabotta insists that the removal of the women’s program is “not an issue of gender discrimination.”

Up-and-coming Australian cyclist Chloe Hosking recently denounced the removal of CA’s women’s program in a statement to the Sydney Morning Herald. The 24-year-old, who is currently one of Australia’s best female professional cyclists, believes that CA’s announcement will serve as a detrimental setback for the future of women’s cycling in Australia.

“I think it’s really, really upsetting for the young girls coming through,” Hosking said. “It means that if young riders want to get to Europe, they will have to pursue it themselves.”

Cycling Australia previously sponsored six-week invitational development programs in Europe for a group of promising amateur cyclists. Through the publicly funded program, road riders were exposed to the lifestyles and regimens of professional cyclists, and were also granted a stage on which to earn professional contracts.

Following CA’s announcement, however, former standout cyclist and women’s cycling advocate Rochelle Gilmore, who is currently the owner and manager of the British-based Wiggle Honda professional team, responded with a solution to bridge the gap to professional cycling for Australia’s top-amateurs.

Last week, Gilmore officially introduced her latest creation, the High5 Dream Team, which is a domestic cycling squad comprised of Australia’s eight most-promising amateur female riders. The Dream Team members are Kimberley Wells, Rebecca Wiasak, Jess Mundy, Georgia Baker, Tessa Fabri, Kendelle Hodges, Ellen Skerett, and Sam de Riter.

“(They) are the best that Australia has who aren’t already on pro teams,” Gilmore, a former Commonwealth Games champion, stated.

Gilmore’s girls will make their debut ride at the end of January in Australia’s most prestigious elite women’s competition, the National Road Series. They will be coached by one of the most experienced coaches in the sport in Donna Rae Szalinski, and partake in 10 televised races within Australia during 2015. Gilmore will give her handpicked riders the opportunity to continue what CA started.

“What we’re going to do is create an environment for these athletes where they have the best equipment, the best of everything,” Gilmore said. “These athletes will be supported better than any other domestic-based athletes have been supported before.”

Of the eight High5 Dream Team members, Gilmore plans on sending either five or six of them to Europe on a fully-funded development trip in August. Following the model set forth by CA, Gilmore’s chosen ones will endure a six-week riding-intensive program in preparation for life in the professional cycling circuit.

While CA and Australia’s state cycling institutes have offered to partially support the High5 Dream Team’s financial needs, Gilmore will rely on team partners to help foot most of the bill to support her squad. The High5 Dream Team’s partners have committed to three year deals, and will cover equipment costs, as well as travel and living expenses for the riders.

So, have hope, cycling fans. With Gilmore leading the way for Australian women’s cycling, and a continued push for the development of budding riders being made, don’t expect any sort of jinx to thwart Aussie female cyclists in 2015. Rather, anticipate a breakaway from the pack and a surge towards great success in the future of the sport in the land down under; a reverse of the curse, so to speak, for you superstitious folk.​ That is, at least, if Gilmore has anything to say about it.

Middle Eastern Women Face Ongoing Battle for Sports Rights

For Middle Eastern women, conflicts exist far beyond the political and military landscapes in the turmoil-laden region. Amid constant battles for fundamental human rights lie the issues of women’s rights to play sports and attend sporting events. But, because of the dominating presence of male authorities in Middle Eastern nations, women are often overmatched, and even unarmed, in the battle for sports rights.

Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics (Courtesy of Buzzfeed).

Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar at the 2012 London Olympics. (Courtesy of Buzzfeed)

In Saudi Arabia, women and their participation in sports are largely left by the wayside, and often neglected altogether. In September, Saudi Arabian government officials denied female athletes the right to compete at the Asian Games, after allowing two of their women to compete in the 2012 London Olympics -– Sarah Attar in track and field and Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo -– for the first time in the country’s history.

Although neither woman met the qualifying standards set by the International Olympic Committee, they gained entry because of the IOC’s “universality” clause that permits athletes with special circumstances to compete “for reasons of equality.” While at the Olympic Games, however, both women had to wear traditional Saudi clothing and be under the constant guardianship of men.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee, justified his country’s decision to omit Saudi female athletes from this year’s Asian Games by saying “they were not yet competitive enough.” The kingdom’s justification, however, fails to acknowledge its age-old rejection of women’s rights, especially those of the sporting variety.

While al-Mishal added that Saudi Arabia promises to permit female athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, he says their participation will be reduced to equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery -– as dictated by the Quran.

Despite the strides Saudi Arabian officials are promising to make for female athletes in 2016, Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson isn’t yet sold on the government’s efforts.

Whitson said, “Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over -– Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men.”

Saudi Arabia's Wujdan Shahrkhani (Courtesy of feministing.com).

Saudi Arabia’s Wujdan Shahrkhani. (Courtesy of feministing.com)

However, it will take more than just the entry of Saudi Arabian women into the 2016 Olympics to reverse the trend of gender discrimination in the tumultuous Middle Eastern nation.

The first step is to lift the ban on women’s sports in Saudi Arabian public schools. With the absence of physical education and female sports teams in the country’s schools and universities, there aren’t any easily accessible feeder outlets available for women’s competition on the international level.

In addition, private training facilities are in short supply for Saudi women, and are usually limited to the country’s upper echelon. Plus, without the presence of females in Saudi Arabia’s sporting federations, aside from Arwa Mutabagani in the Equestrian Federation, Saudi women are lacking a voice in the sports world.

Apart from the ongoing battle for rights to play sports, Saudi women have long since struggled for rights to attend sporting events. Although plans to build separate sections for women in Saudi Arabian stadia have been in the works for years, they have been fervently quelled by conservative government officials, who wish to keep men and women apart in social settings like sporting events.

According to BBC News, a brave Saudi female soccer fan caused a social media uproar when she attended a match between Saudi Arabia’s team Al Hilal and the United Arab Emirates’s (UAE) Al Ain in October. Even though the match was played in the UAE, which allows females to attend sporting events, the Saudi woman’s act of defiance against her motherland’s laws was not well-received amongst Saudi men.

A video posted to YouTube captures the female soccer fan in attendance, and displays over 900 angry comments from heated Saudi Arabians.

One reads, “Women aren’t interested in football, so why go to a stadium to watch a live match.”

Another says, “Does this woman not have a man? Her place is in the house.”

This incident reflects a similar situation in Iran, which, like Saudi Arabia, prevents the entry of women into sports stadia.

Also in October, 25-year-old British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami was sentenced to one year in prison after having been arrested in June while attending a volleyball match between Iran and Italy. Ghavami subsequently underwent a hunger strike while incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison.

According to an article in the New York Times, “she was protesting against a new rule barring women from attending men’s volleyball matches.”

While human rights activists have rallied for Ghavami’s release from jail for simply attending a volleyball match, Iran’s judiciary officials are rejecting the notion that her case is a sports issue.

Ghavami was charged with dispersing anti-Iran propaganda during the match, along with several other female protestors. According to her lawyer, however, “she will be retried.”

However, good news finally came for Ghavami and other Iranian female sports fans. The Huffington Post recently reported that the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) threatened to strip Iran of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s world volleyball championship if it continues banning the attendance of women from matches.

Although the recent action of the FIVB is a step in the right direction for Middle Eastern women, the battle for sports rights will be ongoing for years to come.

According to Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, achieving progress in a country that is firmly set in its conservative cultural and religious ways involves help from outsiders, as well as the passing of time.

“There are a lot of serious reformists who want to see change but it takes a lot of time, months and years, to get the smallest changes,” Coogle told Reuters.

In the meantime, Middle Eastern women are hoping that the achievement of sports rights will someday be a peaceful endeavor. But, only time will tell if it will prove to be the fight of their lives.