The world’s top female bobsledders had long worked for a second Olympic medal event in their sport.
Progress toward gender equality in bobsled is an uphill climb, however, and has proven to move in inches rather than miles.
In July, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that in an attempt to balance gender participation in the Winter Games, a second women’s bobsled event, the monobob, would be added to the program for 2022. It was a bittersweet moment for many of the top women bobsledders. On one hand, they would finally have a chance for multiple medals in a single Olympics – a privilege that their male counterparts have had since 1932 when men’s two-man was included alongside four-man for the first time. On the other hand, many athletes, including three-time Olympic medalist and Women’s Sports Foundation President-elect Elana Meyers Taylor, could not help feeling deflated.
“First, it was great they had decided to add another medal event for women. That’s huge to give women the opportunity to do that,” Meyers Taylor said. “I’d be remiss though if I said I wasn’t disappointed that the event wasn’t four-man. For me, I just don’t see how monobob really grows the sport as far as adding more women. It’s not going to change much in that regard.”
Since 2014, the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) has allowed women to compete in the four-man discipline alongside the men, making it one of the only truly mixed gender events in sport. Meyers Taylor, Canadian double Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries and several other pilots have since raced on international tours in four-man with both male and female push athletes in the backs of their sleds. Meyers Taylor said they have also had extensive conversations with the IBSF to lobby for the inclusion of women’s four-man as its own discipline.
I know globally, everybody wanted four-man; that’s what we were all looking for. — Elana Meyers Taylor
So, when the IOC made its announcement over the summer, the athletes couldn’t help but feel let down.
“From a leadership / change women’s sport [standpoint] it’s a bummer,” Humphries tweeted in reaction to the news.
Monobob, which made a successful debut at the 2016 Youth Olympic Games, features one athlete in the sled. Where the opportunity for pilots to medal increases, the opportunity for push athletes to make their respective Olympic teams remains static. Therefore, the number of women competing likely will not see the increase that would have been possible by adding the four-man event.
Prior to the 2018 Olympics and Paralympics, the Women’s Sports Foundation conducted research and released preliminary projections of the expected participation rates among female athletes in the upcoming Games. The data predicted that bobsled would lag the furthest behind in terms of gender equality, with just 23.5 percent expected female participation. This was mostly due to the fact that men had both two-man and four-man in which to compete, while women only had the two-man discipline.
Therefore, it would make sense to add a women’s four-man discipline, at least from a numbers standpoint, Meyers Taylor explained. However, she also acknowledged that the cost of four-man is significantly greater than that of monobob, especially since the IBSF owns and maintains the monobob sleds (in the two-man and four-man events, countries are responsible for the purchase, shipping and maintenance of their own sleds, which can create financial barriers for smaller nations). Teams typically field up to three four-man bobsled teams on the highest circuit of competition each season.
“The problem I see with it is that countries may use it as an excuse to just fund one athlete now and not even have a two-man team,” Meyers Taylor said. “The smaller nations now can say that they’re represented in bobsled because they have one athlete at a race. What’s the incentive, when the IBSF is providing the monobobs, to even bother fielding a two-man team when they have to buy their own sled? It could allow smaller nations to get involved, but then again it could work in reverse where no one wants to field two-man teams.”
In addition to monobob and five other new events, the IOC also announced that for the first time in Olympic history, the sports of skeleton, speed skating, Alpine skiing, cross country, freestyle and snowboard will all move to gender balance.
Findings from the upcoming Women’s Sports Foundation Report, Women in the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games: An Analysis of Women’s Participation, Leadership, and Media Opportunities, reveal that bobsled has the worst gap between men’s and women’s participation. While women were 41.4% of participants overall, women bobsledders were only 26% of the participants in their sport.
Regardless, Meyers Taylor plans to continue racing four-man as much as she can. She wants to continue the campaign, hoping that the discipline will be reconsidered for 2026.
“I know globally, everybody wanted four-man; that’s what we were all looking for,” she said. “To not have it was disappointing…We’re going to keep fighting and see what happens. At the end of the day, I’m going to do whatever it takes to slide as much as I can. Whatever it takes, I’ll do it.”