When I saw a picture in this morning's paper of cyclist Peter Sagan grabbing a handful of the bum cheek of a 'podium girl' while waiting to be awarded his second-place prize at the Tour of Flanders, the only thing that surprised me was how unsurprised I felt. We're all aware of the icky tradition of young, slim, large-breasted, long-haired (and usually white) women being used as window dressing to celebrate the achievements of male athletes, especially in motorsport. So it kind of felt like only a matter of time before someone took the treating of women as decorative objects in sport to its logical conclusion. Because if you reduce a person to an object, with no feelings, thoughts or autonomy of their own, then why would you see anything wrong with publicly grabbing them? I doubt Sagan is the first athlete to let his hand wander over the deliberately appealing flesh of a young woman in hotpants paid to fawn over him, but it looks like he's the first who got caught doing it on camera.
Of course the inevitable attempts to make light of Sagan's actions followed, with puns a-plenty about his 'cheeky gesture'. Apparently the fame and fortune of the professional athlete does make a difference when it comes to applying the law - if Sagan was an office worker who had been PHOTOGRAPHED molesting a female colleague, he'd be suspended for sexual harassment so fast his head would spin. Possibly dismissed on the spot, possibly even arrested. But because it took place in that crazy, hazy world of sport where women are nothing but window dressing and men's actions, opinions and compulsions are respected regardless of whether they're domestic abusers, rapists or murderers, so far we've only seen a social media firestorm and no threat of legal action. Hearteningly, most of the responses - from both men and women - have criticised Sagan for his actions, although there have been a few depressing defences. And even those who question the whole tradition of 'podium girls' have managed to do so without placing the blame at the feet of the girls themselves. But it's still concerning that an act of sexual assault that took place in front of the world's eyes has not attracted a whiff of police attention. Is this because harassment of women within male-dominated sports is seen as a) not a 'real' problem, just 'laddish banter', or b) admittedly obnoxious, but still something women should just expect? I suspect a bit of both.
I've had a tiny bit of experience with real-life podium girls, although not in a setting anywhere near as glamorous as the circles Peter Sagan moves in. But I've been at competitions at major UK motor racing circuits and watched as the podium girls were trotted out at the end of the races, and more than simply finding it sexist and obnoxious (which it is), I also found the whole tradition really embarrassing. What's 'glamorous' about standing shivering, covered in fake tan, squeezed into hotpants one size too small so your buttocks are hanging out, in six-inch heels that wouldn't look out of place in Spearmint Rhino, in the middle of the tarmac? And that's not slut-shaming - I celebrate, and regularly demonstrate, a woman's right to dress however the fuck she wants, and by that I mean as sexually provocative (or not) as she wants. But we can't deny that clothing speaks to power structures, and when you're the scantily clad one amongst a group of 30 fully-dressed men (plus a few of us token women), it's fair to say you're not coming from a level playing field. The podium girls were there to be looked at, to provide 'eye candy', to be visually pleasing and sexually appealing. I was there in jeans, a t shirt and a much-needed hoodie (I've never been to a race track when it was anything near actual hotpants weather) - it didn't matter what I looked like, because I was there to report on the race. If I was judged at all, it would be on my writing. Whereas we all knew what the girls were being judged on. A man on my team made dismissive comments about 'those tarts over there', but not because he was objecting to the sexism of the tradition - rather he thought they were not sufficiently attractive, and remarked that you get a more sophisticated class of podium girl at Silverstone. So these girls couldn't win - they were there for nothing but their appearances, but even those were found to be wanting. And so goes the message to women - remember to look perpetually sexually available, even a little bit 'slutty', but never, god forbid, must you look 'cheap'.
Still, as I watched the two girls finish up, get back into more comfortable looking clothes and drive away, I reflected that it didn't look like too tough a job. It was certainly a briefer day's work than my 8 hours spent inhaling petrol fumes - not that I was complaining, as I actually really enjoyed reporting on the races, but if you wanted a way of making easy money without having to know anything about motorsport, theirs was certainly the job you'd pick over mine. If I had the height, bustline, waistline, backside, skin tone, hair length and appropriate wardrobe to fit the podium girl template, would I be picking the podium over the pit wall myself? Who knows - it's too big an 'if'. It's depressing, though, that this is how women's roles are still divided. Either you're 'useful' - like I was that day - or you're 'decorative', like podium girls. You're not allowed to be both, because that might muddy the waters. And whichever side of the coin you choose, you'll be punished for it. Ugly girls have to be clever and funny because why else would men pay them any attention, right? And pretty girls don't have to bother being anything but, because their worth is only skin deep, isn't it?
In this sense Peter Sagan's actions have been helpful, if only because they spurred on commentators to point out "the absurdity in still having podium girls in 2013". Much like the 89,000 supporters of the No More Page 3 campaign, people are finally coming out of the woodwork to point out how dated, cringeworthy and insulting it is to still treat women like 'dolly birds' in an era where we pay endless lip service to the notion of sexual equality. And it's great that sports writers have used this opportunity to challenge the sexist tradition - Matt Seaton has a great piece in today's Guardian, asking "Does professional cycling really need to award winners kisses from "trophy" females? The whole spectacle is unbecoming - not just tacky and embarrassing, but retrograde and demeaning." It's just a shame that a woman had to be assaulted for the conversation to happen.