Female bicycle motocross riders

(WOMENSENEWS)–More women are participating in such extreme sports as dirt-bike racing, but at the 11th annual X Summer Games, which opened yesterday in Los Angeles, there are only two women’s sports categories: wakeboard and skateboard.

“Women’s divisions are a side show to the men’s events,” said Mark Sperling of Op Girls Learn to Ride, based in Laguna Beach, Calif., which organizes female-only action sports clinics. “They are often scheduled to skate early in the morning when there is little audience and they receive only a fraction of the men’s prizes.”

The Games, which will be televised on ABC and on sports channel ESPN, run for four days through Sunday. ESPN started the competition in 1995 with 27 events in 9 sports categories from bungy jumping and skysurfing to rock climbing and biking. In 1997, the competition–which had been held once an year–split into winter and summer sessions, with events varying from year to year.

X-Games organizers contacted by Women’s eNews said that female athletes in many extreme-sports categories have not reached a high-enough level to add arenas for women.

Some female contenders refute that, saying they are not given the chance to compete. One of them is Kim Klisak, 24, who founded the Women of Freestyle Web site for female riders in what is known as bicycle motocross–also known as BMX–in which cyclists on 20-inch-wheeled bicycles perform tricks and stunts on flat ground and wooden ramps.

“Seven female BMX riders had a freestyle park demonstration at last year’s X Games and ESPN ignored us,” said Klisak. A BMX athlete from the age of 15, Klisak said she had hoped that the demonstration she organized last year would garner enough attention to pressure organizers to include a BMX division for women.

That, however, hasn’t happened.

Summer X Games in 1997 and 1998 marked a high point for female participation, with women competing in seven events in three categories: in-line skating, sports climbing and wakeboarding.

At this year’s games, however, women are down to three events: two in women’s skateboarding one in “wakeboarding,” a boat-towed sport like water-skiing, in which one or two people operate the boat while the rider flips, spins and twists off the boat’s wake.

Wakeboarding and Skateboarding

Reflecting what organizers say is the higher rate of male participation in the sport, women’s wakeboarding will field eight contestants, while the male field hosts 10. Dallas Friday, an 18-year-old Florida wakeboarder, will be defending her women’s wakeboarding title at the X Games today and tomorrow.

With prize money based on ticket sales, male boarding contestants at the X Games are expected to walk away far better off than their female counterparts.

The women’s skateboard street event–where athletes perform tricks on ground level–will also feature 8 contestants versus 10 in the male event.

In the more gravity-defying skateboard vert–where competitors perform tricks on a 100-foot ramp–only 5 women are competing, reflecting what organizers say is lower female participation in the extreme sport. The male skateboard vert field will be twice as big, with 10 men competing.

Female Sports Appeal

Women’s wakeboarding and skateboarding are in the games this year, organizers say, because they attract more female competitors.

Female doing BMX stunt

“Wakeboarding appeals to women because it is a family-oriented sport,” said Patrick Wampler, media director at World Sports and Marketing, a Winter Park, Fla., producer of the wakeboarding event for the X Games. “You cannot do it by yourself,” he said, referring to the team members needed to run the boat.

As a recreational sport, surfing has achieved gender parity, with an equal number of men and women enjoying it, said Miki Keller, president of the Women’s Motocross Association, based in Bend, Ore.

The X Games surfing category does not include female competitors. “We made the decision to focus on improving our surfing competition before adding new elements, like a women’s discipline,” Melissa Gullotti, press representative for ESPN X Games, wrote in an e-mail.

A report by the National Sporting Goods Association, a Mt. Prospect, Ill., trade alliance, found that in 2004 women were over half of in-line skaters in the United States, a third of off-road mountain bike-riders and over a quarter of skateboarders and snowboarders.

But as women’s sports participation has risen, media attention has gone the opposite direction. As a share of television air time, women’s sports coverage has declined from 8.7 percent in 1999 to 6.3 percent in 2004, according to a July study by the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles. With male competitors getting over 91 percent of the sports coverage last year, men claim 95 percent of ESPN’s audience.

Gearing Up for Motorbiking

More women are also gearing up for a chance to compete in a motorbiking event called moto freestyle, in which riders perform aerial stunts on dirt courses.

Many male organizers see the event as too dangerous for women. “Women are sensible and, as a husband, I can say that moto freestyle is a quasi-daredevil sport,” said Paul Taublieb, president of the Malibu, Calif., Media-X International, Inc., which is organizing the “moto” events at the X Games. “Women are not very high caliber athletes and one mistake can lead to grave consequences.”

“Even if they have the talent for freestyle, it is tough for women to be accepted and get a break in this male-dominated sport,” said professional moto rider Heather Williams, one of the few women doing moto freestyle. “Girls get a bad rap every time they try to push the envelope.”

“Women are doing new sports today,” said the Women’s Motocross Association’s Keller. While Keller said that female riders are not yet near the level of male athletes, she expected that more chances to compete would motivate them to improve quickly.

So far opportunities are scarce. The Summer X Games in 2002 had a female moto demonstration, where an accident during practice left female rider Joey Sisco hurt and confirmed skeptical attitudes towards the female athletes, said Keller.

“Snowboarding has 35 percent of female contenders,” said Keller. “It’s a shame that other sports do not follow the same attitude.”

Dr. Robert Harmison, head of the sports exercise psychology program at Argosy University-Phoenix, says that the barriers faced by women in extreme sports is similar to the earlier controversy over women playing basketball.

“U.S. society does not approve of women in extreme sports” said Harmison. “Feminine sport is figure skating, not skateboarding.”

Kamelia Angelova is a skydiver from Bulgaria and a Women’s eNews intern.

For more information:

Op Girls Learn To Ride:

Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles (AAF)–
Gender in Televised Sports: News and Highlights Shows, 1989–2004

Women of Freestyle: