The Long Fight for Women’s Parity in Action Sports

Even outside mainstream sports, sexism and unequal access have long thrown up hurdles for female athletes. Deconstructing those hurdles is an endurance sport of its own.

Vice Sports

When Blue Crush hit theaters in 2002, critics generally considered the film weak on plot and strong on surfing sequences. The latter was mostly due to the casting of pro surfers Keala Kennelly and Kate Skarratt, including their stomping the famous Hawaiian break Pipeline in one of the film’s climactic scenes. Blue Crush premiered as the number of women surfers was growing, and the scene likely provided stoke for countless girls to try the sport. It also showed that women surfers can be as big a draw for their athletic performance as men.the-long-fight-for-womens-parity-in-action-sports-1446142502

But here’s the rub: Kennelly and Skarratt earned far more filming their cameos in Blue Crush than they did from winning major events as professional athletes. For years, the same unfortunate calculus has been true for women competing in action sports from cycling to skateboarding to snowboarding: You can be among a sport’s most decorated athletes, but your winnings may not pay the rent. For these women, achieving parity with the salaries, sponsorship endorsements, and competition prize money that their male counterparts enjoy has been slow to come.

When Kennelly began competing at an elite level in 1998, on the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) championship tour, a mid-pack female surfer might earn around $30,000 in winnings in the course of a year, around half of what her male counterpart might make, even though the men’s field was more that twice as large (36 men versus 15 women). Because surfing venues span the globe and athletes generally cover their own travel costs, earning a decent salary as a female athlete was nearly impossible without an endorsement deal or side job.

Prize money for both genders did improve incrementally during the years Kennelly was on the tour (she stopped competing in 2006) but the women’s total purse per contest remained roughly a quarter of the men’s. Even so, women kept entering the sport. In 2002, the ASP added two more seats to the women’s tour, a 12 percent growth, and overall, more women started surfing recreationally in the early 2000s.

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Outside: Surfers on Acid(ification)

It maps waves, predicts conditions, turns surfers into citizen scientists, and could be the data-collecting tool climate scientists need to study our rapidly acidifying oceans.

As the Internet of Things inches its way into every corner of our lives, no one would blame you for rolling your eyes at the suggestion that even a surfboard should be embedded with sensors and smartphone connectivity.smartphin

Don’t. That surfboard is real. And it’s helping scientists better understand the impact climate change is having on our oceans.

In 2010, Andrew Stern, a former professor of neurology at the University of Rochester who’s now an environmental filmmaker and advocate, realized that surfers could serve as citizen scientists. Simply based on how much time they spend in the ocean, they could help collect data while on the water.

One of his filmmaker friends had recently met Benjamin Thompson, a surfer pursuing a PhD in structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Thompson was studying fluid-structure interactions, research that involved embedding sensors into boards. “It was mostly about tracking the performance of board,” he says. Thompson’s goal: to help the surfboard industry make better boards, and maybe use sensors to help surfers better understand (and improve) how they surf.

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