Nurit Engelmeyer is a champion bicyclist. Only 15 years old, she has already taken home a slew of medals and won this year’s National Road Bicycling championship and the Time Trial National championship, though with her shy modesty and gentle demeanor, she is the last person to let anyone know. She trains six days a week, can often be seen on the Modi’in roads with her gear, and she gives many of us – by us, I mean her Mom’s friends – a huge, vicarious thrill.
Yet it is hard for her to get the attention of the cycling establishment in Israel. Some of her teammates have received sponsorships to race in Europe this summer, but not Nurit. Why? Because she is a girl. There is no funding and no real support for girls’ cycling in Israel. So even though the boys who were are sponsored have less of a chance than she does of winning races, she is staying home while they advance in their cycling careers.
There is no attention, no understanding that ‘women’s cycling’ is even a field of its own. There is nothing for girls, not on the national level, not on the adult level, not on the girls’ level. No funding, no awareness, no statistics. Few other sports have organizations focused on competitive women, either, though there is a group for female triatheletes and a women’s basketball league.
The lack of financial support for girls’ cycling is one symptom of the overall struggle of female cyclists to get noticed. The girls are simply not seen. Or as my friend Annie, who is Nurit’s mother, says, “Girls are an afterthought.” Thus, for example, she tells the story about the time the Israel Cycling Federation, the organization that runs all the races in Israel, simply “forgot” to post girls’ scores after a race. Or the time that the judge of the race left the girls on the starting line because the girls were placed on an “alternative” line and he forgot to tell them to start.
Nurit tells about practices when boys were told to ride four laps and girls were told to stop after two. I have no doubt that any four lap race that boys can do, Nurit can do just as well. But girls are not the focus of attention. They are often a kind of decoration around the main event, which is the boys’ cycling.
It starts, I would argue, in elementary school onward. My second-grade daughter tells me that girls are given a fraction of the number of exercises to do that boys are. “I want to get to do 100 push-ups too,” she says, “but I only have to do 30.” In high school, boys are often assigned elaborate exercises to receive their phys-ed matriculation, while girls are told to make up a dance. Walk into any Israeli elementary school during recess and you will most likely find a group of boys dominating the courtyard with a soccer game or some other sport, while the girls find a corner somewhere to play ball or jump rope. The girls who have the courage to enter the boys’ games are few and far between, and struggle more against social convention than any athletic handicap.
Even girls who want to take sports seriously have a hard time. Adi Avital, a talented 14-year-old champion runner who began road racing just this year and already came in second place at the Nationals, “gets extremely frustrated about the prejudice against women athletes,” her mother Anna reports. “At one point she was quite dedicated to soccer but completely gave up after her school stopped any real investment in the sport,” Anna told me.
And the girls who persevere barely get attention. Take for example, the Elitsur Ramle national women’s basketball team, which broke many records this year and won three major titles including the European championship. The event barely made the news in Israel. Picture the men’s team achieving such a milestone. It would be front page news for a week.
Still, in addition to sexism from early childhood, unequal funding, and lack of resources and attention, women athletes also suffer from the wrong kind of attention. Nurit reports that when her coach doesn’t approve of her performance, he says to her, “What happened to you? Do you have your period?”
Female athletes around the world are often seen more for their bodies than their skill. Serena Williams, for example, one of the most powerful female athletes on the planet, has more attention paid to her backside than her backhand. The New York Times ran a story last year about [Roberta Mancino](dgained some attention when she began modeling nude.
Still, the recent women’s World Soccer Cup was a major breakthrough in that it seemed, for the first time, to gain attention similar to that of men’s sports. There may be some hope yet.
But Israel is way behind and is desperate need of some consciousness-raising about women in sports.