Elite Cyclist and espnW Senior Editor Kathryn Bertine Talks Olympics, Funding and Sports Media
Elite cyclist and espnW senior editor Kathryn Bertine has done everything that the rest of us -- weekend warriors and casual blogger that we are -- have always wanted to do but have been too afraid to try.
She's spent more than a decade chasing her dream of making it as a professional athlete, living from non-paycheck to non-paycheck, training for most of the waking day. In 2006, ESPN offered to sponsor her most ambitious and foolhardy pursuit yet: Qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in two years. The challenge took her on a whirlwind tour of nine sports -- including luge, not a summer sport -- and ten countries. Spoiler alert: in her resulting book, "As Good As Gold," she admits she didn't make it in 2008. But she's back in the saddle hoping to represent the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Kitts and Nevis (where she gained dual citizenship as part of the ESPN adventure) in cycling in 2012, in addition to her day job at espnW.
The Playing Field caught up with Bertine for an edited Q&A about her Olympic pursuits, funding inequalities in sports and the ever-growing field of sports journalism.
In the two years you spent trying to get to the 2008 Olympics for ESPN, it seems like you found that being an Olympian takes more than incredible athleticism -- it can also mean signing up to be seriously cash-strapped. Which are the most underfunded Olympic teams?
Women's team handball, definitely, and race walking -- these are sports that really fall into a chicken and egg cycle. If a sport is not well known in America, then it may not attract the talent pool and then it's harder and harder to win on the Olympic level. And if a team is not winning, should the USOC [United States Olympic Committee] promote it? I believe that in order to break this cycle -- and I would speak for other athletes in underfunded sports -- we have to start promoting these sports at the grass roots level the same way we do for youth soccer or tennis or swimming.
Promoting something at the grass roots level means people have to know these sports even exist. Is that up to the media? In your book you went on a fabulous rant about the American sports media being trapped in "a loveless codependent relationship with multimillion dollar professional men's sports." What does that mean?
In the realm of sports journalism, we've grown complacent. We're so used to seeing the big sports -- football, basketball, baseball, hockey -- in the mainstream media. I'm not saying we need to replace the three pages of baseball statistics, but we can reposition journalism to open doors and give opportunities. If we have the power to rework sports journalism to show that there are other athletes, we can use these people as role models to inspire others to do great things in country and in world.
In addition to disparities in funding from the Olympic committee, what about at races themselves?
There are huge differences in prize money. The inequality, it's just so vast. There are some sports that have done a really great job, such as triathlon. But cycling is a good old boys network. Male cyclists have been around for over a hundred years and women are just so incredibly backdated in prize money and in press attention. Most women will not comment on this, because if they're attached to a professional team and they start going off about not getting as much money as men they run the risk of making sponsors angry.
But that's where I come in. I'm the only Saint Kitts and Nevis rider so I'm happy to spout out about the inequality because I can't face any penalty, and I know the women are behind me on this.
It sounds like 77 cents on the dollar would be a raise for women cyclists. How is this okay?
77 cents -- try 7 cents. Women's races will often be shorter than the men's race. And if the race directors continue to give us shorter courses then maybe they can justify the pay inequality to themselves. Maybe they're thinking, "Women are not out there doing the same distance as the men, so the prize money can be smaller." But we're the ones saying that if you tell us what to race, we'll race it.
It sounds like back in the day when women were allowed to row only half the distance of men's 2,000-meter races because doctors were worried about women's reproductive organs failing.
Seriously! There were times when doctors believed women couldn't go as far. But now we look back and laugh, saying, "That was such a funny time." But cycling is stuck in that time and the changes aren't getting made.
Well, at least female athletes have found one way to attract sponsors: modeling. What's your opinion on sexuality and sports?
Even if you just type the words female athlete into Google what comes up is "ATHLETES IN BIKINIS" or "FEMALE ATHLETES ON THE BEACH!" When that's the front-runner on our search engines, something's wrong. We're in this rut [of sexualizing athletes] because that's how female athletes were first described. That's how all women were described. But the media needs to find a way to show that a woman who is kicking ass in her sport is what's sexy. Not the photos and the comments.
When it comes to modeling and paying the bills, I do embrace the ability for female athletes to love their bodies and that aspect of sexuality in a positive way. Nothing makes me happier than an athlete full of muscle saying, "Damn, I look great." So if they're modeling and getting across the message that strength is beautiful, that's great. If they're slithering on a car, then something is wrong. But it is a conundrum because if female athletes can only pay the bills by modeling then something's wrong in the system, not the athletes.
You're now a senior editor of espnW, which puts you in a pretty good position to show that a woman who is kicking ass in her sport is what's sexy. How do you try to change sports journalism with this new platform?
We're trying to take the gender out of sports and just focus on great athletes, especially female athletes because they are so underplayed by the media. I believe that we don't need to have a men's sports page and women's sports page; we need to have both genders on the same page. But the difference between espnW and ESPN is that ESPN more often features women we've already heard about. I don't want to take away from those players, but there are so many other women we want to read about. For example, the other day we featured a female heavyweight boxer and ESPN actually picked up this story and put it on that website. To me, that sends the message: Yes she's a woman. But she's a boxer and she should survive on both pages.
You can follow Bertine's Olympic quest on espnW, and we'll be hearing more from her soon on HuffPost, too.