The story behind the surprise prize parity announcement at the Santos Women’s Tour

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Just when we thought we were putting the excitement of the four-day Santos Women’s Tour Down Under behind us for another year, the South Australian Government has come out with some big news. Not content with the mandated payouts for the women’s race,  prize parity this year was always their aim.

Yes, the men’s race is WorldTour ranked and the women’s is a level below at 2.1; and yes, the commercial reality of women’s cycling doesn’t stack up the same way, which means that, often, the race prize purses for women are just a fraction of the men’s. There are plenty of reasons why the South Australian government could have left the prize purse as it was: at €98,000 (A$150,000) for the men and €15,000 (A$23,000) for the women. But they didn’t think that was good enough.

While waiting for UCI President David Lappartient to arrive in Australia to get the stamp of approval, the South Australian government kept the budget in place to boost the prize money, not just for the year ahead but for the race that had just concluded a week prior as well. That meant a hefty post race bonus for overall winner Amanda Spratt, who went from €1,549 for the General Classification win to €12,000. Stage winners all of a sudden had a prize that was nearly 15 times bigger, with the jump from €275 to €4,000.

Why did the South Australian government go so far beyond normal expectations for women’s prize money? The answer from the state government that also did away with podium models is clear: the women deserve nothing less. We spoke to South Australia’s Minister for Sport Leon Bignell to find out more about the how and why of the rare move by the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under to offer prize parity.

(This excerpt from the interview has been edited for flow and length)

Ella CyclingTips: It was a surprise post race announcement, tell us how it came about?

Leon Bignell: I wrote to the UCI in November to get the stamp of approval from the UCI and then David (Lappartient) said lets talk about it when we are down. So the first thing we did when he landed was said ‘can we do this?’ and he said ‘sure, absolutely, great idea’.

Ella CyclingTips: Why did you think that making the prize money equal was so crucial — so crucial in fact, that you even kept the money set aside to introduce the move retrospectively for 2018?

Leon Bignell: I’m an ex cycling journalist and I worked for the first women’s sports editor in Australia, she was my first boss, and I’ve always been out there promoting women’s sport. It is my DNA to try and do the right thing by women in sport. I look at it and think well the women more than the men actually need the prize money. The men largely get paid day in day out by sponsors and their teams where as for the women it can be a real struggle between pay cheques and sometimes they are taking on two or three jobs. By getting the equivalent pay cheque to the men it will just give them a lot more breathing space so that they can put a little money away, or maybe work a few hours less if they’ve had a win.

The thing with a government owned race is that we can deliver on social consequences and social imperatives that maybe commercial owners don’t see the need for.

If we can set the agenda for the world we would love to do that. For example last year I also got rid of the podium models and replaced them with the junior champions.

Ella CyclingTips: This seems to be a move that is also about far more than the prize money for the individuals, but that says something about the way we value sportswomen and the effort they are putting in?

Leon Bignell: If they break a bone it doesn’t mend any quicker than a bloke’s bone and it doesn’t hurt any less. When they put the blood sweat and tears into training its no less than what the men do. So why shouldn’t they get paid the same … this is 2018 and we should be doing the right thing by women and if we set this example in cycling we hope it spreads to other sports.

Ella CyclingTips: Not only are you increasing the prize money to make it equivalent to a men’s race of the same status (2.1) but you are shifting it up to the same amount as the men’s TDU, even though they are one notch higher at WorldTour. Why did you go this extra distance?

Leon Bignell: The WorldTour status is something that we are not necessarily going after for the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under. Part of me says we should go after it and lets have the highest standard of race we can in name – but what we really want to do is have the highest standard of race in terms of technical difficulty, in terms of prize money but keep it at 2.1 because then up and coming Australian cyclists will be able to ride it. If we take that away because it becomes a WorldTour race then they are locked out of what to me is the best opportunity to test themselves on the international stage at home, at a cost that it is more affordable.  So that (2.1) is where we are aiming to be. We wouldn’t want to hold back the prize money just because we haven’t got WorldTour status because it isn’t our priority.

Being a government and owning this race as a government allows us to make all sorts of decisions that maybe commercial owners of a race wouldn’t make. We want to set a good example. Women who are out in the workforce whatever job they are doing should get the same pay as men do.

Ella CyclingTips: Can you tell us a little bit more about your perspective on if and when the race may head to Women’s WorldTour status?

Leon Bignell: I think we should, at least for three or four years, sit back and consolidate what we’ve got with 2.1 and grow it from there …We have to keep talking to people and work out what is the best pathway to go down, not just for us, not just for our race but for the sport. We don’t care if a rider comes from Tasmania or Western Australia, we want to see Australians do really well on the world stage and they are not going to do it as well if they have barriers put in their way that mean they can’t compete in a top international race in Australia. It’ll be WorldTour in every aspect but name. And the prize money will exceed WorldTour.

Grace Brown (Holden Team Gusto), who snagged a podium position on stage 3. She’s the type of rider who would be at risk of missing out if the race went to WorldTour level.

Ella CyclingTips: And it’ll exceed it by a very long way.

Leon Bignell: When you are a politician you don’t want to turn up and keep doing the same thing someone else has done for years and years and years. You actually want to leave a legacy, you want to walk away from the sport and in 20 years when we tune in and see there are no models on the Tour de France … when we see equality, you can look back with a bit of pride and say ‘you know what we helped change things’. That’s why you go into public life and that should be why you do the job. Not be there as someone on the sidelines applauding when the riders go past and being happy enough with the status quo. You’ve got to push and change and prod.

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