Numbers Games: unequal peloton sizes at the Tokyo Olympics

The Tokyo 2020 Games will be the last with a drastically smaller women's peloton than men's — but how has it taken this long?

Most outrage around inequality within the road events at the Tokyo Olympic Games has — rightly — been levelled at the huge difference between the courses: the men will race 234km with 4,865m elevation, including the lower slopes of Mt. Fuji, and the women will cover 137km and 2,692m bypassing the iconic mountain.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig and Marianne Vos were among those who vocally objected to the disparity when the course was released in 2018, while some, including sprinter Chloe Hosking, countered that incorporating the mountain would preclude the majority of the peloton and create a one-dimensional race. 

One issue upon which both sides of that debate would agree, however, is the disparity in peloton sizes. This weekend, 67 women will race around the roads of Tokyo and onto the Speedway, compared with 130 men.

The disparity in numbers — described by women’s cycling union The Cyclists’ Alliance in an Instagram post as “ a staggering lack of parity between the male and female events” — has been in place since the very first women’s Olympic road race in Los Angeles in 1984. At those Games just 45 female racers were allowed to start. The limit then reached 67 in Athens 2004 (where the men’s peloton contained 145 riders) and has remained unchanged since. The men’s peloton size has never officially been capped and has fluctuated at each Games, peaking at 184 in Atlanta in 1996. 

Women's Olympic Road Race Guide

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After the quotas were revealed for Tokyo 2020 many were outraged that the unequal number of male and female competitors would once again remain the same. That said, in Tokyo, 299 men and 229 women are due to compete in cycling events across the four disciplines of road, track, mountain bike, BMX and BMX Freestyle park. Despite the overall parity as a sport, this hasn't detracted from the impact on road racing.

Riders are in Tokyo preparing for the 2021 Olympic Road Race. Photo Credit: Toru Hanai/Getty Images

The UCI promised to rectify the disparity for the next Games as part of their ‘Agenda 2022’ initiative aimed at levelling up women’s cycling. They, alongside the IOC, came through on their promise as from Paris 2024 — 20 years since Athens where the men’s peloton contained more than double the number of riders than the women’s — the number of male and female athletes in cycling events will be equal. 

Rather than bring the number of spots for female riders in line with the men, however, the IOC have brought down the number of male riders as part of an effort to reduce the total number of athletes across the games. This is not isolated to cycling, however: around 400 spots will be cut across the Games for Paris 2024 and the total number of cyclists will be reduced from 528 to 514 with men’s cycling spots reduced from 299 to 257. Crucially, in the road race, there will be full gender parity as 90 riders will line up for both the men’s and women’s events. 

Upon revealing the programme for Paris 2024 Games, IOC president Thomas Bach explained the reason for the reduction in athlete numbers saying: “With this programme, we are making the Olympic Games Paris 2024 fit for the post-corona world. We are further reducing the cost and complexity of hosting the Games.” Bach added: “While we will achieve gender equality already at the upcoming Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, we will see for the first time in Olympic history the participation of the exact same number of female athletes as male athletes. There is also a strong focus on youth.”

Photo credit:  Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

48.8% of the total competitors at the Tokyo Games are female which the IOC is describing as “the gender equality already achieved for Tokyo 2020” (which begs the question of what the figure of 50% for Paris 2024 represents.) Regardless, the next Olympic Games (now just three years away) will feature an equal number of male and female participants in cycling events.  

The impact that this change in numbers might have on the road race can only be revealed once we get there. For the women, though, the increase in numbers could give smaller nations a chance to race where they may not have had one. For example, New Zealand, despite having standout riders like Niamh Fisher-Black and Mikayla Harvey come through in recent years, failed to qualify a single women’s road spot for Tokyo 2020.

The way an Olympic road race plays out is always distinct from other events, and it is this factor which makes the race so interesting to watch. Even a World Championships is not exactly comparable: there were 145 riders in the women’s 2020 World Championships peloton in Imola, and there are typically around the same number of riders in any given Women’s WorldTour race — 55 more than there will be in the Olympic road race.  

Whatever effect the number of riders might have on the racing itself, the 50/50 split at Paris 2024 is a welcome step towards parity in road cycling in general, even if it has taken 88 years for a women’s road race and 37 years to reach this level of equality.

Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com