For many distance runners, finishing a competition means a drink of water and a long lie down. But at a women-only 10-kilometer road race to be held in Shanghai next month, participants will cross the finish line to cupcakes, makeovers, and the attentions of male models.
Announced Monday, the Shanghai International Women’s Elite 10K Race will reward top runners with medals in the form of necklaces and offer hair and makeup services at the finish line to “highlight the female element of the race,” according to a Facebook post by state-owned newspaper People’s Daily.
“We’re hoping to bring women enjoyment and a sense of empowerment,” Zhou Jin, the general manager of race organizer Shanghai Donghao Lansheng Event Management Co. Ltd., said in a phone interview with Sixth Tone on Thursday. “We care about the particular needs of women,” she added. “They want to feel attractive in every moment, even while running.”
According to Shanghai International Marathon’s official account on social app WeChat, the women-only race is “tailored to our goddesses” and aims to “present women’s elegance, independence, and healthy and positive attitudes toward life.” The promotional post includes a visceral appeal to potential participants: “If you want a race with cotton swabs and hair ties in the toilets, if you want a super handsome male model putting a necklace on you after you finish ... this is your chance!”
But some netizens were quick to slam both the event organizer and the Party mouthpiece for their outdated attitudes toward gender. In a tweet that included a screenshot of its Facebook post, People’s Daily praised the competition for “allowing women runners to hold up ‘half the sky,’” a reference to Mao Zedong’s famous saying. “Phew, glad I saw this tweet,” one Twitter user commented below the post. “I’m not sure what I’d do with all my free time today if I weren’t permitted to hold up half the sky by People’s Daily & a marathon committee.” Another user quipped, “Will the track be paved with glitter and cuddly toys?”
Comments under the WeChat announcement, meanwhile, seemed to be more from excited men than offended women. “Beautiful girls need handsome boys’ company — pick me!” read the most upvoted comment. “Do these sisters need a guide dog? Bow-wowww,” read the one just below it. But Zhou dismissed these comments as harmless banter. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not respecting women,” she said. “Maybe they’re just jealous that there’s not a men-only event, or they’re overly eager to help women.”
This is not the first time People’s Daily has taken a tone-deaf approach to women in sports. During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the newspaper published photo sets with titles like “Serbia vs. Brazil: Sexy Goddesses Among the Fans Catching Our Eye” and “Recap of the World Cup Quarterfinals: Which Country’s Female Fans Make the Best Eye Candy?” And after the Shanghai Pudong International Women’s Half Marathon in 2015, the publication ran an article that referred to a “slow-footed goddess striving not to be left behind” who drew spectators’ attention.
Other Chinese news outlets have fallen foul of feminists for their sports coverage, too. In September 2016, Sixth Tone reported on the backlash to the sports-focused Twitter account of Xinhua News Agency and its sexualized coverage of women after it posted an image of a Japanese volleyball player whose breasts had been edited to appear larger.
As for the hosts of China’s women-only road races, they can’t seem to get enough of feminine and heteronormative stereotypes. In 2016, the sports administration for Shanghai’s Pudong New Area described what participants in the women’s marathon had to look forward to at the finish line: “Over a dozen strikingly handsome foreign male models were waiting to present medals to the runners and hand them roses.”
“We want to encourage more women to participate, especially all the la ma out there,” said Zhou, the event organizer, using a Chinese term for young, attractive mothers.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Race participants compete during the Shanghai Jing’an International Women's Marathon in Shanghai, Oct. 14, 2018. Yan Daming/Qianlong/VCG)