The Y Games? There's an overwhelming supply of male chromosomes in extreme sports. Some say it's the nature of the games; others blame chauvinism for the lack of female participants.

Posted: August 14, 2001

These are fat times for female athletes.

Women like Mia Hamm and the Williams sisters are celebrated as sports superstars. Women's soccer and basketball leagues are giving crack players the chance to turn pro.

There's even - who would have believed it? - a new women's full-contact professional football league.

So you'd think that women would be all over extreme sports. With its alternative trappings, this is where grrrl power should definitely rule.

But a look at the roster of the ESPN X Games, which opened here over the weekend, reveals just 21 women in a field of more than 300 athletes. And at NBC's rival Gravity Games next month in Providence, R.I., the numbers are likely to be no better.

Why the dearth of women in action sports? Some say that gals aren't attracted to bruising, bone-jarring sports such as skateboarding, street luge and freestyle motocross. Where women have made inroads, others say, their performance lags behind the men's, making them less compelling for television.

Some female athletes say they're simply being shut out, excluded by the nearly all-male network that runs the pro tours and honchos the TV coverage.

At the X Games here, only two of the eight sports - wakeboarding and speed climbing, in which athletes race to the top of a climbing wall - feature separate women's competitions. In aggressive in-line skating, women compete with the men.

There are no women at all in street luge, bicycle stunt, motocross, skateboarding, and downhill BMX (a bike race down a steep, stepped course).

By contrast, the number of women competing in the Olympics has more than doubled in the last decade - to 4,069 women, compared with 6,582 men. And women now compete in the same number of Olympic team sports as men.

Asked about the meager number of women making a showing at the X Games, Chris Stiepock, general manager of the six-year-old competition, said: "They're making inroads, but not at the level we'd like it to be."

He said there are some women BMX riders, but few stunt riders. In aggressive in-line skating, which involves doing tricks on a course full of rails, ramps and obstacles, or on a towering curved ramp called a half-pipe, the number of female competitors has actually declined, he said.

"It could be a cultural thing," Stiepock speculated. "The lifestyle these kids choose is not the easiest. They are always on the road, sleeping five to a room, trying to eke out a living through meager sponsorship dollars and competition earnings."

Bob Lewis, program director at Woodward Camp, near State College, which runs action-sports programs in BMX, in-line and skateboarding, said that the number of girls participating remains small. "There are a lot of girls out there who do the sports, but they don't come to camp," said Lewis, whose facility is hosting the X Games' bicycle events. In a typical season, the camp sees about 7,500 boys sign up for action sports, compared with 200 girls.

Fabiola DaSilva, the queen of aggressive in-line skating, the only female member of Team Rollerblade, and one of only a few women who compete in the half-pipe (or the vert event), acknowledged the dearth of high-level women skaters. In fact, the top women skaters recently decided to forgo a separate competition.

"Some of the girls were making the other girls look bad, so we decided to launch with the guys," said DaSilva, who is so famous in her native Brazil that she's known simply as Fabiola. At the X Games, the two in-line events will feature five women and 41 men.

"In the beginning it was really hard," said DaSilva, 22, of the decision to compete with the men. "Some of the guys said girls are girls and guys are guys; it's ridiculous to put them together; no other sport does this. . . .

"Guys, they don't want to lose to girls. It's just a macho thing."

Yet Miki Keller, head of the Women's Motocross League, wants to see more competitions for women only. "Some people have said, why don't we compete in the men's races," said Keller, who has been struggling to establish a professional racing circuit (which is different from the trick riding in the X Games). "But I think women need to compete against their peers if they're going to have the chance to excel."

She said women motocross riders often drop out when 17 or 18 years old because it's expensive to get to competitions and there's little prize money. "When you enter a sport that is traditionally male-dominated, it's hard for people to see the potential," she said. "And I think they don't really want the girls to compete. They might think it loses some of its toughness."

Even in action sports such as wakeboarding, which has had a strong female presence since it began in the 1980s, "the girls" are still battling for recognition. The sport - in which riders are towed behind a speedboat and use a short board with foot straps to do tricks off the wake - has a new generation of powerful, aggressive female competitors. Two of those stars, 19-year-old Tara Hamilton and 15-year-old Dallas Friday, are competing here this week.

Yet this year's pro wakeboarding tour included women's competitions on only four of its seven stops. That fact irks Nancy Hamilton, who has been escorting her daughter to events since she began competing at age 15.

"The tour managers will say the girls don't bring too much to it in terms of attracting spectators," Hamilton said. She added with a sigh, "I think it's just going to be going on forever in our culture: that women can't do what men can do."

Jeff Barton, editor of Wake Boarding magazine, said only four or five women are good enough to challenge the men. "The women's sport has not evolved as quickly as the men's," he said. "I guess the contest promoters have seen stagnant riding among the women."

Perhaps most rankled by their exclusion from the X Games are women skateboarders.

"How many years have the X Games been going on, and they're still not including the girls?" observed Jen O'Brien, 24, a top professional skateboarder. "Most of the people who run the events are guys. They want to see guys do it. They relate to that. They don't realize there are so many girls out there who want to see the girls."

Cara-Beth Burnside, one of the biggest stars in women's skateboarding, agreed: "The guys running the show don't want to open the doors for girls." Burnside has forged a far more lucrative career in her secondary sport, snowboarding, where women have more equal footing. "If we're going to get more girls involved, more girls need to be seen on TV during events," she said. "It will come around. It has to."

The number of girls skateboarding, and the ranks of women pros, have been growing, in part thanks to an event called the All-Girl Skate Jam, which was launched in 1997.

The competition, which offered $7,500 in prize money this year and has grown to a three-stop tour, attracts about 100 competitors.

"The fact that there is an organization for women shows there is an interest in it," said Tony Hawk, skateboarding's biggest superstar. He often plugs the all-girl event in his TV and personal appearances. "Before that, it was just girls competing against the guys where they could."

"We got so much resistance at first," recalled Patty Segovia, the event's founder. "People said, 'Why are you giving the girls prize money? They don't deserve it.' "

Segovia, 32, tried to interest X Games organizers in putting on a women's event in 1998. "They said people don't want to watch the girls."

"Our problem is we have a limited number of hours we can put out on the network," the X Games' Stiepock said. "When we add something, that cuts into airtime for an existing sport. And we hear it from the athletes."

It's all about crucial TV exposure for an athlete's sponsors.

And it just may be the sponsors - the shoe and clothing companies, the equipment manufacturers - who finally push women fully into action sports.

Cognizant that girls are a huge, untapped market, action-sports gear and clothing companies such as Etnies, Vans and Velvet Eyewear sponsor athletes such as Burnside and skateboarder Elissa Steamer, who have their own signature skate shoes. Split Clothing Co. runs one-day workshops to teach girls basic skills in motocross, skateboarding and wakeboarding.

The All-Girl Skate Jam's Segovia said she has so many potential sponsors for her event that she can choose among them. In the works, she said, is an All-Girl Board Jam.

Beau Brown, sports promotion director at Etnies, predicts that the X Games and Gravity Games will change. "There are going to have to be events for [women] simply because it's a growing demographic," he said. "And I think the networks that are putting these shows together are going to have to cater to that."

Eils Lotozo's e-mail address is elotozo@phillynews.com.

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