Inga Thompson (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

Inga Thompson and the cost of saying no

How a celebrated cyclist was attacked for defending women’s sports

Artillery Row

I wrote recently about Austin Killips, the male cyclist, winning a female cycling race. I wanted to defend women’s right to single-sex sport, but also to defend young female athletes from unfair demands that they alone should “do something!” to stop male athletes competing in women’s competitions. One woman who agreed with me was Inga Thompson, and she has since gone further — demanding that those young women begin to object at the start of such events and on the podium. She is calling for men and women to unite to defend women’s sports from the trans-identified men, who seem determined to destroy opportunities for women to compete fairly.

Inga Thompson is a three times Olympic cyclist, a three-times world medal winner, and she has finished on the Tour De France Podium twice. Clearly, she knows a thing or two about what it means to compete as a woman in sports. Her experience of success is so precious to women’s teams now that she has retired from competitive cycling. This year she was given a board role on the newly-established Cynisca Cycling team, formed in conjunction with USA Cycling ahead of the 2023 season.

Young female cyclists are watching and will see it as a cautionary tale

Cynisca proudly states that it is “committed to advancing women in the sport of cycling both on and off the bike”. Inga is dedicated to advancing the interests of young female cyclists, and she was delighted to be joining what she saw as an innovative team. Her experience was not as smooth as she expected, though, and Inga decided to resign from the board in April. She endured a rough ride this week as the team at Cynisca behaved in a shocking way towards her for expressing her political views.

When Inga sent an email politely resigning her post on the board of Cynisca for a new role with Future of Cycling, she would never have expected to receive not a courteous acceptance but a cold and deliberate character assassination of the highest order. The email, widely distributed in the media as the team’s official statement on the matter, blithely waves a hand at Inga’s exceptional value as a board member before proceeding to make some bold claims about her. 

Chris Gutowsky, the founder and general manager, distributed the following statement:

Ms. Thompson was invited to the board because of her impressive palmarés and a wealth of knowledge on international race strategy, tactics and training. If shared in the absence of politics, her knowledge and experience would benefit many and advance cycling for everyone. However, she has decided to dedicate her time to excluding people that are otherwise currently eligible to compete in UCI events. She has also attempted to use our team as a platform for her political activity.

It is quite extraordinary of Gutowsky to state that Inga would be valuable if she could keep her mouth shut about her beliefs. Her views, at least in UK law, have been established as worthy of respect in a democratic society. Gutowsky continued:

Ms. Thompson’s social media presence include dehumanisation of transgender people, spreading misinformation, demagoguery, and personal attacks on anyone who opposes her views.

Inga Thompson is astounded to be smeared in this way by her former boss. Her own letter of resignation shows a desire to protect Cynisca’s reputation, with deliberate sensitivity and care for the success of the team. Gutowsky, by return, seems not only peeved but determined to drag her reputation through the mud. His attitude was embraced with seeming glee by former competitive cyclist Anne-Marije Rook, as she poured it into a hit piece for Cycling Weekly. Inga was offered no right to reply but was instead blocked by Rook on social media. It is distressing to see Inga treated this way, knowing that young female cyclists are watching and will see it as a cautionary tale against speaking up for women’s right to female only sport. Inga is right, however — those women must take courage from the example she is setting for them, or they are going to have to fight for their podium places so much harder down the line. 

She fears for the athletes she has left behind and how they may be treated

Gutowsky wrote, “Despite the negativity fostered by Ms. Thompson, we are succeeding and will push forward faster without her.” Inga Thompson has been left reeling by his lack of good grace in commenting on her departure. She fears for the athletes she has left behind and how they may be treated. 

Marion Clignet, another experienced rider and member of Union Cycliste Feminine, was initially a sport director at Cynisca, but her contract was not renewed in February. Clignet also opposes trans-identified men competing in women’s sports, though Cynisca is keen to emphasise that this is not why she was let go. However, Clignet told Cycling Weekly that she was “treated differently, bullied, ghosted” and that “Inga was ostracised almost from the very beginning”.

Clignet also alleges that she experienced “rude”and “aggressive” behaviour from members of staff — something the Cynisca team has sought to deny. It looks, even from the outside, as though Cynisca is cleansing the team of the political view that men should not compete in women’s sport. In leading the Board in this direction, Gutowsky is not fostering an environment where women will win, but one where men will beat them, and women will be expected to be quiet about it. 

Nothing could send a surer signal to young female cyclists than the treatment of Inga Thompson. If you object to men in your cycle races, then you will have your reputation dragged through the dirt of the cycling media. 

Is Inga Thompson scared by what has happened to her? Not at all. She told me, “I will do anything to protect women’s sports and to honour the women who came before me who fought to have women’s rights and for women’s rights in sport. If being bullied so badly and defamed so badly gets women’s sport the attention it needs, then being bullied is worth it.”

Thompson is one of that rare breed of women who is willing to stand up for other women even at great personal cost. She is withstanding the abuse she receives for her views and keeping her eyes on the future for young female cyclists. She is braver than Chris Gutowsky in representing their needs and rights. I hope that whilst those vulnerable young female athletes see the backlash she has faced, they also see that if they don’t stand with her, they will lose the right to fair competition. As I have previously stated, it is crucial that male sportsmen begin to speak out on behalf of these women; they have more financial power to exact change and certainly more financial resilience. If, for example, Chris Froome on a salary of over £5 million spoke up, he wouldn’t feel the breeze of cancel culture rustle his bank account in the slightest. By contrast, it is only the established positions of retired elite sportswomen that allow them to take up arms for those young women being cowed by the boards of their teams. The heroine of this story is Inga Thompson, the woman who simply will not shut up and sit down whilst men shove women from their rightful podium place. The cost of saying “NO” to men is steep — the pride felt by women brave enough to say it is priceless. 

(Cynisca, Rook and Cycling Weekly were approached for comment but did not offer any.)

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