My time at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge was an excellent experience to say the least. Am I now a desert rally convert, you may ask? My answer to that would be leaning towards the side of yes, however I am definitely not ready to don a helmet, jump on a KTM and ride off into the dunes of Liwa any time soon. Nonetheless, I do have the utmost respect for all those who do take on such an incredible feat of both mental and physical prowess; the Empty Quarter is exactly that.
One major thing I did notice whilst working on the challenge was the mutual respect shared across the competitors, be it riders, drivers or co-pilots, there was a sense of family; a sense of “we are all in this together”. This was epitomised on the final day when Spanish rider Laia Sanz halted her push for top spot to come to the aid of fellow Spaniard Txomin Cobeaga, who had unfortunately took quite a nasty tumble 20km from the end of the final stage. Sanz’s humanism was rewarded when her time was later recovered, placing her 6th overall, an incredible achievement for a desert debutant, even more so for one of the few lady riders in the competition.
Or was it?
Of course it was an amazing achievement but is this even more so due to the fact she is a woman? No, not at all, rally driving has been accessible to women since the early 1900’s when pioneers such as Camille Du Gast and Dorothy Levitt made their mark in the rally history books. Thus, the question that springs to mind is why are female competitors being primarily introduced via their gender when rallies and races are not differentiated in any way; males and females run the same course, have the same vehicle specifications and the same rules. This was something very eloquently addressed by Italian quad competitor Camelia Liparoti at the end of a tiresome stage three of the ADDC;
“I have such a passion for the desert and as a woman I don’t think there is a separate track, I may be the only lady in the quads but there is lots of respect amongst the drivers, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman”
From a competitors perspective there is no difference and so why the public eye so fixated on making this differentiation is beyond me, yet it is present in all sports; same rules, same games, different fixation, as a competitive powerlifter I can also speak from personal experience. Whilst male competitors speak freely about their challenge experience, are addressed as drivers before men, females still battle with this notion that they are women before competitors. There are no allowances for females, no reductions in length, no additional aid should they get stuck in the dunes, the desert is equally harsh as it is hot for both sexes. Whilst mutual respect is obviously existent amongst the Desert Challenge competitors the ladies are clearly tired of hearing these same inferences. Liparoti later went on;
“It’s so refreshing to be asked about my experience of the desert, rallying and my love for it. I often get questions about how it is to be a woman but it is no different. I love the desert, I came from skiing and the dunes are very much like the mountains. Sometimes, I do lose myself in the scenery, get lost for a minute and then realise I am competing. This is my favourite place. Today was
difficult since I was sick, dune sick, but I love the desert so much I just had to finish still, I just love riding out here.”
She was somewhat shocked to be asked anything but questions relating to her gender, something which struck me as both sad and thought-provoking. Her passionate account and deep adoration for rallying is something I felt privileged to hear first-hand and the eyes of those present were far from dry including my own. This question was out of the ordinary for Liparoti, something she appears to have never been given the opportunity to discuss. Consequently, I fear we as a public are missing out on such stories due to an unnecessary focus on gender during post-event interviews. This is something that in my opinion must be addressed, since when a task is equal, gender bares no relevance in the outcome.
At the end of it all, rally riders and drivers, male or female are of the same breed, the same blood courses their veins and they battle the same dunes and tackle the same torturous heat. They are brave, enduring and talented, some of them just happen to be female too.