What Was Belgium Thinking?

It's normally a pretty progressive country, but Belgium just slipped back in time to the '60s: Belgium's E3 Harelbeke cycling competition published a ridiculously sexist poster for its upcoming race. The poster depicts a woman whose dress is being blown upwards and the hand of a cyclist reaching to grab her butt. Yeah, really. The race's logo is printed on the woman's underwear and the poster's tagline is "Who squeezes them in Harelbeke?"

Sounds pretty all-around sexist, no two ways about it, right? Well, the worst part about the whole ordeal is that this ad is considerably more modest compared to the E3 Harelbeke's previous ads.

And even worse still is that this year's ad was inspired by a real-life butt-grabber. In 2013, Peter Sagan, who won last year's race, was pictured pinching the butt of a podium girl — the fact that there are still podium girls is also disturbing, but I'll reserve that for another story — who was planting a kiss on winner Fabian Cancellara at the Tour de Flanders. But that was actually a repeat offense, because a week earlier, Sagan was photographed reaching for yet another podium girl's behind at the 2013 E3 Harelbeke tournament. After some (rightfully) called Sagan's actions sexist, the cyclist offered this completely half-assed (sorry) apology:

Instead of reprimanding him for his boorish behavior, the Tour de Flanders organizers tweeted the pic with a cheeky (I'm not doing it on purpose, I swear) caption while the E3 Harelbeke organizers decided to reward him by basing this year's poster on him.

E3 Harelbeke, who has since removed the poster from circulation, issued an official apology along with this statement:

The organization launched this campaign as a playful nod to the stage incident two years ago in which a rider got ready to squeeze the buttocks of a flower girl.

Playful nod?? Can you hear yourselves? You wanted to whimsically pay homage to molestation? Well, don't be surprised if nobody appreciated your playful nod to someone's totally creepy attempt to sexually violate a woman's body.

However, E3 Harelbeke's totally out-of-touch statement and its latest poster shouldn't really come as a surprise because the organization clearly has a long history of using misogynistic content to sell their event. In 2011, the race's poster featured a stark-naked woman lying in a field (because that's completely relevant to cycling) with miniature cyclist silhouettes climbing up her backside.

And last year, the organization created this mess:

Where does one even begin? With just a few clicks in Photoshop and this could be the poster for the next installment in the Human Centipede horror series: Human Bicycle.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University, told CNN:

Such provocative imagery may have been seen by some in the 1950s and 1960s as a basis for selling products, but marketing communications are a rather more sophisticated and progressive activity than they were 50 years ago. I think E3 Harelbeke are rather out of kilter with the way that most people think today.

I think that's putting it lightly. Image: E3 Harelbeke