Ada Hegerberg emerged from a cloud of fog as dramatic instrumental music filled the Grand Palais in Paris. She took a moment to smile — looking out over the cheering crowd — before she raised the golden soccer ball over her head and kissed it.
The 23-year-old Norwegian professional athlete made history Monday as the first winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or award, an achievement that recognizes her as the best women’s soccer player in the world. Until then, the distinguished award had only been given to men for more than 60 years.
But Hegerberg’s momentous accomplishment, and arguably the rest of a memorable ceremony, was swiftly overshadowed by a single question about twerking that has since sparked global outrage.
Accepting the Ballon d’Or was supposed to be Hegerberg’s moment. Instead, just minutes after she concluded a heartfelt speech in which she encouraged young girls to “please believe in yourselves,” Hegerberg was approached by French disc jockey Martin Solveig, the event’s host, who had a bizarre query.
“Do you know how to twerk?” Solveig asked in French. Clearly uncomfortable, Hegerberg shook her head and responded with a terse “no,” before appearing to attempt to leave the stage. The audience, namely French soccer player Kylian Mbappé, who was also honored, was visibly stunned.
A clip of the exchange, which only lasted seconds, was uploaded to Twitter. As of early Tuesday morning, it had been viewed more than 7 million times.
Solveig was instantly excoriated on social media for his question, with many, including other professional athletes, condemning the moment as “sexist.” The fierce backlash prompted Solveig to publicly apologize shortly after the ceremony.
In a video shared to his Twitter page, Solveig could be seen taking a deep breath before starting his apology.
“I’m a little bit amazed as to ... what I’m reading on the Internet,” he said. “I, of course, didn’t want to offend anyone.”
He continued: “This comes from a distortion of my English level and my English cultural level, which is obviously not enough because I didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I didn’t know that this could be seen as such an offense."
Solveig noted that after asking if Hegerberg knew how to twerk, the pair danced together onstage to Frank Sinatra. In a tweet accompanying the video, Solveig wrote, “I don’t invite women to twerk but dance on a Sinatra song.”
“This was a joke, probably a bad one, and I want to apologize for the one I may have offended,” he said in the video. “Sorry about that.”
Less than 30 minutes later, Solveig tweeted a photo that showed him and Hegerberg in the middle of what appeared to be a friendly handshake.
“I explained to [Hegerberg] the buzz and she told me she understood it was a joke,” he wrote. “Nevertheless my apologies to anyone who may have been offended. Most importantly congratulations to Ada.”
Following Solveig’s cringeworthy misstep, Hegerberg told John Leicester of the Associated Press that she “wasn’t upset."
“He came to me after the situation and he apologized, but I didn’t take it as that at all,” she said. “I got to dance a bit and I got the Ballon d’Or and that was what was in my mind.”
When asked if she felt the question was sexist, Hegerberg, who has been an outspoken critic of the treatment of female athletes, said the thought “didn’t come to my mind at all.”
“There are a lot of other subjects to discuss if we talk about” sexism in sports, she said.
Citing Norway’s lack of respect for female soccer players, Hegerberg has announced that she will not be playing for her native country during the Women’s World Cup next year, AP reported. She doubled down on her decision Monday, telling AP that “a lot of things need to be done to make conditions better for women who play football.”
“Sometimes, you have to take tough decisions to stay true to yourself,” said Hegerberg, who plays for Olympique Lyonnais, an elite French club. “I let them know, quite clearly, what I found wasn’t working.”
Though Hegerberg said she wasn’t bothered, Solveig’s attempt at humor incensed just about everyone else.
Others wondered whether Croatia’s Luka Modric, who won the men’s Ballon d’Or over Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, was also asked if he could twerk. Modric did not have to show off any dance moves, but Solveig did engage Mbappé in an awkward dance to Drake’s “God’s Plan,” when the 19-year-old accepted the Kopa Trophy for young player of the year.
Solveig’s question earned rebukes from current and former members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team and other top athletes, including British professional tennis player Andy Murray.
“This is an absolute joke,” tweeted Lindsey Horan, a midfielder on the U.S. women’s team. “Unbelievable. She just won the first Ballon D’Or for women. [Hegerberg] Congrats and you do not deserve this bs.”
Abby Wambach, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is now retired, tweeted that Hegerberg “deserved better,” adding, “we all do!”
“This is disgusting,” Wambach wrote. “Imagine having just been given the best award for your craft/job/passion, and this is the question you’re asked?! I’m so pissed and sorry Ada.”
On Instagram, Murray called the incident “another example of the ridiculous sexism that still exists in sport.”
“To everyone who thinks people are overreacting and it was just a joke. It wasn’t,” he wrote. “I’ve been involved in sport my whole life and the level of sexism is unreal.”
Female athletes have long battled against unfair treatment in their respective sports. For years, members of the wildly successful U.S. women’s national soccer team had to fight for equal compensation and working conditions, only winning higher pay and a five-year labor deal last April. Months before the 2018 Winter Olympics, the U.S. women’s hockey team, also upset about the wages and resources given to female players, threatened to boycott the world championships. USA Hockey reached a deal with the boycotting athletes in March 2017 and the team went on to win the world championship title.
Many, including Wambach, felt Solveig’s apology did little to mitigate how he “ruined” Hegerberg’s groundbreaking night and took attention away from her success.
“Congrats, you pulled a Kanye: ruined her moment and took the spotlight,” one Twitter user wrote, referencing the infamous moment rapper Kanye West stormed the stage at the 2009 Video Music Awards and interrupted Taylor Swift.
Such an unfortunate tragedy that she’ll most likely go down in history as the woman who was asked to twerk onstage at an awards ceremony, rather than the first female Ballon D’Or winner and a sensational footballer, who’d already bagged 250 career goals by the age of 23.— Αχμέτ (@gunnerlad92) December 4, 2018
In a scathing tweet, Wambach wrote that Solveig’s video was not an apology, but “an excuse.”
“You say it’s a joke and that’s the problem," she wrote. "Your joke isn’t funny, it’s sexist. Please don’t tell anyone that you respect women before you dig into your own sexism.”
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