Different race lengths for men and women? It’s time things changed | Life and style


Fifty years ago, Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston marathon, having entered using her initials in order to get around the ban on female competitors. Five years later, women were officially allowed to compete in the race. In 1984, the women’s marathon was added to the Olympic Games. In other words, we have been striding towards parity for the sexes in running for quite some time.

But cross country seems to be stuck in a time-warp. On 27 January, hundreds of runners will descend on Stanmer Park in Brighton to race at the South of England Athletic Association’s Cross Country Championship. The senior men will run 15km, the senior women 8km – just over half the longer distance. It’s the equivalent of women running 14 miles instead of a marathon, or 53 metres instead of a 100-metre race. A month later, at the English National Championships the difference is not quite so big – 12km and 8km – but still means that the men are running 50% further. The senior women will run the same distance as the teenage boys.

It is extraordinary that we are still having a “debate surrounding gender equality”, in the words of the English Cross Country Association. Here are some of the arguments given by “traditionalists” for maintaining the status quo – and their rebuttals.

‘There is not enough time in a one-day event that includes junior races to accommodate a longer women’s race’

So, they have time for the men, but not for the women? The timetable for the SEAA championships allows 45 minutes for the women’s race and 90 minutes for the men’s – are men twice as important?

There are two solutions available here. Either equalise the distance (the IAAF World Championships and the Scottish National Championships are now 10K for men and women) or open up long and short distances to men and women.

‘Women are not as fast; their race should be shorter so it takes the same amount of time’

True, on average, but women are only about 10% slower, so this can’t be used to justify such big discrepancies. This argument is weakened by the fact that all other races in championships major and minor are the same for both genders, regardless of finishing times.

‘This is how it has been traditionally and we see no reason to change it’

Like paying women less for doing the same job or excluding them from golf clubs?

‘Many women prefer the shorter distance and would be put off if it were longer’

Women and girls are conditioned from an early age to underestimate their abilities, to be princesses rather than superheroes. Differences in race distances – which start in the junior age groups – are part of this insidious, ingrained sexism. Athletics should empower girls and women, not keep them in their place. Just as importantly, it shouldn’t give boys the idea that their event is more challenging or more important.

On the flip side, there are plenty of male club runners who would prefer a shorter race – discrimination cuts both ways. Encouragingly, at the Scottish nationals, where distances were equalised last year, there has been no drop in entries. Besides, even if there were a temporary fall, it would be worth it in the long run. Finally: these events are all optional. No one is forced to enter or run a distance they aren’t comfortable with, whatever their reasons.

In previous years, I have been simply pissed off and whinged to my friends and club-mates, but entered races anyway. This time, with some members of my club – female and male – I have decided to do my bit to change the system.

Between us, we have written to the various governing bodies. None appear particularly inclined to show leadership on this issue, in spite of the examples set by the IAAF and Scottish Athletics. They say they will discuss it at meetings and consult with their member clubs. I hope they will debate how to achieve gender equality, not whether it is desirable in the first place.

In the meantime, we have started a petition, as a way of letting the authorities know that this is not a matter of a few “crazy feminists” who are always moaning about something. We are delighted with the support we have received from runners of all levels and genders, as well as from news organisations and running magazines and blogs. But there are some people within the running community – men and women – who would rather keep things as they are.

Along with a number of other runners, I have decided that I’m no longer comfortable taking part in events where women are not treated equally – so I won’t be running at the southerns or the nationals. Luckily, my club, East London Runners, competes in two leagues where women and men run together over the same distance, so I don’t have to give up my mud fix.

Who knows, maybe by next winter we will be competing on a level, if hilly, playing field.

#runequal



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