Why we should all be Running Equal

Women being able to officially compete in longer distances is a surprisingly recent development. At the 1928 Olympics some women who competed in the 800m collapsed at the finish line (a not uncommon sight today), and the New York Times said that “even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength”. It led to women not being allowed to compete at distances longer than 200m in the Olympics for the next 32 years.

Unbelievably, it then wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed to “officially” run the Boston Marathon, after trailblazers like Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer were breaking the (ridiculous) rules by running without registering or entering using only their initials so that the male organisers wouldn’t realise they were female and start worrying about uteruses littering the course. The women’s marathon wasn’t introduced into the Olympics until 1984.

But it’s 2020, so this has all been consigned to the history books right? With people like Jasmin Paris winning the 268 mile Spine Race, there’s no way women would be running lesser distances than their male counterparts. We know our uteruses can cope (the plucky little blighters).

And on the whole, this is the case. Just not in the Cross-Country sphere. In XC, women are generally running shorter distances than men. Case in point at the recent Cambs AA XC Championships, where women run around 5.8km, and the men run 10km. This is even less than the National recommended standard of 8km for women (which is bad enough). But for those women who then get called up to run for the county at the Inter Regionals, they will find the distances equalised, and be expected to run 10km when they’ve qualified at only a little over half the required distance.

The IAAF have equalised the distances run in the World Cross-Country Championships, and Scottish Athletics have done the same for their national championships. So what gives for the English counties? My friend and clubmate Charlotte has been giving her all to the RunEqual movement for some time, including writing open letters to gather signatures from local clubs, and some of the reasons she’s been given by Cambs AA for not equalising the distances have been gobsmacking. They have tried to argue that the timetable won’t allow for the change (whilst ignoring the idea that everyone could perhaps be equalised to 8km – the time saved on the men’s race would allow for the extra time needed for the women’s) or that a longer distance race would mean fewer entries and would increase costs to participants.

img_20200116_172542_0465859269262996058020.jpg

But what I saw in the lead up to the Cambs AA (where Charlotte was threatened with disqualification if she went through with her plan to peacefully run the men’s distance in protest with myself and some clubmates) and what happened at the County Championships race really showed how bad the attitudes of these associations can be. Charlotte had received confirmation ahead of the Championships that it had been agreed that from 2021, work would be done to ensure women are given the opportunity to run the same distance as men, should they wish. It felt like a huge step forward and we were looking forward to racing with this news in mind and our RunEqual ribbons pinned to our tops. But the attitude on the day did not give this impression at all.

It turned out that Cambs AA had done little to communicate to local running clubs that there was an intention to look at equalising the distances. So it was quite a surprise to the majority of the senior women who, as they lined up for the start of the race, heard one of the officials start telling them that at the end of the run, they would all be given a token to put in a pot to decide whether to keep running at 5.8km or step up to 10km. The tone of this announcement was very much along the lines of “you may be aware that the women’s race is going to be increased”, like it was a decision that had already been made thanks to a small number of “meddling women”. There was zero mention of equality.

Sad little voting pot

This goes massively against the RunEqual movement in so many ways. Firstly, it’s not necessarily about women running longer. It’s about either opening up both distances to both genders or choosing an equal distance. Maybe men run a little less. Maybe women run a little more. Maybe women run quite a bit more. On a fundamental level an open conversation needs to be had to see which option is the best for all concerned. Secondly, if there is going to be a vote, it should be opened up to all athletes, not just women. And thirdly, if you ask a bunch of women who have just given their everything on a tough, muddy XC race if they would like to run further, of course a lot of them in that moment will say no – they’re knackered and very few people would relish the idea of running further the second they’ve just busted a gut sprinting for a finish line.

And the icing on this misogynistic cake? The moment when the official, speaking about increasing the women’s race to 10km, uttered the immortal words:

“But you don’t want to do that, do you ladies?”

FFS.

What does this sort of attitude tell our young female athletes? It’s bad enough that the senior male race is ALWAYS before the women’s race and treated as the main event. And it’s bad enough that the officials on the day forgot to give out or even announce the winners for the 2nd and 3rd place veteran women’s teams, and again treated me like a “meddling woman” when I asked about it. Both Norfolk and Suffolk counties have managed to equalise their distances, so we know it can be done. But sadly, many of the Athletics Associations are boys’ clubs, run by people who are set in their ways and have never been made to feel lesser because of their gender.

And it goes beyond counties too. The attitudes of the English Cross Country Association representatives on Facebook are fist-gnawingly bad on this matter. Speaking of the recent Home Countries International in Stirling they snarkily said that “the Senior Men ran a little shorter than most are used to, running 8K as the Senior Women also did” rather than perhaps just stating that the seniors ran the same distance. They then began to attack anyone who spoke of the RunEqual movement, with one choice comment saying “we would prefer that you did not use our posts to further your cause, which generally is a minority view, judging by all the research that has been undertaken.” All the research? Please, let’s see it. Because until 2 weeks ago I certainly hadn’t been asked my opinion on the matter, and the only reason my opinion was asked on the day is because Charlotte pushed for it. If this is the attitude coming from the national association, can we really expect things to change on a county level?

I’m not sure how things will look at the 2021 Cambs AA XC Championships, but I will continue to support Charlotte in everything she does to make change happen. She has already offered to lead a working group on the matter to no avail. And if that change doesn’t come, perhaps we’ll both be running the men’s distance in 2021 anyway, proudly wearing our RunEqual ribbons. It’s not quite on the same scale as Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer, but this is our Boston marathon.

img_20200105_161944_8207227600924695363187.jpg

Sprinting to put my token in the 10k pot

Why Sport Needs Feminists

So last week I was watching the BBC 2 show Icons, which was celebrating the achievements of some of the greatest figures of the 20th century. The shortlist was made up of men, and Clare Balding made a really astute comment on why this might be the case. When asked if she was surprised no women made the shortlist, she said:

“I wasn’t surprised, disappointed but not surprised because I think you can’t be an icon unless you are allowed to have the limelight and I think the 20th century largely was the history of men told by men”.

I love Clare Balding, and so I tweeted a condensed version of her speech, saying “YASSSSSS ! Brilliant summary of why no women made the shortlist. The 20th century was a history of men as told by men.”

Clare Balding

And boy oh boy did that tweet get some attention (by my standards). I got accused of “moaning”,  was asked to name one woman who was worthy (ROSA FREAKING PARKS), got told that men are the reason my life is so good and was told that feminism is killing our culture. When I challenged this last point (made by someone who considers themselves an egalitarian rather than a feminist) I was told that women in the west “are vastly more privileged than men” and that feminists are “smashing western civilisation”.

I’m always interested in the opinions of others and so I did a bit of reading around feminism vs. egalitarianism (this article by Beth Turnbull was particularly useful), and after some research I still consider myself a feminist.  To quote Beth’s article:

“Egalitarianism is not an alternative to feminism. It’s like saying, “Why worry about exercise? Why not just worry about health?” You can’t really have one without the other. And don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with egalitarianism. It is simply a broader view of the fight for equality. Feminism is a narrower focus of that view; a focus on bringing women up to the same places men have been for years.”

So why am I mentioning all this in a fitness blog? Because a couple of days after this debate on Twitter, I saw a new petition on my timeline called #SeeSportyBeSporty by Totally Runable, calling for sports coverage in the media to be more gender equal. Despite the 2012 Olympics, where women won one third of all British medals, currently less than 3% of photographs of sport in the newspapers show women playing sport. and this article from 2014 shows that just 3% of sports articles at that time were about women as well. So this is where feminism comes in – not to tear down men, but to raise up the stories of women doing incredible things in sport (and all other sectors for that matter).

SeeSportyBeSporty

So we need to push for change – for more coverage of women in sport (you can sign the #SeeSportyBeSporty petition here) so that young girls can see themselves represented across the board. We need to keep shouting about the achievements of women like Jasmin Paris, Desi Linden, Dina Asher-Smith, Laura Muir, Jo Pavey and countless others (I’m focusing on runners here as that’s my passion but there are so many women doing incredible things in sport). When I google “Boston Marathon winner” I want the first result to name both Yuki Kawauchi (who I think is brilliant BTW) AND Desi Linden. We need to push for equal coverage and call out aging white men who write articles for crappy newspapers claiming that women’s sport is not as good as men’s and that’s why they don’t deserve equal coverage. And we need to keep telling the stories of female 20th century sporting icons like Tanni Gray-Thompson, Kathrine Switzer, Bobbi Gibb, Joan Benoit and many more. Because their stories are incredible, exciting and inspirational, just like the men’s stories are.

And I know this is ever so slightly off-topic, but this is a good time to shout out to Dr Jess Wade, who has written literally hundreds of Wikipedia entries for women in science (as well as other underrepresented groups) whose achievements have been overlooked in the past, in the hope of attracting more girls in to STEM in the future. Awesome stuff.