Running Behind: Unequal Distances in Cross Country Hindering Athletic Development and Respect for Female Competitors

    Last week, Canadian marathon record holder Lanni Marchant appeared before Canada’s parliament to discuss issues in women’s sport, noting in particular the continued fixation on the appearance of female athletes by the media. The same week, Runner’s World published the now widely shared and commented on “Running While Female,” which highlighted the harassment women continue to experience while running, ranging from crass to life threatening. 

    Both are sobering reminders that as a sport, running is still far from being something that women are able to pursue on equal terms as their male counterparts, a fact felt by recreational and elite runner alike. Further proof of this can be found in the fact that in university cross country (XC) competition, women are still fighting for equity in distance, much less respect and safety.

    In fact, it made headlines earlier this year when Queen’s University hosted the first XC meet where men and women ran equal distances, specifically 8K. By contrast, the recently held Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championships in Toronto featured the traditional distances of 6K for women and 10K for men. 

    Leslie Sexton: "I want to empower girls to become strong athletes and lifelong runners. This isn't possible if their opportunities are limited during their teenage and young adult years." Image via Canada Running Series.
    Leslie Sexton: “I want to empower girls to become strong athletes and lifelong runners. This isn’t possible if their opportunities are limited during their teenage and young adult years.” Image via Canada Running Series.
    Steve Boyd, Head XC and Track coach at Queen’s says that XC was introduced at the intercollegiate level in both Canada and the US during the 1980s. “Since it was a fledgling sport,” Boyd says, “championship racing distances were set at 5K for women as compared to 10K for men.” The intention was that as participation increased, so too would the distances, but Boyd adds that, “Distances were only ever increased once for women from 5 to 6K, in 1999 by the NCAA and in 2013 by Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS).”

    The discrepancy is not unique to Ontario with different distances being run in every jurisdiction Boyd can think of save for some primary school systems and the US high school system. Compared to other XC jurisdictions, then, the policy may not stand out, but it certainly does when compared to Track, where the NCAA offers equal distances for men and women, 3K and 5K indoors, and 5 and 10K outdoors.Amy Friel, a competitor at the XC National Championships in 2015, says, “There is no compelling, reasonable argument to preclude women from competing in a distance equal to men. The longer we pretend there is, the more XC as a discipline starts to look like a relic from a bygone era.”
    When one considers the fact that in road racing, where a marathon is a marathon, 42.195K for both men and women, and that at the Olympic level we see men and women race the exact same distances as well, XC does indeed begin to stand out, seemingly clinging to what may have once been a norm but has long been outdated and without rational basis. 

    Recently, there has been a smidge of progress on the matter. At a hearing held just prior to the OUA Championships, Boyd recounts,  “It was agreed that the women’s distance should be increased immediately and for the next two years (2017 and 2018) to 8K, and that a panel of ‘experts’ should be struck with the purpose of advising the coaches’ association on the question of whether distances should be equalized at 8K or 10K.” 

    Boyd confesses to “…having no real idea who will be chosen to sit on this committee, or what expert knowledge or special information they will bring to bear on the question.” I reached out to OUA President Peter Baxter to ask if he could provide any insight on how the committee will be composed and precisely what they will be considering when they revisit the issue in two years time, but as of this writing have received no response. 

    Boyd is motivated by a few key factors in pushing for distance equity. First is the matter of supporting female athletes in achieving their full potential, particularly at longer distances and at the senior level.

    Boyd cites a significant gap in current participation levels at the longer distances. “At this year’s provincial track 10,000m championships,” Boyd states, “there was one female competitor versus 16 men. And at the National Track Championships there were 12 women versus 29 men on the starting line.”

    While XC isn’t going to be the sole determinant in narrowing such a gap, it certainly stands to reason, Boyd feels, “…that offering collegiate women more opportunities to race longer distances would increase the base of female post-collegiate long distance runners.” Furthermore, Boyd adds, increasing the base number of competitors in turn increases the chances that more top level competitors, perhaps our next Lanni or Krista, will emerge.

    For elite runner Leslie Sexton, it’s both a matter of athletic development and simple equality. “As an athlete and coach,” Sexton says, “I want to empower girls to become strong athletes and lifelong runners. This isn’t possible if their opportunities are limited during their teenage and young adult years.” Confining women to shorter distances, Leslie says, “also teaches young women that they are less capable than men.” 

    Following the OUA’s two year trial of 8K for women, which Sexton acknowledges is a start, she’d like to see the distances ultimately equalized at 10K, concluding, “Equal distance for men and women in XC means equal opportunities for both men and women to develop as distance runners.”

    There doesn’t appear to be any compelling reason that women should be confined to shorter distances, certainly not one that relates to the health and safety of the athlete, which it seems was never the reason for the policy in the first place. Boyd also reminds us, “Classically male sports like football, hockey, and rugby are far more risky to the health and safety of their competitors, but instead of talking about restricting the opportunity of men in these sports, we leave the risk assessment up to them.”

    Perhaps there exists a portion of female athletes and coaches, among them women, who are happy with the current distances, but Boyd argues that, “If young women don’t want to race as far as young men, we have failed in our athletic leadership of them. Also, the opportunity for women to race the same distance as men, even if only minority of them at the moment would like this opportunity, is a fundamental equality right that can’t be denied.”

    Indeed, in the midst of an incredible surge of success in female distance running in Canada, and after women have spent decades running on equal ground on the track and the road, it seems oddly counterproductive to continually tell the some of the most talented and dedicated athletes in the country that their potential as distance runners doesn’t merit the same investment as that of their male teammates. 

    Friel is blunt in her assessment of the overall matter. She concludes, “The fact that women and men don’t run the same distances isn’t a controversy – it’s a joke.” Distance equity for female runners can at least ensure that the sport doesn’t become one. 
    – Ravi Singh