Gender equality in cross country: why not?

Last weekend at the CIS XC championships, the coaches voted to increase the women’s race distance to 6k. This was following the OUA’s decision to do the same, and, based on the results in Kingston on Sunday, AO is also on board with a longer senior women’s race distance. Unequivocally, I think this is a good thing. Whatever the reasons for gender disparity in xc running (see below), it’s time they be put to rest.

As forward a step as the move to 6k for university women is to take, it still leaves the women running 4k less than the men. Women’s distance running really only got rolling officially in the 80s, when the IAAF finally started increasing track distances for women to be the same as for men. The first women’s world record in the 5000m to be recognized by the IAAF was Paula Fudge’s 15:14.51, in 1981. Women were allowed to run an Olympic marathon in 1984 (gasp!). Of course women were running far and fast long before that. But why has cross country fallen off the gender equality train? And how do we get it back on the rails?

The solution to most problems is: start’em young. As you can see in the chart below, boys and girls race the same distances in xc up until the age of 12. After that, the boys’ distances start creeping away, year by year, until there is a 3k gap at the junior/CEGEP level. What happens at 12 years old that girls can’t run as far as boys? Why do we let this happen? Let’s look at some possible reasons:

1. Girls are weaker than boys.
I’ve included this one just to show how ridiculous it is. If anyone still believes this, give your head a shake, or better still, have a look at the results. The Benajamin (Bantam) girls run fairly equivalent times to the boys. If they were in the same race, there’d be a nice mix of boys and girls. Sure a boy might win outright, but let’s not worry about the 1%, let’s focus on the masses.

Also, if you look at physical maturity and development, at 12 years old, some girls are further along than boys. I was the fastest boy in my school in grade 7 and 8, but I wasn’t the fastest runner (our team was good: the boys won the City of Toronto team championship).

2. Longer distances reduce numbers.
This argument usually goes a couple ways. One is to suggest that making a cross country race longer for girls will make it harder and pre-teen and teenage girls will drop out and go to soccer because running is too hard (this is slightly different than the previous argument). The other is that, further up the chain, it will hurt the middle-distance program.

As far as the first argument goes, it seems to me that giving girls a challenge and encouraging their equality to boys, at a time when they are bombarded with all kinds of stereotypes about what women should be, would do more to keep them involved than send them away. We, as a sport, say we don’t think much of girls and what they can do when we limit the distances they run compared to boys.

The second argument, as it pertains to middle-distance, is equally negative. Having gradually increasing distances for boys has not hurt our middle-distance program in that area. In fact, it’s an oft heard lament that generally, guys tend to do better than girls in track in Quebec. Of course there are exceptions: there are fast women. But the depth of fast women is not the same as the depth of fast men. What are we doing differently for boys? I think we promote and valourize their performances more than we do strong women’s performaces, for one. But more germane to this discussion: we let them run longer in cross country. If a 15 year old boy can run 4k in the fall, and that helps him succeed in the 800m and 1500m in the summer, then why would we deprive women of that opportunity? Running 10k for cross country has clearly not hurt the slew of 2:2x 1000m runners who competed at CIS last year.

3. It would be too big of a change.
Well, yes, if we just ask 17 year old girls who have only ever run 4k for cross country to start running 6k, that might be hard. But if you’ve spent any time with teenagers you know that they are capable of a great many things. And running hard for an extra 7-8min is probably well within their capabilities.

Even if you grant that it might be tough, there’s an easy fix. “Grandmother” the new distance in. Starting with girls born in 2000 and 2001, move the distances up. So in 2013, Benjamin girls run 3k. In 2014, Cadet girls run 4k (the 1999 girls will have run 3k in their first year of Cadet and will run 4k in their second), and in 2015, Juvenile girls can run 5k or 6k. More on that in a minute.

Here’s the chart:

So it seems that gender equality could be achieved in the younger age groups, but as athletes approach the national level, coordination becomes difficult. We need to keep in mind the national and international distances, and prepare athletes for those. But what if we did extend the distances for our junior women? Would it not be an advantage for them to race 6k and then drop down to 5k for the national championships? And eventually running 8k would help our senior women compete at the current 7k national championship distance, as well as prepare them for IAAF competition. Wouldn’t it be great if Quebecois women became a force in cross country and distance running because we didn’t systematically discriminate against them in competition from a young age?

Eventually, we can put pressure on national and international bodies to equalize cross country distances. Maybe they even out at 10k, or 12k. That hill is a steep and muddy one to climb. The CIS coaches who brought up gender equality at the FISU XC championships were soundly beaten down by lame excuses from European old boys clubs. But surely given the progress made elsewhere in athletics, it will only be a matter of time before they wear down.

One last, related, note: it also seems to me that for the age groups Cadet and below, there should be only one provincial championship, the schools championship. I think the FQA should provide support for the schools by lending expertise (coaches) to the school programs, and using that as a recruiting base for winter and summer club track. This would require selling the gender equity idea to the RSEQ, and to schools and teachers. I don’t see how they can refuse, and claim to live in the modern world. Of course, that is a subtle political discussion and I’ll leave it to someone more subtle than I!

If you think this is a good idea, speak up at this weekend’s FQA AGM and coaches meetings. Contact the FQA, with a short note indicating that, you, too, are interested in helping Quebec women runners get faster on the whole. Like in any distance race, all we have to do is make the decision, trust the athletes, and watch the PBs roll in!