Why do girls run shorter distances than boys in cross country?

Toronto Star Photo credit: Rene Johnson
Toronto Star Photo credit: Rene Johnson

This is one of those “because it’s always been that way” things. There is no reason why girls should run shorter distances than boys in cross-country. And yet Kerrie Gillespie reports in The Toronto Star that:

In Ontario, when girls turn 14 they start to race shorter distances than the boys. That doesn’t change until they turn 35 and, in terms of elite athletics, are past their best years. There are similar disparities across most of the country.

It persists all through university as well:

In Canadian universities, female athletes run just 60 per cent of the distance that their male teammates do. There is no medical reason for this.

“It shouldn’t be happening,” exercise physiologist Greg Wells says. “It’s based on very old perspectives that women couldn’t do as much as men but, really, there is absolutely no reason why they should be running different distances”

Not just no medical reason. No reason whatsoever. And yet that’s the way it is. Of course, people need to think of ways to justify the difference. According to Wells, people cite things like women being a bit slower, more susceptible to knee injuries, and worry that they might over-train and not eat properly (!!).

Ontario runner Leslie Sexton ran 6km at the Ontario Championships last month where her male counterparts ran 10K.  Sexton says,

“I’m running the same distance as the youth boys in my club that I coach. They’re 16- and 17-years-old, I’ve had about 10 years of extra training on them and Athletics Ontario is saying I’m only as prepared to run as long a distance as they are. I take that a little personally.”

Sexton will run at the Canadian championships in Kingston next Saturday, where she is hoping to improve on her third place finish from provincials. The disparity, at least, will be a little less. Senior women will run eight kilometres to the men’s 10.

Sexton has heard plenty of explanations for why women should run shorter races — it encourages participation, they’re less experienced, it’s what they want — but she’s having none of it.

“A lot of these arguments boil down to people saying, in different words, women are weak and they can’t handle it. I think we should give our female distance runners some credit, they’re not getting into the sport because it’s easy,” she says.

Of course, if women are going to start doing those distances, the difference between girls and boys distances needs to end early on.

At the university level, there is an ongoing debate about equalizing the distances for men and women. But according to the article in the Toronto Star, they couldn’t even pass a motion that gender equity was important, let alone start discussing differences.

It’s not clear that the best thing to do is to increase the distance for women to what men now run. It’s possible that they will meet in the middle.

At the elite level,

The global governing body for athletics, the IAAF, has just settled on 10 kilometres for senior women and men at world races, instead of its old eight and 12. That has little immediate application — the next World Cross isn’t until 2017 — but it does become the global elite standard.

There’s a lot of backing and forthing and apparent concern about how to make the transition. High schools apparently don’t change things because the universities aren’t practicing gender equity.

The good news is:

Not everyone has stood still. A few coaches of young athletes have plunged ahead. Pierre Mikhail, a community coach in Huntsville, held a race this past September with equal distances for male and female runners, and Kirk Dillabaugh, a high school coach in Ottawa, convinced all the schools in his district to move to equal distances for a two-year trial.

Ask Dillabaugh why he moved, when provincially and nationally schools, universities and athletics associations have not, and he sounds surprised by the question.

“It’s the right thing to do.”

I thought he was going to say, “Because it’s 2015.” Because seriously, that should end the conversation, don’t you think?

A poll of Toronto Star readers about the question “Should women’s cross-country distances be changed to be equal to men’s” yielded 87.2% in favour (“yes–it’s the 21st century) and 12.8% against (“why change now?”).

What do you think?  Does it make sense to go for gender equity in cross-country running?

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