Women fac­ing ob­sta­cles in the race for equal­ity

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Fiona To­mas

When Run Cheshire this month ten­ta­tively drew up plans to stage an elite, small-scale marathon in Wrex­ham in an­tic­i­pa­tion of many of the UK’s ma­jor marathons be­ing can­celled due to the pan­demic, fe­male ath­letes were treated as an af­ter­thought.

Due to only 400 places be­ing avail­able, en­tries were lim­ited to those ca­pa­ble of run­ning un­der 2hr 40min (six women in the UK ran be­low that time last year). It was only af­ter a back­lash on so­cial me­dia that or­gan­is­ers opened up the event to women ca­pa­ble of run­ning be­low three hours.

It of­fers a snap­shot of how fe­male club run­ners have been left at the start­ing gun as sport grap­ples with the coro­n­avirus restart. Last week, the Bri­tish Mil­ers Club re­vealed it would not hold five-kilo­me­tre races for men or women un­less the Govern­ment’s 15-minute coro­n­avirus con­tact win­dow changed.

Those who spend 15 min­utes or more to­gether are con­sid­ered at greater risk of trans­mit­ting the virus, but ap­ply this within a 5,000m race con­text and women are sud­denly wiped from the field. While most men’s 5km club run­ners would com­plete the dis­tance within 15 min­utes, for women, a sub-15min 10sec time would be fast enough to qual­ify for the Olympics.

There has been much talk about how the pan­demic presents an op­por­tu­nity to press the re­set button for women’s sport, but there has been a re­luc­tance to do so in an­other run­ning event: cross-coun­try, which has been dogged by gen­der in­equal­ity for years (women usu­ally run 8km, and men 10km at se­nior level – although it is not un­com­mon for men to run twice as far as women).

Two years on from the launch of Run Equal, a cam­paign group for equal sta­tus in ath­let­ics, lo­cal leagues are slowly wak­ing up to this deep-seated in­equal­ity. Even UK Ath­let­ics, whose guid­ance for equal cross-coun­try dis­tances re­mains ad­vi­sory, has pledged to launch a “ro­bust” con­sul­ta­tion sur­vey into the is­sue next month.

That means comb­ing over de­ci­sions such as the one made re­cently by the Manch­ester Area Cross Coun­try League, which last month re­jected equal dis­tances for men and women. It has al­ready re­fused to dis­cuss the is­sue again un­til 2023 un­less it is man­dated to by UK Ath­let­ics. Should the 2020-21 sea­son be voided in light of the pan­demic, that date will be pushed back to 2024. Con­grat­u­la­tions, Manch­ester – city of the suf­fragettes – for unof­fi­cially winning the prize for the most rigid coro­n­avirus con­tin­gency plans women’s sport has wit­nessed dur­ing this pan­demic.

Dr Sa­man­tha Hart­ley, a Run Equal ac­tivist, is stumped by how eas­ily the equal-dis­tances pro­posal was re­but­ted. “There’s a lot of fear driv­ing this,” she says. “Peo­ple who are used to do­ing things the old way are feel­ing threat­ened by th­ese changes. We’re ar­gu­ing over two kilo­me­tres. It’s ab­so­lutely baf­fling. What are we telling girls that they’re able to do?”

It is a ques­tion that 19-year-old Rosie Wood­hams, who runs for Ken­dal AC, found her­self ask­ing at al­most ev­ery race as a ju­nior. “I’d train with all th­ese boys and when I was 15, I was run­ning slightly quicker than a few of them,” she says. “As an un­der-17, I’d run with un­der-15 boys. Now as an un­der-20, I run with un­der-17 boys.” Herein lies the de­struc­tive mes­sage be­ing con­stantly rammed down girls’ throats: you will never be as good as the boys.

Such is the scale of the chal­lenge that Run Equal is us­ing this ster­ile sum­mer of women’s sport to think up more in­no­va­tive ways to en­cour­age cross-coun­try bod­ies to be more open to change. “The hia­tus en­forced by Covid-19 pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to take stock and rebuild the sport so it is fit for the 21st cen­tury,” says Maud Hod­son, the cam­paign’s founder.

Last week, the Hamp­shire Cross Coun­try League passed a mo­tion to re­view all ar­eas of equal­ity and to en­sure equal op­por­tu­ni­ties for all. “Given that equal dis­tances was re­jected so em­phat­i­cally last year, there was no point putting the same pro­posal in again,” says Julie Rees-Jones, who for­warded the mo­tion. There might be some wait yet to break the re­sis­tance, but small suc­cesses like this spark hope that it can be done.

Held back: Rosie Wood­hams has been forced to run with younger age-group boys

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