Women facing obstacles in the race for equality
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