When views are exchanged the louder voice is often the one that triumphs, but there are always two sides to every story, and in the ongoing debate about equal distances for men and women in cross country, those that are against, have rarely been heard.
‘Women are better at endurance!’ ‘We race the same distance on the roads and the track!’ ‘Why do they think we’re not able?’ ‘We are equal in the marathon and longer anyway.’
These are all arguments used to justify moving women to the longer distance. But it’s never been a question of ability.
In fact, all these arguments can be turned on their head. Being better at endurance is just as good a reason to keep the speed in at least one event.
It’s nice that cross country is the one event where things are different. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. And the popularity and existence of so many marathons and ultra events, and fell runs, is only another reason to keep cross country a bit shorter.
The question of quality, and competitiveness, and drama, and entertainment, and selling the sport, and giving participants something different also have to be considered. And while shorter races won’t always guarantee those things, it definitely won’t hinder them.
On the global stage at World Cross Country Championships in 2017, the women’s and men’s race distances were equalised, from 8km and 12km to a distance of 9.858 kilometres.
What unfolded in the women’s race was the distance running powerhouse of Kenya providing a record first six in the race.
The 20-second gap between medallists and the best of the rest was the largest in history. An unprecedented 10 athletes finished more than 10 minutes behind the winner, numerous athletes were lapped, and the excitement level – unless you were Kenyan – was somewhere close to zero.
But hey, hurray for equality!
I’m not begrudging the Kenyan athletes of their success in any way, but for the World Cross to remain a prestigious title to claim and for women’s cross country to get the publicity it deserves, the interest of other nations needs to be maintained.
Races need to be entertaining, and only a global audience will give the eventual victors the credit, and the financial rewards, that they deserve.
Equality isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be!
Men and women may be equal, but they are not the same
Rightly or wrongly, women’s sport doesn’t have the same status as men’s sport. Even in athletics, the sport where the gender gap is closer than all but gymnastics, synchronised swimming and netball, there are fewer female participants and winning margins are generally larger in women’s events.
With a few exceptions, female world stars are less well known and receive less media focus, female coaches are still the exception rather than the rule, and – shock, horror – winning performances are inferior to the men’s equivalent.
Making everything the same – in the name of equality – isn’t going to change that! It may even make it worse. What’s the next step – men and women chasing over the same height barriers or putting the same weight shot?
And sometimes, in order to be really fair on female participants, we sometimes need to think about the spectators as well as the participants! We need to keep things entertaining.
But if it’s not broken, why attempt to fix it?
A cross country race needs to be long enough to be a challenge, to not always play into the hands of the fast finishers, and to sort the men from the boys (or the women from the girls), but short enough to be both competitive and entertaining.
Women’s cross country has transformed since its introduction on the international calendar in the 1970s.
Race distances have increased over time, and in 1998 were extended to eight kilometres, a distance which equates to between around 26 and 30 minutes of running, depending on the course, altitude, and conditions, for international athletes, and upwards of 40 minutes for club runners.
Until very recently, eight kilometres, or five miles may for the women, be the perfect distance in cross country.
Firstly, it equates to a hard threshold run, making it the ideal race distance for those using cross country racing as part of their winter training before the track. Mix it up with a few faster races and you have the ideal preparation for a summer of speed.
Partially because of its approximation to hard threshold running, the distance is ideal to bring together middle and long-distance runners.
Many track athletes, who would be doing threshold runs at this time of year anyway, can be convinced that racing cross country is an opportunity for a change of scenery and that the distance isn’t completely alien to them.
While endurance athletes will see the benefits of running that bit harder than they normally would in a race, but over a distance that will still be of benefit to them.
Eight kilometres is also in quick recovery territory, allowing athletes to compete in more than one race every few weeks. For female athletics, where quality isn’t always in plentiful supply, that’s important.
And finally, unlike 10k, eight kilometres isn’t a distance you’d normally race. It means you can have that phase in a season where you’re not comparing your times to a known distance.
But what about the men?
Shouldn’t men be racing 8k then too? Yes, and no. For the top men, 8km may be too short to count as threshold running, and some of the more endurance-based athletes may be discouraged from taking part.
There are arguments to having short races for men, but that’s a whole different argument, built on what is right for them, not on supposed equality.
Many argue that we should agree to make the distances the same first, and then worry about what the distance is to be.
But if we’re to debate this properly, we need to know what we’re debating. And if men simply want shorter races, then let that be the issue.
Thinking about the junior athletes
Much has been written on the dangers facing endurance runners, particularly female ones, with regards to overtraining, undereating, and being too thin.
An increase in distance for junior athletes – which is highly likely should the senior distance increase – would only further compound the near epidemic issues, and reinforce the bad behaviours which inevitability lead to amenorrhoea and bone loss.
Lighter athletes are more likely to do well – in the short term – over the longer distance, and additional volume will almost certainly be added to training programmes, at a time when athletes would be better served working on their speed.
Endurance is the easiest component of fitness to develop and will naturally improve with age. Concentrating on quality, irrespective of an athlete’s natural preference or ability will serve them better in the long run. Racing over a shorter distance will be far more beneficial down the road.
The already daunting step-up from junior to senior becomes almost insurmountable.
Dropout from 16 upwards is far too high already, and asking 19-year-olds to run 10km is a tall ask. Many will go on to run half marathons and marathons and further, but they don’t need (and wouldn’t be expected) to do that straight out of the junior ranks.
Cross country is the perfect discipline to keep them in the sport.
Driving up participation numbers
The likely effect of longer distances on senior participation numbers is debatable.
Some point out that entries in the senior women’s race at the Scottish Senior Championships increased when the distance was moved to 10km last year.
Finishing numbers ‘jumping’ from 265 in 2016 to 269 in 2017 (and reaching a high of 271 in 2018) is not huge, and with BUCS finishers increasing from 583 to 704 in the same 2-year time period and record numbers of finishers at English National increasing from 865 in 2015 to 1113 this year, you could say that an increase of just six minimal.
Just one chance to get it wrong
Equal distance is likely to continue at world cross country, and apparently, talks have got underway to adopt equal distances for men and women a bit closer to home at the British Athletics Cross Challenge.
Any changes made will eventually apply across the board and women would run the same as men at county, regional, national, university, open, schools and league fixtures. And that’s unlikely to be over six or eight kilometres.
This will also leave no room for maintaining those peculiar distances like the 15 kilometres men’s race at the South of England Championships.
If equal distances are introduced there is no turning back and it’s important to ask just who the changes are really for?
When looking at the results of a recent English Cross Country Association’s survey, cross country runners are split on the issue, with 52.1% answering “No” to the question “do you think that senior men and senior women should run the same distance at the National Cross Country Championships”. Of those who answered “No” 66.9% were female cross country runners.
In concluding, we need to be cautious, because if this is rushed through in the name of equality, we may well risk being constrained by what we ‘thought was equality’.
And besides, it’s cross country; when did we all become so obsessed with the distance!