The debate about cross-country distances has taken another twist after a group of high profile British athletes released a joint statement opposing recent plans by UK Athletics to change the rules around the distance of race routes for men and women.
Traditionally men and women have raced XC over different distances with women running a shorter course. Over the past couple of years there has been a growing movement – principally among amateur runners – to have the distances equalised.
But now a roll-call of some of the UK’s finest XC alumni has released a statement expressing opposition to such a move.
Paula Radcliffe, Lura Muir, Mara Yamauchi, Joyce Smith, Charlotte Purdue, Lily Partridge, Hayley Yelling, Jess Judd, Hannah Nuttall, Laura Weightman, Helen Clitheroe and others say that plans by UKA to move to equalisation without consulting its Athletes’ Commission, or waiting for a new Head Of Endurance to be appointed, are ill-advised and that any such move will have a detrimental effect on medal prospects for both current and future female cross-country athletes. They also say that a host of problems could arise such as eating disorders, as well as a drop-off in participation rates among elite runners.
The statement, put together by Yamauchi according to reports, also takes issue with a perceived implication from the Run Equal grassroots movement that past performances from female athletes are less noteworthy for having taken place on shorter courses.
Here’s the statement in full:
‘UK Athletics’ consultation on “equal access to cross country competition distances” (Dec 22) and its accompanying survey led many in the cross country (XC) community to believe that UKA had already decided to equalise the distances raced by men and women. We welcome the clarifications UKA provided in its new statement on “equal opportunities in cross country” (Jan 15) and in CEO Joanna Coates’s interview with AW [Athletics Weekly]. However, we note Joanna’s comment that equalisation of race distances “might” still go ahead.
We also note that UKA still intends to use the survey’s results, despite widespread concerns about its validity, which we share (specifically the introduction’s clear indication to responders that UKA is in favour of equalisation, and the absence of the question “do you agree/disagree on equalising distances”).
The physical advantages men acquire compared to women from puberty are well-known. These advantages mean that, in some sports, event specifications should be different, for good reason. We believe cross country, at competitive level, is one such event. There are many events in Athletics alone which have different specifications. This does not mean women are weak or inferior. It is a question of what specifications suit men and women, and what makes for meaningful and exciting competition.
In cross country, women and girls should race a distance which is: a) what they want; b) what is appropriate for their age and ability level; and c) what is best for their wider competition goals and race calendar. The criterion “what the men or boys run” should be well down the list in deciding. The same applies, in reverse, for men and boys.
The question of can women race long distances has been answered with an emphatic yes. Historically, women were not allowed to compete at all in many events, and we are thankful to the women who fought for the right to compete. Competition for women in XC has existed for decades; the first English National XC Championships for women were held in 1927.
The campaign group RunEqual claims that “an unequal race distance … gives the message your race isn’t as important, you aren’t as capable and you aren’t being welcomed on equal terms”. We disagree. This has never been part of our lived experience. We are saddened by the suggestion that our past performances are viewed as somehow lacking, simply because we raced shorter distances than men. The current women’s race distances attract athletes from a wide range of track and road events, making them exceptionally competitive.
We whole-heartedly support recreational runners participating in cross country, and unequivocally praise organisations like parkrun which encourage mass participation. But XC has two parts: a) elite/semi-elite/competitive club level, which is about racing fast, competition, winning, and qualifying for higher competitions; and b) recreational level mass participation. UKA must meet the needs of both groups, and avoid allowing the demands of one group to detrimentally affect the other.
Any decision to equalise race distances would have potentially far-reaching consequences for all aspects of XC, including, but not limited to: participation levels, drop-off rates, UKA’s provision of a development pathway to international success for girls and boys, how frequently athletes can race and recover, performance in other endurance events, the transition from junior to senior ranks, coaching, eating disorders, and the viability of events on short winter days.
We ask UKA to guarantee that any decision to equalise, if one comes, will be based on robust, compelling and evidence-based arguments explaining how such a decision would bring positive change, and avoid any negative impact, on all these aspects. There may, sometimes, be justification for equal race distances, for example in trial races for championships which have equal distances. But sweeping change based on ideology about gender equality, as defined by distance alone, would be simply wrong unless it brings real, meaningful, positive change to the sport.
The UKA Head of Endurance position has recently been vacant, and UKA’s own Athletes Commission was not consulted. It is unclear whether anyone with knowledge and experience of XC at elite/semi-elite level/competitive club level has been involved thus far. We call on UKA to ensure that people with such knowledge and experience, in a variety of roles, will be included in all decision-making at every stage from now on.
We note that World Athletics has equalised distances at the World Championships but it is not a national federation which has to develop talent to elite level. We also note that European nations voted in 2016 to retain different distances. British XC teams, especially the women’s teams, have been very successful in recent years at European level.
UKA omitted the key question “do you agree/disagree on equalising distances” from its survey. Therefore, if a move towards equalisation goes ahead, we look forward to seeing other statistically robust evidence that this is what a large majority in the sport actually wants. In the meantime, we hope UKA will focus on enabling racing to restart safely and minimising the damage the pandemic has caused to athletes everywhere.’
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