Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Making Distaff History at the Old Fort

In a sport as old as foot-racing, it is not easy to make any new history. But, it is in dubious thanks to all those collegiate XC coaches over the past three decades who have either ignored the issue or fought against change on the rare occasions when others have forced them to consider it that we actually have the opportunity to do so this on Saturday, when we host our annual home meet here at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

Believe it or not, Saturday, Oct 15, 2016 will see the first equal-distance women's collegiate women's XC race in North American history. You heard that correctly. For the first time since women's XC running was introduced at the intercollegiate level in North America (1981 in the NCAA and 1980 in the now CIS) women will race each other over exactly the same distance as the men-- 8k. Individual women have raced the men's distance (although exceedingly rarely), but, unbelievably, never has an entire field of female collegiate racers been offered the chance to run exactly the same course as their male counterparts-- and this, in spite of the fact that they have been racing exactly the same distances on the track for over 30 years.

As a bonus, the field of women who will be making this little bit of long overdue history promises to be outstanding. Along with arguably Canada's top two high school competitors (and two of the best in our history), Brogan MacDougall and Shona McCulloch, the race will feature 5 former members of Canada's team to the World University XC Championships-- Julie-Anne Staehli, Claire Sumner, and Victoria Coates (all while attending Queen's), Colleen Wilson (Dalhousie), and Karissa Lepage (Regina). Add to this a battle between two of the CIS best women's teams-- Queen's (top 4 nationally the past 3 years) and Western University (currently ranked 4th nationally)-- and there will be nothing at all token about this little gathering of female athletic talent!

If you happen to be within driving distance of Old Fort Henry and would like to witness some new history made on top of the old, AND, you would like to see the best non-championship women's XC race you are likely too this season, please join us on Saturday. The women's race will begin at high noon and the men's at 1pm. And if you would like to do a little racing yourself on the fabled Fort layout (host of Canadian Nationals from 2015 to 2018), please enter the community race, brought to you by Running Room Kingston. Entry can be done online at Space is limited, but registration is still open as of posting.

Monday, 26 September 2016

One More (and final?) Time for Gender Equal XC Distances

Aaand, we're back! Back, that is, for another round of the debate that should never have been in the first place, or at least not this side of 1984!

The question is, or should be, primary-school simple: Should men and women race the same distances in cross country running (or, rather, should they ALSO race the same distances in cross country running-- because they already do, and have done so for decades now, on the roads and in track)?

Let's review the arguments*:

Pro: Our sport is based on racing equal distances regardless of speed. Being slower does not make one less capable of completing a given distance, and the only difference between men and women distance runners is that, on average, women are a little slower. How, for godsake, is the practice of having boys/girls and men/women run different XC distances based on gender in any jurisdiction outside of Saudi Arabia even a thing? Were the bodies that equalized racing distances for men and women on the roads and track all those years ago wrong to have done so? If so, what have been the alleged negative consequences, and how would sticking with unequal distances have prevented them?

More proximate pro-equal distances arguments include:

-That not offering women equal distances in XC racing is a type of gender discrimination that does not produce an equitable outcome. In other words, instead of making the sport of XC effectively the same for men and women (something that, for instance, lower hurdles and a smaller shot do in those events), unequal distances (as much as 40% unequal) simply deprive women with the ability to succeed at longer distances the same opportunities afforded male athletes to enjoy their specific natural advantages. Instead, shorter distances allow women with relatively more of the physical and psychological qualities necessary to success in the middle distances to dominate XC, thereby doubling their opportunities to enjoy success in the larger sport of distance running.

Con: To encourage participation at the inception of women's XC (primarily in schools but also in clubs), girls and women were offered shorter racing distances. What began as an expedient has since become a kind of "tradition" worth preserving, because it "works" (i.e. women's XC continues to exist and girls/women themselves are not clamoring to run the same distances as boys/men).

More proximate anti-equal distances arguments include:

-The participation of female athletes will decline if distances are equalized even if girls'/womens' racing distance are not increased. In other words, simply being asked to race the same distance as boys and men will discourage women and girls from doing the sport of XC. (The operative assumption here is that any equalization of XC distances must entail an increase in the distance girls/women race, because the distances that boys/men race must remain the same-- or, at least, boys/men's distances can only be changed following the application of a sport-specific logic to the question; in other words, they cannot be changed simply to promote gender equality).

-Other sports and other events within the broad category of Athletics make adjustments for gender. (The twin operative assumptions here being that what other sports do is a more meaningful and important guiding consideration than our own established practices within the sport of distance running as a whole, and that unequal distances create "equity" through inequality-- an argument that requires a sport-specific rationale that, to my knowledge, has never been adduced. Again, the only difference between male and female distance runners is that female athletes are typically a little slower; they are not less capable of completing a given distance in a way that, for instance, women, with their generally shorter stature, smaller hands, and lower center of gravity are, on average, less capable-- i.e. less capable in a way the fundamentally alters the nature of that event for them-- of clearing "42 hurdles or throwing a 16lb shot.)

-XC should create "equity" by changing its racing distances to still gender-unequal ones, but ones that produce the same average finishing times across the genders. (The assumption here being that the greater time that slower men take to complete a fixed course does not fundamentally change the nature of XC for them, but the greater time that women take to complete a fixed course relative to men somehow does-- and no one I know of has addressed the underlying problem with this assumption by proposing to make XC running a contest of who can cover the most ground in a fixed amount of time-- as in "The Men's National 30min XC Run Event" )

-Different jurisdictions should be free to preserve unequal distances for any reason they like (reasons that might include: protecting participation numbers under special circumstances; protecting the competitive status quo between team rivals (e.g. within schools-based leagues); or, saving time at meets/relieving spectators of the burden of watching slower female athletes complete courses). (The operative assumption in this case is that unequal distances in XC are not a civil/human rights issue; that, as long as women and girls get to compete in XC at all, their right to equal opportunities in the sport has been honoured.)

-And a special one, straight to us from the early 20th C: REAL equality means honouring the wishes of the majority of current female participants regarding what XC distance they would prefer to race. (Here, the operative assumption is that there is no larger question of principle underlying this debate; that the whims of current competitors, tallied up vote-wise, should trump the basic equality rights and interests of all future competitors-- a logic that, if applied, would quite likely have deprived women of a whole host of basic equality rights, including the right to vote itself, back when the "Woman Question" was first being asked.)

So, where are we now, another year on from the debates of late last fall? In terms of the arguments, general and specific, nothing has really changed. Paradoxically--given the simple, straightforward, and logically/historically powerful nature of the case in favour of gender equal racing distances-- the simple fact that the practice of gender-unequal racing distances in XC has been in place as long as it has, and at every level of the sport, has placed the burden of making the case on the equal distance side. As Ed Burke (the father of modern conservative thinking) well knew, the simple staying power of an institution or practice eventually becomes itself an argument for the thing's continued existence-- an argument no one ever has to explicate in terms of principle or logic. Such is clearly the case with gender unequal racing distances. In modern social-scientific parlance, the power of "status quo bias" is stronger the longer the status has been quo. Nevertheless, there have been some small but important change in terms of practice in the past 12 months.

At the high school level in the U.S, 48 of 50 states have now introduced equal racing distances in XC (5k), thanks in large part to the enshrinement of equality rights in Federal government funded educational institutions. And, in Canada's largest province-- Ontario--, schools will introduce equal racing distances in provincial qualifiers this fall, with talks about equalizing distances in the championship races now under way (reports are that the sticking point remains the actual distances to be run across the province's three high school age groups). At the club level in Ontario, things are moving somewhat more slowly (the provincial governing body, Athletics Ontario, failed to follow Athletics Canada's lead in equalizing senior distances for this years' edition of their XC championships, but it is currently conducting a membership survey on the question). Finally, and perhaps most promisingly, elite Canadian female distance runners themselves have begun to speak out, and, most importantly, have framed the question as one of equal opportunity for athletic self-actualization, and not simply in terms of what current female competitors in general would prefer, or what they are or are not currently capable of doing.

While it remains entirely possible, even likely, that those with the power to make the relevant decisions will stick to the same guns they were manning (and, in a couple of cases, woman-ing) last fall, the simple passage of another year-- a year in which people have had a chance to reside quietly with the question, and to reflect on the principle involved-- is bound to work in favour of those continuing to argue for equal distances. But the fact that there are now at least two established female athletes making a principled case in favour of equality, replete with arguments detailing the gender-based disadvantages they have faced in their careers, is perhaps the most important new element in the debate as a whole. Logic and principle should always rule the day; but, the politics of symbols, unfortunately, continues to matter here as elsewhere. Sadly, if the relevant administrative bodies (OFSAA, OUA, CIS, and all of Canada's Provincial Sport Organizations) finally agree to end the practice of gender unequal XC racing distances for girls and women, it will likely be as much to avoid continued negative scrutiny, even embarrassment, as it will be to do the principled thing and finally complete a process of reform begun decades ago, with the introduction of long distance running for women itself.

In any case, it's my hope, naive though it may be, that the next thing I have to say on this topic will be that it is no longer necessary to speak on this topic here or elsewhere (and I predict that, once the change is made, memories of the old system will instantly seem odd and distant).

*There are those who would argue that there was a middle ground in the debates of last year-- that, between the pro and con positions, there was a practical "when and how" orientation. In other words, some argued after the fact that they had not been against the principle of equal race distances, but against the suddenness of the proposed changes. This compromise position, while not unreasonable in theory or principle, lacked all credibility in this instance, because essentially ad hoc. Even after the IAAF equalized senior XC distances at its championship event, and recommended, as it always does, that NSO's follow suit, there was not a single proposal extant within the Canadian sport community detailing how and when any changes should be implemented. My own administrative body, the Canadian Inter-university Sports Coaches Association, reacted with complete surprise to my proposal to equalize distances effective this year (2016)-- and this, after I made a similar proposal two years earlier within the OUA Coaches Association (which lead to an infamous three year moratorium on discussion of women's race distances within that body). If the main issue last fall really had been "when and how" rather than "whether at all", then one might have expected more than one proposal for change at the CIS meeting immediately following the IAAF's decision of last October. Will there be multiple proposals with different time lines this year? Time will tell.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Quest for Intergrity Continued: Lessons in Impunity

Unfortunately, the scandals-- big and small-- that were the subject of my last post played out more or less as expected. The simple chutzpah that seems to propel unethically self-interested behaviour these days does indeed seem to be the best defense against criticism of the behaviour itself. To amend the old sports cliche, the best defense for bad behaviour these days might just be no defense at all! To get-- and keep-- what you want may be as simple as acting boldly, disdaining your pesky critics (the envious "haters"), and allowing any would-be scandal to simply disappear into the welter of daily events and their endless online epiphenomena. At worst, if you hold any power or authority, you may have to announce, or even actually make, a few cosmetic changes. Nothing so embarrassing as an admission of culpability or a pledge of genuine accountability. Why ever admit guilt or take responsibility when its entirely possible that most people will have forgotten what you did in the first place before you've had a chance to clear your throat!?

While the international stories I referred to (the Russian doping scandal and the ongoing probe of the Nike sponsored "Oregon Project") offered some hopeful news along with the bad or simply buried news (the IAAF did ultimately suspend Russia's track athletes from the Olympic Games, and the US anti-doping outfit USADA did eventually subpoena a dodgy NOP Dr. suspected of diagnosing non-existent illnesses in order to write prescriptions for potentially performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals for elite athletes), the lessons of the past few months have been in the nature of modern impunity and how to achieve it in the face of the bold-faced facts, rather than in the irrepressibility of truth and fairness once wrongdoing has been revealed. These days, any quest for integrity, either high or low,is easily waylaid in the fog of online mediation, or simply stymied by the brazen determination of the culpable to wait out the worst of it until attentions are diverted (with the latter-- utter shamelessness in the face of the most damning and incontrovertible evidence- shaping up to be a kind of new spirit of the age).

Since analysis of the big and ongoing international corruption stories in athletics is not in short supply, I focus here on Ontario's grubby scandal-ette -- the 2015 Quest for Gold nomination process, which came to a muddled kind of non-conclusion, replete with promises of change but no specific admission of what its precipitants actually were, let alone any acknowledgement of deliberate wrong-doing, early this spring (note: this post is delayed by the promise that the whole affair might be covered in an accredited publication, which it ultimately was not).

I start with the nitty-gritty. The following are facts of the matter, which, low these many months, have never been disputed, or even seriously answered for, in spite of now long forgotten promises of complete transparency on the part of those principally concerned (the original Quest for Gold nomination committee and Athletics Ontario):

1. For at least two years (2014 and 2015), members of one Ontario club, the Guelph-based Speed River club, managed to receive performance-based financial support from the Province of Ontario Ministry of Sport and Tourism without satisfying the clearly published criteria for winning such funding (as expressed in the form of "points" earned for times run and placings accomplished at provincial and national championships). It is now clear that this MUST mean that either the Speed River athletes in question prepared and submitted (at the very least signed) fraudulent applications for funding, or that they filed truthful but incomplete applications that were nevertheless accepted by the nomination committee. No other conclusion is possible, and no alternative explanation has ever been proffered.

2. Speed River had a senior administrator, Chris Moulton, on the Quest for Gold nomination committee in both of these years (Moulton has since resigned from both his position at Speed River and on the Quest for Gold Committee, but not as a result of anything to do with these matters). Moulton declined repeated and explicit requests for comment (by Canadian Running Magazine, for a piece that was ultimately not published) on the affair, offering no explanation or defense of the committee's decisions or the obvious appearance of conflict of interest that these decisions created.

3. In a comment to Canadian Running, committee member Sue Wise (also since resigned from the committee and all duties with Athletics Ontario) admitted that the Speed River athletes in question "didn't exactly follow [all of] the criteria" for Q for G nomination-- but, she claims, for reasons that "could not be held against them" (of which more below).

4. The Speed River athletes in question were, at some point after critical questions were raised, removed from the original nomination list, but with no acknowledgment that their applications had ever been, in fact, fraudulent. After a significant delay, special appeals to the Ministry of Sport and Tourism were filed on behalf of Speed River athletes Hendrikx and Allison. These appeals were ultimately successful, and these athletes were awarded "special ministry cards" of the same value as the cards allotted to fully qualified nominees.

5. It would appear from comments made to Canadian Running by both Allison and Sue Wise (Hendrikx, like Moulton, declined to comment) that the grounds for these successful appeals (the terms of which could not by law be formally disclosed by anyone but the appellants themselves) was that the appellants were adversely affected by a change in the date of the joint Ontario/Canadian 10,000m Championships held in London, a one hour drive from Speed River headquarters in Guelph, in early May of the year. Sue Wise is, in fact, on record as having claimed that the Speed River athletes were unaware of the date of these championships until late April, mere weeks before the event, and well after their competitive seasons had been planned (their air tickets booked, etc.). It will be recalled that successful participation in this event would have been crucial to any athlete's prospects of securing Q for G funding in the 10,000m, which both Hendrikx and Allison somehow managed to do in the first round of nominations, in spite of having given these championships a miss. This is the nub of what Wise meant when she claimed that Allison and Hendrikx "could not have met the Q for G criteria".

6. The successful appeals of Hendrikx and Allison, if they were in any way based on claims about a "late change in the date" of the 2015 Ontario/Canadian 10,000m championships, were based on yet more demonstrably fraudulent claims. It was a fact well known to the leadership of Speed River that the date of this championship was, indeed, never changed in any way. It is a matter of ample record that the date and location of these championship was never announced otherwise than as Sunday, May 10 in London, Ontario. Speed River athletes and staff would have been aware of this fact as few others would, because Speed River itself lost the right to host this event on appeal by the London Runner club-- an appeal, moreover, that was launched immediately after the event was awarded to Speed River late in 2014. The proposed Speed River date of mid-June was thus never established or announced as the official date of the event and the official date therefore never "changed". Furthermore, the official date of May 10 would have been known by Speed River the very second the successful appeal by London Runner was announced by Athletics Canada in mid-February of 2015, not in late April, as their successful appeals apparently maintained. In other words, these athletes and their coaches simply could not have been unaware of the date of the Ontario/Canadian 10,000m until late April, as they claim, and would indeed have been aware of the official date in plenty of time to build it into their seasonal planning (particularly given that London is a one hour drive from Guelph). It is therefore simply not true that, as Wise claims, these athletes "could not have met" the full criteria for Q for G funding, and thus deserved special consideration upon appeal. It is eminently reasonable to thus conclude that these two athletes deliberately skipped these championships, knowing full well that doing so would make earning sufficient Q for G funding points next to impossible, and that they then lied about their reasons for doing so in order to receive several thousand dollars of government funding each on appeal. It is either this, or they were deliberately mislead by their leadership into filing the applications and appeals that they did. Again, no other conclusion is possible.

With the above facts clearly established the only remaining question is the larger one: How is it that people are allowed to get away with this kind thing in full view of a community of interested-- indeed materially affected-- parties? My first installment above attempted to provide some general answers, but I think we can conclude that:

1. These days, as perhaps never before, fortune favours the bold and audacious, whether they are straightforwardly dishonest or not. In this case, who knew just what was possible until the leadership of Speed River simply went ahead and unapologetically did what it did? In none of the instances where this organization has been found bending or breaking rules to gain petty advantage has it appeared particularly concerned with being found out, nor has it shown any sign of shame about its conduct (it's victims apparently being so far beneath concern). In each instance it has simply maintained a disciplined silence and waited for attentions to turn. The same pattern is apparent in the bigger scandals mentioned above. One imagines that the IAAF, the Russians, and the NOP surprised even themselves with what they were able to get away with by simply not giving a shit about the consequences-- or, perhaps more accurately, by believing in their ability to manage any negative consequences and to come out ahead in the end.

2. In the face of brazen wrongdoing there is often little recourse for those wronged or morally outraged, particularly when the material stakes are too petty for those with the power to bother trying to hold the offending parties to account. Demanding and getting accountability may require more persistence than many of us thought or would have hoped. In this instance, those with the power to act-- Athletics Ontario-- simply stalled, obfuscated, then attempted to move on in the face of scrutiny. In the end, it was as simple as that.

3. Life in the online mediated world has shortened memories and created ample hiding places for evidence of bad behaviour amid its incessant virtual clutter. You can apparently do and say bad things and have them disappear below the surface quickly and without ever creating an easily discernible pattern. This is something the leadership of Speed River appears to have figured out, and factored into its behaviour, some time ago.

4. Doing whatever you like to get ahead and brazening out the consequences if these things aren't always exactly kosher can be part of a recipe for success! The Guelph/Speed River organization has been massively successful on the national level at recruiting, preparing, and supporting top level athletes, with 7 of its members being named to this year's Canadian Olympic team. Whatever its many strengths (and there are undoubtedly many, just as there are within Russian Athletics, or within the NOP), its clear willingness to throw its weight around within institutional circles, and to, in this instance, commit fairly open fraud, however petty, has almost certainly been a factor in its success. Even very small advantages can add up in the world of sport, as in life itself. And, of course, success can provide its own rationale for behaving badly-- not to mention a balm for the occasional bout of guilty conscience.

5. What we have seen may be just a sample of what has been going on for some time. This is speculation, of course, but it's not likely that any organization attempts the kinds of things Speed River has fairly openly been up to in the past few years without first testing its influence and honing its skills a little more covertly. What we know is instructive (and damning) enough, but there could well be more that will never be widely known.

6. There will be more where this came from, albeit perhaps not from Speed River itself. The most important lesson that impunity teaches is that fraud and impropriety might well be worth it in the end, for those without scruples.

7. Attempting to defraud a funding program for developing athletes is not a trivial matter when this funding can make the difference between sticking with the sport and perhaps quitting it together. Speed River athlete Katrina Allison herself underlined the importance of this funding for second tier athletes when she offered the following in an interview about the Q for G affair: “Last summer I had a job that kept me on my feet for 6-8 hours a day, either right before or after training. I didn’t think this would impact my training too much, but it definitely does after a little while. Jobs like this are just not ideal for an athlete trying to optimize training and recovery. But to be able to afford costs associated with training and racing across the continent, I didn’t have a choice.”

All the more reason to ensure that the competition for funding that enables developing athletes to avoid such jobs is scrupulously fair, one would have thought.

A final note: As mentioned, there have been some important changes made to this year's Q for G scoring and vetting process. This process has not been truly overhauled since its inception, so the timing of these changes can be seen as an implicit admission of, at the very least, irregularities in last year's process. Interested parties would do well to familiarize themselves with these changes by visiting the Athletics Ontario website.

PK POY and 2016 POM Catch-Up:

Given how delayed this announcement has become, I will skip the usual adieu and just make it. The 2015 POY belongs to junior Cam Linscott for his pheonix-like silver medal performance at the National XC Championships right here in K-Town. Cam began 2015 gravely injured (a high femoral fracture) and only began serious run training in the late summer. His successful defense of his OFSAA crown at Duntroon attributed by many to his superlative mudding ability, few believed he yet had the tempo and finishing speed to contend on the normally track-like Fort Henry course. Using his trademark pacing ability and supreme cool under fire, he overcame a bad start to pass everyone in the field but one with a perfectly timed charge over the final 3kms. Cam enters this U of T this fall and might be as good a bet as there has ever been for CIS ROY honours.

POY honours for the first half of 2016 are as follows:

January: Brianna Bradley's massive and long-awaited 3k personal best in Ottawa. Injured on and off (mostly on) for the better part of 3 years, Brianna returned home from the NCAA in early January and immediately got the ball rolling! She would go on to run 9:55 in Boston 3 weeks later, along with a very respectable road 5k of 17:47.

February: CIS star Alex Wilkie for his 4:05.88 mile. With the extent of Alex's hip problem now revealed, this performance takes on a new significance. In excellent position to record his first sub-4:00 mile, he was forced to hobble his final 400m simply to complete the race. His time remained a CIS qualifier, though he was never able to take his spot on the starting line in March.

March: Junior Branna MacDougall returned to the front ranks of Canadian age-group distance running by winning the Pan Am XC Championships in Venezuela, in spite of entering the meet as Canada's 3rd runner. When you're as successful as Branna has been, surpassing expectations (the basis of the PK POY system) is hard to do. Winning an international championship, however, surpasses almost anyone's expectations!

April: Journeyman Kevin Coffey (an online athlete and member of the Running Room Athletic Club) for his outstanding run at the storied Vancouver Sun Run. Capping a breakthrough spring of racing and training on the west coast, Kevin mixed it up with some of Canada's best and got himself over the BC Place finish line in 30:13, taking 43 fewer seconds to complete the distance than he had ever done before.

May: NCAA athlete Cleo Boyd completed her journey back from foot surgery in 2015 by making history at her school (U.Va in Charlottesville) in winning a conference double over 5,000 and 10,000m at the ACC meet in Tallahassee, FLA. In doing so, she became the only U.Va athlete, male or female to win these events, let alone in the same meet. Cleo had run well since the fall of 2015, but no one could have foreseen anything like this from her, at least not this soon. Very honourble mention for May goes to Branna MacDougall for crushing Cleo's junior PK club 5,000m record in her first try at the distance on the track. Her 16:10 also qualified her to represent Canada and the World U20 Championships in Poland in July.

June: The youth movement continued in June, when junior (very junior-- 15 year old) Brogan MacDougall soloed the second best time for 3,000m ever run by a Canadian high school girl at the OFSAA Championships, coming a mere hand-span (.15) from becoming the fastest ever. Brogan's accomplishments to date, including a silver medal in the senior division of the OFSAA XC meet and a win at the National Youth XC Championships last fall, have been nearly unprecedented, but this performance was a notch above still!

July: The month is not yet complete as I write this, but there is no risk of prematurity in announcing Branna MacDougall's Canadian Junior 5,000m record (15:48) and 10th place at the World U20 Championships in Poland as the July POM. Again, surpassing expectations is never easy when you've reached Branna's level. But, a 22 second personal best and 4 second improvement on the fastest any teenaged Canadian has ever run for the distance, and under global championship pressure, thousands of miles from home, is a performance of the most rarefied kind. Branna now enters the NCAA in August as the fastest North American high school 5,000m runner of all time*! With an proven ability to roll with the punches and a sporting intelligence that belies her tender age, her future as a collegiate athlete looks like something for the ages.

*The U.S. high school record is listed as Mary Cain's 15:45.46, set just before her graduation in 2013. Cain signed a pro contract with the Nike Oregon Project and did not enter the NCAA.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Quest for Integrity?

Fans of cycling had to endure years or it. Followers of the big North American professional sports (and NCAA "revenue" sports) had to price it into the bargain of fanship beginning decades ago. Even the campy demi-sport of figure skating had to confront it a few years back. Fans of our sport-- track and field and road racing-- have felt its gnaw from time to time, but we have managed to keep it from unsettling our deepest foundations, or at least to believe in the integrity of our sport's most important structures. Until last year.

I'm talking about the systematic loss of integrity, not of individual athletes (which has been constant in sport since its ancient inceptions), but of those charged with safeguarding the very administrative edifice that makes it possible to engage in meaningful physical contests on a large scale in the first place. Because sport is pure artifice, the existence of rules that can be established, enforced, and adjudicated with the utmost fairness, and in the general interest of the whole sport community, are a sine qua non. When those who play the game break the rules and are sanctioned, the game becomes stronger. When those who are charged with safeguarding the rules ignore or break them, the opposite occurs. And this extends all the way from the adjudication of sport within arena of play itself to distribution of the basic resources necessary to enter the arena of play on as equal a footing as possible.

Loss of integrity within the administration of sport begins when administrators themselves begin to see themselves as competitors rather than neutral arbiters, such as when they use their positions for self-enrichment, or to give "their" athletes a leg up. In the world of our sport, the Nazis were the first to see the full potential of international sport as propaganda, but it was the Cold War rivalry between the USA and the USSR in the middle of the last century that produced the gravest threats to the integrity of our sport. During this period, competition became not just inter-national but inter-systemic. The result was that scientists and coaches, often under the auspices of the military, were given rein to explore means of performance enhancement that threatened to turn sports into a contests of technological rather than athletic superiority. But our sport survived the Cold War era, and the means to police existential scientific threats to its integrity, in the form global administrative bodies marshaling growing technological expertise, were eventually devised. After the Cold War, increasing commercial incentives created both the pressure and the opportunity for individual athletes and their coaches (with the possible/probable connivance of large corporate sponsors)to find illicit pharmacological advantages. Still, while always far from perfect, these global administrative structures proved sufficient, at the very least, to keep the worst kinds of cynicism at bay and to preserve at least some hope for a future of clean and fair sport.

But then came the revelation in late 2015 that the top leadership of the IAAF (the international governing body for the sports of track and field, road racing, and cross country) had for years been taking bribes from individual athletes in return for the covering up of positive drug tests. These athletes were then permitted to continue to compete, and to win medals and money, in IAAF sanctioned championships, including the Olympic Games. There is also now credible and mounting evidence that the IAAF and the IOC engaged in the rigging of international bid hosting competitions. These revelations were made at the same moment that soccer's global corruption scandal (which had apparently been hiding in plain sight for at least a decade)was erupting across the headlines. Like FIFA (soccer's global administrator), the IAAF sought to simultaneously limit damage to their reputations by denying specific charges while also pledging reform. Those at the centre of these scandals may or may not see the inside of jail cells, but the damage wrought to the ideals of global sport is now irreversible, whether or not anyone is ever held to account criminally.

As Above, So Below?

For those of us toiling at the national level of elite sport-- as athletes, coaches, or organizers-- the extremity of the rot at the sport's administrative pinnacle seemed, in an instant, to explain rather a lot. If the IAAF had been taking bribes to cover up failed drug tests and rigging multi-million dollar bidding contests, it made perfect sense that national and regional governing bodies would feel a kind of moral license (or, at the very least, a sense of impunity) to engage in their own appropriately scaled forms of corrupt behaviour. Thus, in huge federations like those of Russia and the USA, allegations of widespread, systemic doping and undue corporate influence (leading to such things as the tolerance or doping and/or the hiring of suspected or convicted dopers as coaches and administrators) respectively seemed entirely plausible, as did much more petty allegations, like those against long time Nike athlete and coach Alberto Salazar for attempting (successfully, it would turn out) to influence officials in support of his athletes mere weeks after Nike closed an unprecedented 23 year, 460 million dollar deal to sponsor (in effect, to purchase)the governing body of American athletics, the USA Track and Field Association.

Here in Canada, with its small and dispersed population and it official mythology of politeness and fair play, we could expect any unethical behaviour among our coaches and administrators to be more much more petty than grand, if no less flagrant and knowing. (As an aside, extremely brazen "ends-justifying-means" styles of leadership in Canada had 10 years of encouragement by example at the highest levels, as our federal government routinely eschewed even the appearance of fair play in its dealings with declared "enemies" both within and without).

"Speed River works hard to be the best. They are professional and hyper organised.

The haters run mom and pop clubs and then whine when the speed river machine takes (legal) advantage of their own size and abilities to get what they want.

I know it sucks to always have to face an opponent with more resources, connections and influence, but that club was built out of nothing.

It is open to anyone else in Canada to try to take the crown from speed river - go for it rather than whine about these provincial little details."

Although posted anonymously on the "world famous" message board of, the comment above almost certainly comes from someone intimately familiar with the Canadian athletics scene, including the "controversies" involving the club it references. And, judging by its similarity in theme and tone to the responses of some club members to the many allegations of unethical behaviour that are the theme of the thread in which it appears (when there has been any response at all), it does pretty clearly express the views of many of the club's hardest core supporters. It's also a pretty pristine crystallization of the zeitgeist of our sport's leadership today: 1. "Professionalism"= winning by means of "taking (legal?) advantage of (your) size and (ability) to get what (you) want"; 2. The people you shoulder aside in getting what you want are small time losers or "haters", who hide their fear or inability to "do what it takes" behind a facade of "principle"; 3. Rules and other ethical barriers are petty details ("provincial little details") that are, or should be, of no concern to winners like you; 4. Everything you do is justified by how determined you are and how hard you work (again, others are slacking losers only pretending to care about rules and principle in order to hold you back; you, on the other hand, are all business, all the time!).

I invite readers to follow the links in the above thread for details on the serial breaches of ethics at which the leadership of this group has been dead centre. One of these links will take you back to this very space, wherein I detailed my experience in helping to expose and undo a clumsy attempt at collusion between Athletics Canada and Speed River to rig the bidding for an important national hosting opportunity (our National XC Championships, from 2015 to 2018). Since I wrote about that experience, AC and Speed River were caught attempting exactly the same thing in relation to another national championship bidding process. Once again, the complainant (Steve Weiler of London Runner) won the right to host on appeal. But this time the attempted bid-rigging was officially alluded to. In his written statement, adjudicator Ross Dumoulin used the phrase "led down the garden path" to describe Athletics Canada's attempt to deceive Weiler and engineer a winning bid for Speed River.

Meanwhile, for the past few months, clear evidence of irregularities in the nomination of athletes for funding from the provincial government (the Quest for Gold program) has come to light (although "come to light" may not be the best description, since they were always there in plain sight). As with the National XC affair, these irregularities include possible conflict of interest involving the participation of members or Speed River on relevant committees (in 2013/14, there were two members of Speed River on the National Competitions Committee that initially awarded the four year bid to Speed River). This time, senior Speed River coach/executive Chris Moulton participated on a committee in which, for the second year in a row, Speed River athletes were nominated for funding in spite of clearly not having met all of the points-based criteria (details of the application guidelines and procedures can be found in the above link)*. In spite of repeated requests for explanations from committee members (whose names and affiliations are also available at the above link), and apart from protestations that "Ontario's best athletes have been supported", no clear explanation of these apparent anomalies has been forthcoming. (If there were a link, I would have provided it). Again, it would seem that the culture of sports admin in the new period dictates that if you are not among the inner circle of hard-driving "winners", you are merely a trouble-making "whiner" entitled to nothing by way of transparency.

As of writing, final decisions on an undisclosed number of official appeals of the original Quest for Gold nominations are a week late and counting. There is no formal way to find out the nature or grounds of these appeals, and the committee members who vetted the original applications maintain complete silence, including refusing to release or otherwise post any information on the process by which these original nominations were made. Even if all of the questionable nominations are reversed on appeal, serious questions will remain about the process that led to them in the first place-- questions that go to the heart of how our sport is administered in this new era.

And part of the newness of the era is the difficulty of effectively demanding accountability within a massively fragmented media-scape. Even the largest and most serious allegations (e.g. those around doping and bribery) are often initially made by maverick journalists and other whistle-blowers, who must then run a gauntlet of attacks, both open and anonymous, on their credibility. For perpetrators, the options of counter-attack (anonymous and otherwise), evasion, or simply brazening out the allegations until the spectators move on are all available. Then, of course, there is the daily torrent of more serious bad behaviour behind which to conceal one's petty transgressions. As for the option of complaining within formal administrative structures, this is increasingly a mug's game. You often end up complaining to the very people you're complaining about.

And, to be sure, there are many worse things afoot, even in Canada, than the unethical behaviour of a few sport administrators. Yet, the beauty and simplicity of the activity being administered (in this case, the efforts of young athletes to pursue their dreams in the world's oldest contests of athleticism), and the relative pettiness of the material stakes involved (few if any people's lives or livelihoods are at stake in who wins or loses a few thousands dollars here and there), makes the bad behaviour all the more unfortunate. Never mind the moral imperative, the fact that we can all easily afford to put ethics above all else, and, in turn, to model ethical behaviour for athletes themselves, makes the failure of some of us to do so all the tawdrier. What, in the larger scheme of things, could the leaders of an outfit like the Speed River Track Club possibly hope to gain that would be worth risking their reputation in the way that they clearly have over the past few years? If this is what "winning" looks like, I'm happy to remain a loser.

*In the interest of full disclosure, PK had one athlete (Alex Wilkie) nominated for Quest for Gold funding for this year, and one athlete (Julie-Anne Staehli) fail to have her funding renewed as a result of a new requirement-- that continuing athletes improve their personal best time in the event for which they are receiving support. Not having run a personal best in the 3,000m Steeplechase, Julie-Anne, as per the rules, did not apply for a renewal of her funding, in spite having made a concerted effort to accumulate significant points for her performances at our provincial and national championships (a key component of scoring in the Quest for Gold application process). Because she did not apply in the first place, Julie-Anne was given no way to appeal for special consideration based on evidence of serious irregularities emerging after the application deadline-- irregularities that involved athletes not only applying for but actually being nominated for funding without having met the basic requirements of the application process.

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Post-Nats XC, PK POM Edition, FYI

After two successful appeal hearings and nearly two years of planning, we finally got what we wished for-- to actually stage a Nationals XC championship on the Old Fort course, with downtown Kingston in a very important supporting role. And, following the old adage, should we have been careful in our wish-making? Not at all! The final planning and execution-- though all we bargained for-- was nothing when compared with fighting for the right to stage the thing in the first place. But enough of that.

Before I say another word, here's something that anyone who attended our Nats, or will who attend one of the next 3 editions, should know, if they don't already: Clive Morgan IS Kingston's Nats XC operation. He is the brain of the thing (both hemispheres-- the logical and the creative) as well as whatever portion of the brawn his massive but finite energy permits him to be. The rest of us are but appendages responding to his neural impulses, the texture and efficiency of the operation being a function of their strength and clarity. We, the body of the thing, will become more responsive as these pathways become more entrenched, but the brain that transmits and coordinates them will remain Clive. So, if you were impressed by what you saw and experienced last month, or find yourself impressed by future iterations, please direct your regards accordingly. And anything you weren't/aren't impressed with is/will likely be something either unavoidable, or the fault of one of us, Clive's sometimes clumsy appendages.

When the gear was stowed and last of the trash binned, we were prepared to declare year one a success, but also determined to make improvements for next year.

On the upside:

-We thought the course held up very well to its biggest challenge ever (accommodating the foot-plants of 1000 runners over two days, at a time of year when moisture is not drained or absorbed quickly). We had a little mud, but far from enough to render the race one-dimensional;

-We felt the venue looked professional when in full dress, and that it rather ideally balanced size and race spectation (both on site and online). We didn't sense anyone felt wedged in, and no one had far to go to take in the races a multiple stages;

-We were thrilled with the quality of the fields and the races themselves, and think the location and venue themselves were major contributing factors in this respect(that Quebec won the senior men's regional race spoke to the value of finally staging this event in eastern Ontario). We loved some of the fast, tight, finishes featuring many of the folks we thought we'd see up front when push came to shove. Again, we credit the course for helping to produce these scenarios.

-And, we were pleased with all peripherals, such as package pick-up, technical briefing, timing/results, and all-important post-race party arrangements (which, in spite of our fatigue, we were able to assess ourselves).

On the downside:

-Start line organization was weak in key aspects, causing some confusion, however minor and probably inconsequential in terms of race outcomes;

-The failure to deliver on the commitment (made in the technical package itself) to award medals to the top three club teams was inexcusable and can't be repeated in 2016.

-The staging of Youth awards during the senior women's race was a mistake, pure and simple. The youth girls in particular should not have been forced to choose between watching their senior elite heroes on the course and receiving recognition for their own accomplishments.

We have heard from the membership on all of these things, the good and the bad, and will absorb, process, and transmit all feedback accordingly. You have it in writing here that the things we did well this year will be done at least as well next year, and that, on the off chance we make mistakes again next year, they will be new and even more minor ones. But, dear membership, there is really no cut-off for complaining about this year or making suggestions for next year. If you make a good suggestion, we will take heed; if you make what we think is a baseless complaint, we will politely but firmly tell you why we think so.

Organizational concerns aside, we had a blast hosting you all, and hope to see you back next year (with friends!). We feel the sport of XC is as healthy as it has ever been, and we are determined to do our part in nourishing it for another three years.

June to December PK POMs:

This is the section where I recognize outstanding efforts and superior performances by club members each month, culminating in the awarding of the PK Performance of the Year (POY), the owner of which will receive some training gear (shoes and apparel of their choice). The "P" in POM and POY is for "performance"-- specifically, performance relative to proven ability, or in light of significant obstacles or challenges, at time of execution. Recognition is open to all PK members, local and online, junior, senior, or masters.

We start with the "track" months-- June, July, and August:

June is typically the month during which we are most likely to see big performance increases by our junior members, and 2015 was no exception. The June POM honouree is high schooler Kieran L'Abbe, the erstwhile high school XC champ who left the sport for two years back in 2011-12. With only 4 track races under his belt in over 2 years (and perhaps a dozen ever, going back to primary school), Kieran ran 14:45 for second place at the Junior Athletics Ontario Championships in Windsor. Anyone who knows how difficult it can be to master the 5,000m on the track-- even following a few years of initiation at 3k-- can appreciate the magnitude of running this fast (at any age, let alone 17) in one's second attempt at the distance on the track (to go with one on the road). It's hard to find a performance that fits the PK POM criteria better than this one!

July's recipient is a repeater, despite being a consistently high performer (who thus needs to do a lot to o'er-leap her usual standard and meet the aforementioned criteria). Suffice to say that Julie-Anne Staehli had a rough winter and spring. Sidelined for weeks with an achilles injury that first surfaced the previous fall, Julie-Anne faced the challenge not only of returning to track racing (with its obligatory "spiking-up"), but of hurdling wooden barriers and landing single-footed on the incline of a water-jump exit ramp! When she lined up for her Nationals final in Edmonton, she had only one steeple under her belt in the preceding 12 months (a rust-buster three weeks earlier), and only a few workouts over barriers. Gamely chasing two athletes who were coming off of recent personal bests some 20 seconds faster than hers, Julie-Anne hung on for the bronze medal, turning back a seemingly irresistible challenge over the final barrier and prevailing by a mere .02 over 4th. For those who are familiar with her oeuvre as a competitor, this was vintage Julie-Anne!

August's winner is no stranger to PK POM distinction. The only remaining original member of PK, Agathe Nicholson has multiple POM honours, and has vied very seriously for POY in a number of years (how about 18:37 for 5k at age 47 and 3:01:29 at age 50)? It's only that Agathe has been so remarkable for so long (although she only started running when she joined PK-- at age 42) that has kept her from being recognized more often in this space. One of the shortcomings of the POM/POY criteria is that a consistently amazing performer like Agathe sometimes seems to get taken for granted. But, at the Glen Tay Block Race (one of regions and countries oldest road races), Agathe, now 54, ran 60:29 for just under 15k (14.7) to finish 8th over all, and miss the course record for 50-59 year olds by 10 secs. And this was while in full prep for a marathon. Agathe is, once again, a PK POM recipient!

The winner of the fall's first POM was recognized for a performance in exactly the same race some 6 years ago-- and it had been almost that long since Bob McGraw had run at the level that made him one of the best over-50 athletes in Canada. A full year of consistent training with the local group put Bob in a position to go back to Ottawa's Army Run 5k and challenge the 17:06 he ran there as a 50 year old, back in 2009. On a course reliably reported to be at least 200m longer than the posted 5k (inexcusable for a race of this scale and cost, but that's fodder for another post), Bob nearly did it. He ran 18:06 to beat everyone over 50! Bob has remained injury-free and fit since September, so expect more of the same in 2016!

October is the May of the fall season: The peak month of the racing season. Track is over, but October features some of the bigger road races on the calendar, along with school XC (high school and university), meaning that everyone who is healthy ends up toeing a start line somewhere. And, true to from, October's "P" was particularly outstanding and hard-fought. Among the nominees is 4 season, clutch-performing championship masters athlete Roddy Loeppky's win in the Niagara HM (in 1:15:52, into one of Niagara's infamous 13 mile headwinds). At 46, Roddy is still capable of winning over-40 championships from 1500m to HM, and this performance was a brilliant example of what he is capable of when at his best, even over a distance that he has only raced twice in his life. Next is Alex Wilkie's pressure-defying win at the Ontario University Athletics XC Championship in Waterloo (un-touted in early September, Alex's two outstanding preliminary races made him a sudden favourite going into the championship, in spite of the fact that he was a third year athlete with a best OUA finish of 5th, to go with a rookie finish in the mid-30s, facing several veteran 5th years, including a defending champion). His 1 second victory over over Windsor's Paul Janikowski looked tight on paper, but his superior pacing and perfectly timed finishing drive meant the result was never really in doubt after 5k. Finally, there is NCAA athlete Cleo Boyd's 4th place finish in a stacked ACC Conference Championship. In a season that was never really meant to be, due to a major surgery and consequent 4 month complete layoff in the first half of the year, this was her actually second great performance of the season (the first being a team leading 20th at the NCAA's biggest non-championship race, the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational). Operating on only a few weeks of tentative workouts and two races in the preceding 11 months, Cleo executed perfectly against a field that included multiple potential all-Americans to lead her team to its first ACC Championship in over 30 years. As strong as October's other performances were, overcoming such extreme adversity to succeed in a system that is so densely competitive makes Cleo's run a cut above. She is the POM owner for October.

November is, trans-continentally, championship XC month. And, particularly pertinent to PK, this November was the month of our maiden hosting of the Athletics Canada XC Championships. For us, it would be all-hands-on-deck, either organizationally or competitively (and, in a couple of cases-- e.g. aforementioned race director Clive Morgan-- both). It is entirely unsurprising, therefore, that November's POM would come from an XC finals. Nominee # 1, chronologically speaking, is returning member Cam Linscott's phoenix-like repeat victory in the OFSAA senior boys' race (Cam had been sidelined for nearly 4 months this spring and summer with a large-bone fracture, and only began run training in early August). A week later and a hour to the southwest, Blair Morgan (2013's PK POY winner) followed up a strong OUA 6th place finish with an outstanding 8th place finish at the Canadian Interuniversity Championship, nailing down his second consecutive selection to Canada's World University Championship XC Team, and capping a varsity career that would be strong contender for best ever by a PK athlete, should POM/POY criteria be applied. Blair's improvement in his 5 years at McMaster University, and his ability to execute in championship situations (almost entirely acquired), is the stuff of inspirational coaching anecdotes for decades to come! And the final nominee for November is Cam Lincott's incredible follow-up to his aforementioned OFSAA win. Dismissed by some as a pure mud-runner with insufficient middle distance speed to win on track-like course such as the Fort (on most days), Cam lined up as a dark horse contender in the Junior Men's 8k. And a start that saw him buried in the middle of the pack as late as 3k momentarily seemed to confirm suspicions. But, seemingly just as the crowd had stopped scanning the pack for potential late-race movers and had begun attending to the race up front, which seemed now to be down to two athletes, Cam began to roll effortlessly by a now unresponsive line of fast starters. Still only in 11th with a 2k lap remaining, Cam used a knowledge of the Fort course that he began building back in grade school to time a charge that would take him all the way to the runner-up spot, only a couple of seconds behind pre-race favourite Ehad El Sandali, an athlete with a 3k personal best some 25 seconds superior to his. Still only a Youth age athlete, Cam has two more years to make this championship his own, as he did the OFSAA championship this year. Rarely has a young athlete achieved so much on so little physical preparation. As pure, one-off, performances go, this one was nearly impossible to top, making Cam the POM winner for a busy November.

With PK members now in brief post-Nats hibernation (as far a racing goes), there is no POM for December. I will return next month to announce the 2015 PK POY.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

XC: Birth, Death, and Rebirth(?)

In our part of the world, distance running careers are typically born on the green grass of early autumn, and individual competitive seasons die in the cold mud of late November. But the 2015 Canadian running season's death in the dirt of Kingston's Fort Henry Hill might also have been the demise of something much longer lived: the era of gender inequality in XC racing distances.

With the first strike of gender inequality's death knell having been sounded at the highest levels of the sport-- the IAAF, which rather suddenly announced the introduction of gender equality at the senior level-- and the second strike (an end to inequality at the junior levels) possible in the next couple of years, it is quite likely that this year's Canadian XC Championship will be the last to offer shorter distances to female athletes. It is equally likely that similar change will be enacted all lower levels, and in most jurisdictions. Once birthed, equality matures very rapidly, and fends for itself.

But what's so important about gender equality in XC running when we have had it in running's other disciplines for decades? Why would it matter that women and girls will now be allowed (or required, depending your view of the change) to run the same distances as boys and men when they have already been doing so, and all the way up to the marathon? Can anyone really believe that girls and women are incapable of racing the same distances as boys and men when the race is being held on natural as opposed to artificial surfaces?

Resistance to gender equal distances that is not of the straight-up troglodytic variety does not maintain that girls and women are not capable of racing as far on grass and dirt as boys and men. The case for continued inequality is more subtle than this. Its terms, however, tell you just about all you need to know about why adopting equal distances is so important, at least for those of us who truly care about distance running as a competitive sport for both men and women. We continue to be told, and not without some empirical basis, that girls and women themselves typically don't want to, don't think they should, and don't want to be required to run the same distances as boys and men, if those distances are going to be significantly longer than the distances they currently run. We are sometimes told this by female competitors and coaches themselves. We are also sometimes told that girls and women will abandon the sport in significant numbers if required to apply the same effort as boys and men to train for and complete the required racing distances. Again, this is not entirely without empirical basis. But, it is the very fact that these assertions have some empirical basis that is the greatest indictment against 30+ years of unequal race distances (and attendant training expectations)in this sport: Unequal racing distances have helped shape girls and women's own perceptions of the meaning and purpose of the sport for their gender, and it has done so in a way that does a profound disservice to the athletic potential (and sometimes aspirations) of a particular subset of female athletes-- those with the potential do do better over traditional (i.e. men's) XC distances. The prolonged practice of unequal racing distances in XC has made female athletes unwitting agents of their own exclusion, or agents of exclusion of other women with slightly different but relevant athletic makeups.

XC racing is typically the first form in which young runners of both genders encounter sport of distance running, because XC running is overwhelmingly a school-based sport,and because it has been typically offered in the fall or winter months. Before they ever attempt a middle distance track race, athletes of both genders will typically have raced a longer distance over grass and mud. In many jurisdictions, those distances will have been gender-equal at the earliest ages, when the sport is typically done for fun (an extremely challenging form of fun, but that's another story). During precisely the years when athletes typically choose to approach the sport as a serious competitive endeavour, boys and girls begin to be offered different distances. It is at this highly formative moment-- a moment when they often still feel they are, and sometimes actually are, the full athletic equal of boys their own age-- that female athletes receive their first lesson in their own alleged athletic fragility and psychological inferiority (a lesson often reinforced by the larger culture). You may not yet understand why, girls are told, but you are not suited to running the same distances as boys in the long distance sport of XC. You are henceforth consigned to a more suitable, miniaturized version of what the boys and men will do. And to this broader sociological lesson is eventually added a sport-specific one: If you are bigger and stronger, and possess greater ability over the middle track distances (that represent the long distances in the school system), you will continue to succeed in the sport of XC disproportionately to boys and men of similar physical makeup, who will typically fall further behind as the competitive distance increases (disproportionately to that of girls/women). If you are female and good at this mini version of XC, you will likely grow to enjoy the disproportionate competitive success you get to experience during the fall, while your male counterparts are often learning to live with temporary or permanent consignment to the middle of race packs. And you may even begin to feel a sense of entitlement to the sport you have been allowed-- even encouraged, by coaches who have become attached to the separate and supposedly equal status quo-- to colonize. If you are female and aren't as well suited to this shorter version of the real (read: men's) sport, you will likely never get to find out how relatively unsuited you actually are. You will likely continue to play along for the other benefits the sport offers (team camaraderie and competition), but you will have been systematically denied an equal opportunity to discover and enjoy the benefits of your particular physiological gifts. If you are lucky, you may eventually meet a coach, perhaps from outside of the school-based system, who will go out of his/her way to introduce you to long distance track racing, or even triathlon. If you are part of the unlucky majority, however, your particular talents will remain buried forever. And, for those who care, the loss will be not only yours but the sport's. Thus it is today in XC exactly as it was in the sport writ large before the introduction of women's long distance racing on the roads and track, when the longest distance female athletes were "permitted" to race was 800m.

But gender equality in XC race distances remains more important than on the roads and in track precisely to the extent that XC racing is seminal to the sport of distance running as a whole for both genders. Our first impression of what distance running is is offered by school XC; and, if we're Canadian and not able or inclined to run in the NCAA, our best opportunity by far to discover and develop our ability over the longer distances will be in school-based XC. If we're male, however, that opportunity will be a more meaningful one than if we are female, as long as the practice of unequal racing distances prevails.

The Canadian XC Championships in Kingston marked the death of yet another competitive season, but whether it also marked the death of an entire (and over-long) era of fundamental inequality in the sport itself and its rebirth in a more egalitarian one-- an era in which female distance runners on the cusp of committing to the sport will never remember a time when they didn't race as far as boys and men, and in which female athletes with true long distance running ability will be allowed to prevail-- is in the hands of the sport's coaches and administrators in every jurisdiction, starting at the top. And while the logic and substance of the argument for equality is overwhelming, the power (at least in the short term) of those who sit atop the sport is real, and the psychological rootedness of the gender unequal status quo very deep in some quarters. Expect some defenders of unequal racing distances to retrench behind jurisdictional walls, to fight back with technical arguments and special pleading about the uniqueness of their systems or teams, and to point to the practices of other jurisdictions (even other sports) as justification for going slowly or for not acting at all. And, of course, also expect many to defend the status quo by citing the interests and desires of current female athletes themselves (never minding the fact that the perspective of these athletes is in large part a product of the unequal system itself, or can be explained by the fact that many of them have a vested competitive interest in the unequal status quo). But also expect these agents to become embarrassed by their own arguments in proportion to their exposure to outside scrutiny; and, if that scrutiny is sustained enough, to eventually accede to the logic of equality. Finally, expect them to one day pretend they were always on the side of equality. Just as no one will ever admit to having opposed equality in track and road racing (or having supported any other of the ideas now residing on history's scrap heap), everyone will one day always have been in favour equality in XC racing!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Distance Running's Generation F(ollow)?

Unlike our science-phobic Prime Minister, I am not afraid to "commit sociology" to explain novel patterns of human social behaviour when I see them in my area of expertise. I refer in this instance to the current epidemic of so-called "tactical" racing among elite/serious (but, interestingly, mainly male) runners at every level above that of junior high school. While the old fashion "tactic" of attempting to outrun one's opponent with superior pace is still deployed from time to time, the default racing strategy at every level, from the global to the local, is rapidly becoming that of "sit and kick", as it used to be called. So much the default approach to racing has this strategy become (and I sometimes fear that I may never see any other kind of race when more than a few serious competitors are gathered-- unless their are financial time bonuses!)that it is really no longer a "tactic" at all: it betokens the complete demise of actual tactical deliberation. When there is only one acceptable tactic, there are no longer any tactics at all!

What used to be known as the "sit and kick"-- the tactic in which the athlete or athletes possessing what he/they believe to be the best top-end sprint speed, best acceleration, or whatever else it takes to win a race run at extreme sub-maximal paces, decline(s) to lead, hoping the pace will remain slow for as long as possible, making the effective distance of the race as short as possible-- has now been simplified by the current generation to something like "never lead, under any circumstances, no matter how slow the pace!". Leading a race at ANY pace has now been deemed, whether by rational choice or the simple lack conscious choice-making, automatically the least favourable racing tactic for almost every runner in almost any situation.

Again, it's not that "sit and kick" is a new tactic. It's been around since the dawn of the sport as one among an array of possible race strategies. The first time I witnessed it in its purest form was in the late 1970s (a World Cup 1500 race, in which some of the best runners in the world ran five seconds a lap slower than they were capable of before unleashing a furious last 250m). I had seen races that were not run full-out from the gun, but I had never seen world class runners choose to turn a distance race into a pure sprint in quite this way. And while I would see it again from time to time, it remained relatively rare, until just a few years ago. For the next 25 years, I would be just as likely to see (and to participate in) races in which an athlete ran well below goal pace for the first few laps of a race, injected torrid mid-race surges, attempted to maintain a steady but manageable pace, cooperated with another athlete to ensure an optimal pace, or launched a sustained finishing drive from several laps, or kilometers, from the finish. In other words, I would, within a given season or year, witness the full array of possible race tactics, as per the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the various dramatis personae in each instance. What was obvious, and what appears to be increasingly rare today, is that athletes at all levels were willing to take direct action to ensure that the race played to their strengths, even if this entailed a deliberate and forceful seizing of the initiative. Even when they knew they could not win, athletes in earlier decades seemed to be more willing to take action to shape a race in ways that seemed to ensure the highest possible finishing place. Today, even the slowest footed athletes often seem content to remain in lockstep within a dawdling pack, waiting for someone else to make the first move, knowing that their chances of the highest possible placing are being reduced with each meter run. And why? Simple reluctance to ever assume the lead, it would seem. And here is where the sociology, or probably more precisely, the social psychology, can be brought to bear. Why have runners today become more reluctant to lead races than in the past?

But first, some anecdotal support for my basic claim that something new is indeed happening when it comes to race tactics (or the increasing disappearance thereof). In my career I have run over 1000 races covering all distances, in all conditions, and on all conceivable surfaces-- from 800m to the marathon, from midday tropical sun to winter snowstorms, and from state-of-the- art Mondo to glare ice. And I have watched at least twice as many races at every level live, on TV, and, increasingly, on the internet. After all these years and races, what are the odds I would see any really novel event or pattern when it came to race execution? Not great, one would think; yet, in just the past few years, I have indeed seen a few things I've never seen before. And I've seen some things I had seen only very infrequently in my first 25 years in the sport begin to happen with greater regularity, and at all levels.

To wit, from the global to the local, and from the grand to the tiny:

1.Four consecutive global men's 5000m and 10,000m races (two Olympic and two World Championships) in which, despite not unfavourable weather conditions, a dozen or more of the best runners in the world were content to run at a speed that all but guaranteed victory to the fastest middle distance runner in the field, and that turned earning a medal into a crap-shoot based on top-end sprint speed, positioning in the final 400m, and plain old luck-of-the-draw. At least one half of the the tactical brilliance of the winner of all four of these races (Mo Farah of GB) was the unprecedented, repeated, tactical paralysis of the rest of the field. In the 2012 Olympic 5000, run less than a week after Farah's sit-and-kick win in the 10,000, athletes allowed the pace to slow such that the winning time was reminiscent of the 1960s-- the slowest winning time in 34 years, when the race was run in Mexico City, altitude 2,250m.

2. Two high level men's cross country races in the same season (2014), run in nearly ideal conditions, at paces approaching 20 seconds per mile slower than the all-out ability of the average participant until well past the halfway point. The most bizarre and telling of the two-- the 2014 NCAA Championships-- saw 90% of the field still in contention past the halfway mark of the race, and the front group spread 25-30 wide as runners gathered at the front but refused to set foot in the actual lead. The NCAA XC Championship, famous for decades for its hell-bent front running and wars of attrition, was for the first time in its history turned into a so-called "tactical" affair. What was remarkable was the unwillingness of any of the 50 or so top contenders to ensure even the kind of moderate pace that would have winnowed the front pack down to a manageable size before the final push. Even with plenty of room to run, every athlete, the slow and the fast alike, it appeared, favoured his chances in a kick more than his chances off of a moderately fast pace-- that is, if he himself had to play a leading role in setting that moderately fast pace. And even at a pace that must have been conversational at times, no team of runners (and XC is at some level a team sport) attempted to hatch a plan to shape the unfolding of the race in ways favourable to it own fortunes-- unless every team somehow wanted the race to come down to a 2k free-for-all.

3. A final leg of a relay race (the 2015 Penn Relays college men's distance 4x 1mile, featuring several teams of athletes all capable of sub-4 mins) in which, in order to avoid setting foot in the lead, the two frontrunners nearly came to a standstill on the back-straight of second lap, and in which the rest of the field, now having caught up to the jogging leaders, also declined to take the lead, even when doing so would have entailed simply maintaining the pace they had been running up to that point! So unusual was this spectacle that the experienced crowd gasped before commencing the boo the athletes. Some observers later pronounced the whole thing "entertaining", but none seemed to deny that they had seen something probably unprecedented in the 100 year history of the meet.

4.An IAAF Diamond League meet (the 2015 Prefontaine Classic in Portland, Oregon) featuring many of the world's best distance runners, racing in ideal conditions and at a time of year (late spring) when most would be ready to run at personal best levels, in which whole fields of athletes repeatedly chose NOT to follow the paid pacers agreed to by the athletes themselves, their coaches, and agents! Only in the men's 10,000m did the top athletes all attempt to stick with the agreed upon early pace-- but even they would slow down shortly after the exhausted rabbits quit the scene.

5. A national championship 10,000m (the 2014 Canadian Championships) in which, in a tiny and fragmented field, two athletes with superior seed times remained in single file for 20 laps behind a less experienced leader, and in which one of the two followers completely ignored the eventual winning move in favour of continuing to sit on the shoulder of the old leader and now second place runner till the final lap, in order to take as little risk as possible in ensuring, not the win, but second place!

6. A midwest NCAA Conference meet (the 2015 Big 12 Championships) in which the men's 1500m was won in 4:05 (a time more than 25 seconds slower than the personal bests of the top athletes in the field), after an opening lap of 83 seconds-- slower than the typical opening pace for a primary school girls' 1500m!

7. Heat two of three in a routine spring all-comers meet, featuring 15 nameless teenage and 20-something male athletes, held in perfect weather conditions, in which the athletes, having selected their own seed times order to ensure an opportunity to run fast against suitable competition, decide, not 50m after the gun, to run "tactically", so as to avoid having to lead. The result was that only one athlete equaled his seed time. Apparently, even when nothing matters but finishing time, young athletes today will sometimes abandon their pre-race goals seconds into a race-- if, that is, pursuing them entails taking any individual initiative!

8. A local high school boys championship 3000m featuring 2 competitors-- technically four, but the other two fell over a lap behind before the 2k mark-- in which one athlete literally hid behind the other until the final 120m in order to avoid taking even a single step in the lead, and in which the frustrated leader nearly came to a complete stop on the track in order to force his pursuer assume duties (which he refused to do)! The winning time was the slowest in the history of the championship, by more than 30 seconds, and the winner was subsequently beaten handily by the loser in a faster paced race not one week later.

I could go on. Most of these examples are taken from just the past few months.

How do we explain these phenomena-- both the increasing frequency of once rare events (such as the sit-and-kick global track championships, or the failure of world class athletes to pursue appointed, paid rabbits) and the truly novel variations on the theme of "lead-aversion" (such the mass sit-and-kick XC championship, or the "tactical" all-comers heat)? As a seasoned observer/competitor and an erstwhile social scientist, I offer that there is a narrow, sport specific explanation, and a broad sociological explanation, with my preference being for the broad one.

The narrow explanation is that the current extreme preference for following over leading in almost all race situations is due to the influence of the era's greatest distance track athlete-- the aforementioned Mo Farah of GB. In this account, younger athletes have recently been engaging in a fad-like (and over-literal)following of the example of this highly successful athlete-- a fad that that will abruptly end along with his dominance, at which point the racing style of the new dominant player, whatever that may be, will become vogue. Supporters of this sport-specific explanation will point to the earlier influence of athletes like Emil Zatopek or Steve Prefontaine, who made courageous (sometimes to the point of foolhardy) front running the preferred tactic of the young in their respective eras. They might also point to the more recent craze for incautious marathon pacing ignited by the example of the late Olympic Champion Sammy Wanjiru (which, interestingly, now seems to be giving way to the old orthodoxy of even or negative-split pacing).

The broader explanation does not deny this narrower one, but rather absorbs and expands it.

The example of top athletes-- whether in the area of personal style, training methodology, or race tactics-- has always had a trickle-down influence on the behaviour of younger athletes. And, this narrower, sport-specific explanation would account for the fact that aversion to leading seems to have become something of a cross-cultural phenomenon, at least when the various national and ethnic cultures that make up distance running meet in global competition (and the sport is mainly what members of these different cultures have in common). But, I think a broader, more sociological explanation is required to account for apparent extreme affinity of the current generation for this passive race tactic (at least in some places), and for some of its particulars.

First of all, there is evidence that aversion to leading has not taken hold in the national strongholds of the sport-- Kenya and Ethiopia. Athletes from these countries are as familiar with the exploits of Mo Farah as anyone. Yet, at least when they are racing one another at home or on the roads and XC courses of North America and Europe, they seem just as inclined as ever to attack the lead with abandon (their torrid front running in every race at the recent World XC Championships in China shows that they still prefer fast starting and hard racing). The same appears to be true of Japan-- the non-African world's centre of distance running excellence and popularity, where the post-race collapse (whether feigned or real) remains a requirement. Second, aversion to leading is a distinctly gendered phenomenon, whether at the global or local level. Extreme sit-and-kick women's global championship races are not unheard of, but they are not nearly as common as men's, and are often weather related. And this kind of racing is almost unheard of among women at lower levels. Women and girls in almost every situation still appear far more inclined to default to maximum sustainable pace in race situations offering favourable atmospheric conditions. For instance, at the 2014 NCAA XC Championships-- venue of the infamous sit-and-kick men's race-- the women's winner soloed to a near course record in the same somewhat windy conditions as the men faced an hour later.

So, a broader more sociological explanation would seek to explain why extreme aversion to leading races is becoming primarily a North American (and possibly European-- I'm not sure) male phenomenon!

Could it be that the general lassitude, risk aversion, and penchant for conformity that have led some to speak of a crisis of masculinity in North America (which has its mirror in the increased relative academic and general leadership performance of girls and women in the past quarter century) is now being expressed, however perversely, in the tendency of male distance runners to freeze up and refuse to take the initiative in race situations, even when doing so would be in their individual interest (perversely because male distance runners are gender and generational non-conformists in the very fact of being distance runners)? As a coach of many serious young male distance runners, and as an acquaintance of many more, I have been privy to their accounts of races in which the pack freezes and soldiers along at a pedestrian pace. In some instances they will offer than they did not lead because leading is always the worst option ("the early leader always gets out-kicked"). But most of the time their response will be passive. They may say that they had wanted to run faster, but that the race "just didn't go that way", as if races are things apart from the runners who make them up. And when asked how they feel about their result after such a race (if it wasn't the finish place they had wanted or hoped for) they will often just say that "the race was tactical", implying that finish places other than first in such situations are rendered somewhat irrelevant, because an extremely tactical race isn't actually a "real" race. Sometimes, though rarely, they will say that no one generally tries to lead anymore, because the younger generation is tactically savvier, having learned from earlier generations the grave folly of pushing too hard from the front (as if running all out from the front were the only alternative to jogging and kicking the final 200m). In all but the last instance, the common element in these responses seems to be that no one bears any personal responsibility for the way a particular race unfolds-- except perhaps, in instances where someone does try to force the pace and does not win, "that idiot who tried to lead". Here it would seem that failure in a group, if such thing is even considered possible, is always preferable to failure as a risk-taking individual (even when it is impossible to say whether the risk-taking individual actually finished further back than he might otherwise have, and hence actually "lost"!).

If this broader explanation has any credence (and I'll admit to a little facetiousness, born of frustration, in offering it), I leave it to the reader to consider its deeper cultural underpinnings;-)And, I offer a challenge to the current generation of distance athletes to reconsider their fear of leading. For many athletes, in many different circumstances, it is the highest percentage tactical option.

PK POMs/POY: They're Back

After some uncertainty around prizing (and, yes, falling too far behind in monitoring performances in 2014) I had suspended the POM/POY feature. I'm pleased to announce that it's back for 2015, meaning I have some catching up to do!

Race participation was at its usual very low ebb in January, so there is no POM for that most wintry month.

The winner of the February's POM was junior Branna MacDougall's very fine bronze medal performance at the Pan Am XC Championships in Barranquilla, Colombia. It's rare when an athlete of Branna's calibre does anything truly surprising, but a medal at one's first international competition is most certainly POM worthy! Congrats, Branna.

Branna would go on to lead the National Junior Team at the World Championships in March, but the March POM (which is based on the scale of performance relative to the athlete's abilities and personal circumstances at the time) goes to the amazingly renascent master's runner Steve Blostein, for his win at the provincial master indoor championships (50+ 3k). Steve is a model of tenacity and has rebuilt himself after years of injury, such that he is now seeing race times he has not seen since his mid-40s. This was more example of his recent rebirth.

April's POM was uncontested. Again, while age class performances by talented young athletes are usually not the stuff of POMs, some such results cannot be ignored. Brogan MacDougall's front running 9:39.9 3k in her first ever track 3k, and first high track race period, was simply off the expectational charts. No Canadian girl of the same age or younger has ever run the distance faster. Congrats, Brogan!

May's POM came on the month's penultimate day, and was put up by none other than the 2013 PK Performer of the Year, Blair Morgan. Following a solid but unspectacular (by his standards) 2014, Blair notched a significant PB over 5k at the Penn Relays in April (a 21 second improvement of his best of 14:57, set in 2014). A month later, in rainy and windy conditions, he peeled another 16 seconds from this best, reaching a whole new level of lifetime performance. Can he repeat as POY in 2015 with this, or perhaps another jaw dropper!?