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.