Big-name British female runners such as Paula Radcliffe, Joyce Smith, Hayley Yelling, Laura Muir and Mara Yamauchi issue strong statement about equalisation of cross-country distances

Some of the best-known and most successful female endurance runners in the history of British athletics have joined forces in opposition to UK Athletics’ recent moves to create gender equality in cross country.

Their statement has been signed by a who’s who of distance running icons such as two-time world cross-country champion Paula Radcliffe and former International cross-country gold medallist and two-time London Marathon winner Joyce Smith.

Hayley Yelling, the two-time European cross-country champion, plus current top athletes such as Laura Muir, Charlotte Purdue and Laura Weightman have also put their name to a statement which will leave UKA in no doubt that their quest for equality of racing distances is not going to be easy to implement.

Between them, the signatories have won dozens of English National titles and represented Britain or England at the World Cross Country Championships. Andrea Whitcombe, Helen Clitheroe and Kathy Butler for example have raced in the World Cross seven, eight and 14 times respectively.

Eventual winner Paula Radcliffe leading the 2003 European Cross Country Championships ahead of Sonia O’Sullivan and Hayley Yelling. Photo by Mark Shearman

The statement has been pulled together by Mara Yamauchi, the former English National winner and second fastest British marathon woman in history. It questions why UKA is making this current move without a head of endurance in position and without first consulting its own Athletes’ Commission. In addition, the athletes firmly disagree with the Run Equal movement, saying: “We are saddened by the suggestion that our past performances are viewed as somehow lacking, simply because we raced shorter distances than men.”

The statement is as follows…

UK Athletics’ consultation on “equal access to cross country competition distances” (Dec 22) and its accompanying survey led many in the cross country (XC) community to believe that UKA had already decided to equalise the distances raced by men and women. We welcome the clarifications UKA provided in its new statement on “equal opportunities in cross country” (Jan 15) and in CEO Joanna Coates’s interview with AW (Jan 15). However, we note Joanna’s comment that equalisation of race distances “might” still go ahead.

We also note that UKA still intends to use the survey’s results, despite widespread concerns about its validity, which we share (specifically the introduction’s clear indication to responders that UKA is in favour of equalisation, and the absence of the question “do you agree/disagree on equalising distances”).

The physical advantages men acquire compared to women from puberty are well-known. These advantages mean that, in some sports, event specifications should be different, for good reason. We believe cross country, at competitive level, is one such event. There are many events in Athletics alone which have different specifications. This does not mean women are weak or inferior. It is a question of what specifications suit men and women, and what makes for meaningful and exciting competition.

In cross country, women and girls should race a distance which is: a) what they want; b) what is appropriate for their age and ability level; and c) what is best for their wider competition goals and race calendar. The criterion “what the men or boys run” should be well down the list in deciding. The same applies, in reverse, for men and boys.

The question of can women race long distances has been answered with an emphatic yes. Historically, women were not allowed to compete at all in many events, and we are thankful to the women who fought for the right to compete. Competition for women in XC has existed for decades; the first English National XC Championships for women were held in 1927.

The campaign group RunEqual claims that “an unequal race distance … gives the message your race isn’t as important, you aren’t as capable and you aren’t being welcomed on equal terms”. We disagree. This has never been part of our lived experience. We are saddened by the suggestion that our past performances are viewed as somehow lacking, simply because we raced shorter distances than men. The current women’s race distances attract athletes from a wide range of track and road events, making them exceptionally competitive.

We whole-heartedly support recreational runners participating in cross country, and unequivocally praise organisations like parkrun which encourage mass participation. But XC has two parts: a) elite/semi-elite/competitive club level, which is about racing fast, competition, winning, and qualifying for higher competitions; and b) recreational level mass participation. UKA must meet the needs of both groups, and avoid allowing the demands of one group to detrimentally affect the other.

Any decision to equalise race distances would have potentially far-reaching consequences for all aspects of XC, including, but not limited to: participation levels, drop-off rates, UKA’s provision of a development pathway to international success for girls and boys, how frequently athletes can race and recover, performance in other endurance events, the transition from junior to senior ranks, coaching, eating disorders, and the viability of events on short winter days.

We ask UKA to guarantee that any decision to equalise, if one comes, will be based on robust, compelling and evidence-based arguments explaining how such a decision would bring positive change, and avoid any negative impact, on all these aspects. There may, sometimes, be justification for equal race distances, for example in trial races for championships which have equal distances. But sweeping change based on ideology about gender equality, as defined by distance alone, would be simply wrong unless it brings real, meaningful, positive change to the sport.

The UKA Head of Endurance position has recently been vacant, and UKA’s own Athletes Commission was not consulted. It is unclear whether anyone with knowledge and experience of XC at elite/semi-elite level/competitive club level has been involved thus far. We call on UKA to ensure that people with such knowledge and experience, in a variety of roles, will be included in all decision-making at every stage from now on.

We note that World Athletics has equalised distances at the World Championships but it is not a national federation which has to develop talent to elite level. We also note that European nations voted in 2016 to retain different distances. British XC teams, especially the women’s teams, have been very successful in recent years at European level.

UKA omitted the key question “do you agree/disagree on equalising distances” from its survey. Therefore, if a move towards equalisation goes ahead, we look forward to seeing other statistically robust evidence that this is what a large majority in the sport actually wants. In the meantime, we hope UKA will focus on enabling racing to restart safely and minimising the damage the pandemic has caused to athletes everywhere.

Signed by…

» Kate Avery, European XC representative 2014, 2015, 2018; World XC U20 representative 2009, 2010; World XC senior representative 2019

» Sinead Bent, Northern 800m bronze medallist 2018; Manchester league senior overall title winner; multiple Northern XC top-40 finisher

» Kathy Butler, World XC team bronze medallist 2004; 14 x World XC representative 1990 – 2006; 2 x Olympian

» Helen Clitheroe, 8 x World XC representative 1998 – 2005; 10 x European XC representative 1998 – 2010

» Julie Collingham (née Laughton), World XC representative 1984 (team silver medallist), 1985, 1986 (team gold medallist)

» Melissa Courtney-Bryant, European XC representative 2017, 2018; bronze medallist at European Indoor 3000m 2019 and Commonwealth Games 1500m 2019

» Claire Duck, English National XC runner-up 2016, third 2017; World XC representative and captain 2017

» Lauren Heyes (née Howarth), World XC representative 2009 (U20), 2013 (senior); European XC representative 2008, 2009 (both U20), 2011, 2012 (both U23), 2013, 2015 (both senior).

» Ruth Jones, England mountain running representative; Manchester XC league overall winner 2017, runner-up 2019/20

» Jessica Judd, English National XC winner 2017; European XC representative 2019 (team gold); World University 5000m winner 2019; British 5000m champion 2020

» Laura Muir, European XC representative 2011 (junior), 2015 (U23) both team gold; multiple track medallist at World and European level indoors and outdoors

» Hannah Nuttall, European XC representative (U23) 2019; World XC representative (U20) 2015; English Schools 3000m winner 2014; British 3000m steeplechase bronze medallist 2020

» Lily Partridge, English National winner 2015, 2016; 7 x European XC representative 2009 to 2017 (Junior, U23, senior); World XC representative 2008, 2009 (Junior)

» Charlotte Purdue, 4 x individual medallist at European XC as junior, U20 (gold) and senior level 2007-2013; 4 x World XC representative (junior and senior) 2007-2011; No.4 UK all-time for the marathon

» Paula Radcliffe: World XC champion 2001 (also short course silver), 2002, silver medallist 1997, 1998, bronze medallist 1999, World XC junior champion 1992; former marathon world record-holder; multiple medallist at World and European level

» Jane Shields (née Furniss), English National XC winner 1984, 1987; 6 x World XC representative 1981 – 1987; European XC representative; 2 x Olympian

» Joyce Smith, first IAAF World XC silver medallist 1973; International XC Championship winner 1972, bronze medallist 1971; English National XC winner 1959, 1960, 1973; London Marathon champion 1981, 1982

» Laura Weightman, European XC representative 2013; 2 x Olympian; European 1500m and Commonwealth 5000m medallist

» Andrea Whitcombe, English National XC winner 1990, 1991, 1997; 7 x World XC representative (junior and senior) 1989-1999

» Carole Williamson (née Bradford), English National XC winner 1986; World XC representative 1980, 1981, 1984, 1986; bronze medallist at IAAF World 10km, 1984 and IAAF World 15km, 1985

» Alison Wyeth, 4 x World XC representative 1987-1991; Commonwealth Games 3000m bronze medallist 1994; 2 x Olympian; multiple World, European, Commonwealth representative

» Mara Yamauchi (née Myers), English National XC winner 1998; World XC representative 2005, 2006; No.2 UK all-time for the marathon

» Hayley Yelling, 8 x European XC representative 1996 – 2008 (champion 2004, 2009); World XC team bronze medallist 2004; World, Commonwealth and European representative on the track

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