National governing body begins push for gender equality by starting consultation process with clubs and cross country organisers

Should male and female race distances in cross-country running be the same? UK Athletics believes they should and in the new year the governing body will start a consultation with the sport to find out how it can be achieved.

In a statement this week, UKA said: “There could be greater equality in some cross country races and competitions by enabling all athletes access to the same opportunities through the race distances available to them.”

Working with home nation athletics federations, UKA plans to release a survey “to capture thoughts on how cross country can provide equal opportunities for all participants at all levels in the future”.

The push for equality is thought to be driven by UKA’s new chief executive Jo Coates. The statement continues that there is an “aspiration for greater equity in cross country in the future” but UKA is keen to hear the views of cross-country participants and organisers.

At global level the senior men’s race at the World Cross Country Championships was traditionally 12km while the women raced 8km until 2017 when distances were changed to allow both sexes to race 10km.

Scottish Athletics and some English leagues have also equalised their race distances in recent years but major events in England such as the historic National and English Schools Championships continue to see a race distance disparity with males running further than females.

The English National, for example, sees the following race distances: Senior – 12km men, 8km women. Under-20 – 10km men, 6km women. Under-17 – 6km men, 5km women. Under-15 – 4km boys, 4km girls. Under-13 – 3km boys, 3km girls.

At the English Schools Championships this year there were the following distances: Under-19 – 6.7km men, 4.4km women. Under-17 – 5.5km men, 3.8km women. Under-15 – 4.4km boys, 3km girls.

English Schools senior girls’ race is shorter than the boys’ equivalent (pic: Mark Shearman)

Not surprisingly, there have been many changes throughout the last century or so. The English National was for many years a male-only event with seniors racing 9 miles in the 1960s and 1970s and as far as 10 miles at one stage. The men’s championship was first held in 1876 with women starting their own National from 1927, with the events held at separate venues until as 1995.

Similarly, the English Schools Cross Country Championships began in 1960 for boys only with girls’ races beginning eight years later and, even then, separate venues were used until 1989.

Another historic British cross-country event – the UK Inter-Counties Championships – saw gender equality introduced in 2018 with men and women both racing 10km for the first time.

At the World Cross the men have traditionally raced over 12km but this became 10km in 2017 in order to achieve gender equality. In comparison women raced over as little as 4km in the early years of the World Cross in the 1970s – although at the time there was no 5000m, 10,000m, steeplechase or marathon for women at the Olympics – but the distance grew to 6km and then 8km in 1998 before settling at 10km in 2017.

However, the European Cross Country Championships has maintained a gender inequality with men at the last event in Lisbon 2019 racing 10,225m while the women raced 8225m. Junior men also raced 6225m in Lisbon with the junior women 4225m. This was in response to a 2016 poll of European federations in which 21 of the 37 respondents (out of 51 countries) said they thought the distances should remain the same.

English events are also so far resisting the idea of equalising the distances due to the results of a survey. Conducted in 2018 by the English Cross Country Association (ECCA), it found that most runners were happy with men and women tackling different race distances.

The ECCA poll was conducted at the National at Parliament Hill with 244 athletes quizzed. When it came to the key question – “Do you think that senior men and senior women should run the same distance at the National Cross Country Championships?” – 47.9% agreed ‘yes’ with 52.1% saying ‘no’.

At the time the ECCA told AW they were keen to put their questions to actual National Cross competitors rather than in an online poll which could result in lots of votes from runners who do not race regularly in cross country events.

The cross-country gender equality debate has been regularly covered in AW

The survey followed a spate of national newspaper and website articles during that particular year. Of the participants in the ECCA survey, 59% were women and 41% men. When the women were asked if they were happy with their current race distance of 8km, a total of 81.2% said they were, with 5.2% requesting 10km, 4.8% asking for 6km, 1.8% going for 5km and 7.0% not answering.

Also at the time the former world cross-country champion Paula Radcliffe entered the debate on social media, writing: “Distances are guidelines. If the course is an excellent XC course & 8.63km or 9.13km, both are ok. It’s about the racing and the nature of the course. Some will suit some more than others – that’s cross country. Men and women can race the same course.”

Another argument against increasing the women’s race distances is that entry numbers have sometimes fallen when it has been tried in some events. The Surrey League, for instance, saw a 12.4% drop-off in entries when the senior women’s race distance was increased.

Of course women are capable of racing these longer distances, but do they really want to? UKA is about to find out.

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