Cross-country finally gets it right with gender equity in distance

We will likely see gender equity in distances in U SPORTS by 2020

30 out of 34 U SPORTS coaches voted to set next year’s Canadian varsity championship distance to 8K for both the women and men—as opposed to the current format of 8K for the women and 10K for the men—at Friday morning’s annual varsity coaches’ meeting in Kingston, Ont. Such a lopsided vote makes the U SPORTS sports committee likely to approve the motion, which is the last step to making the change in distances official.

In the meeting, it was first suggested that women and men run between 8.5 and 9.5K at all future national championships, provided both race distances in a given year be equal between sexes. In a show of hands, 19 coaches supported the change, and 14 opposed it. A source in the room said that many coaches spoke in favour of gender equity between distances, while Dennis Barrett of McGill was the only coach to vocally oppose the idea.

Because no clear consensus was reached in the identified vote, a blind, anonymous vote was then suggested. Coaches took to pen and paper, and the vast majority of coaches voted to set both race distances to 8K by 2020. The location of the 2020 championship is still unknown.

A source said that the uniformity in the written vote came from exasperation.

“These discussions used to be emotional,” said another U SPORTS coach. “But, at this point, I think everyone was just tired of arguing, and agreed that this was the right way to go.”

The debate around race distances had been extensively contested among U SPORTS coaches, and across national panels and forums, in the last five years. As an earlier result, the women’s distance was increased from 6K to 8K in 2017, while the men’s distance remained 10K. Many coaches, notably Queen’s head coach Steve Boyd, remained vocal about further increasing the women’s race distance, making both distances 10K.

“(It’s) sad to have to compromise,” said Boyd after the meeting, about capping distances at 8K, “but my colleagues are pretty determined never to see collegiate women race 10K XC. It was either this or an unequal distance, which is worse.”

Certain coaches had opposed the movement to 10K for women, fearing that a jump from 6K to 8K to a possible 10K would require drastic changes in training in a short time period. Some coaches also suspected that increasing the race distance further would make recruiting more difficult and deter middle-distance specialists from racing cross-country.

Branna MacDougall of Queen’s, the runner-up at this year’s OUA championship and a favourite to win the 2019 national championship, said that differences existed in how women and men perceived cross-country in Canada in the past.

“The men automatically think that cross-country is an inherently long-distance event,” says the fourth year athlete, “while the women are more prone to say that it’s a ‘meet in the middle’ distance event.”

Macdougall believes such contrasting viewpoints exist because a lingering underestimation of women’s ability to run long distances still pervades the sport, and says a new ruling is timely.

“I am extremely happy that the coaches have finally come to their senses and made it equal. This has taken far too long to happen.”