Separate But Unequal: Cross-Country’s Great Distance Debate

It’s the only occasion in athletics where men and women run different lengths for the same event, and for the first time in history, the IAAF is leveling the playing field. But landmark moments led to this decision, and larger consequences loom because of it. How the most important discrepancy in distance running might transform the sport is an interesting story to tell: one steeped in traditions, antiquated thinking, modern conventions, and the inevitability that gender-equality will affect us all.

Words By Andrew Boyd Hutchinson

1928 marked the first landmark moment, with a sensationalist reaction to the running of the women’s 800 meters at the Olympic Games. After years of lobbying and assembly, Alice Milliat of France — one of the great activist leaders in sports and women’s history — had led the charge by first forming the Women’s Olympic Games in 1922, and advocating for fair representation by the IOC (International Olympic Committee) six years later.

But after a predictably difficult run at the 800 meter distance (race conditions were unseasonably warm, the final was run the day after the semis, and it was a brief recovery time) media outlets called for its repudiation. The New York Evening Post reported that of the “11 wretched women, 5…dropped out before the finish…5 collapsed after reaching the tape.” Others preached that women would be “desexed” and their reproductive capability impaired by such “terrible exhaustion.” England’s Daily Mail went so far as to write that women who raced longer than 200 meters would “age prematurely.” None of the reports held an ounce of truth, but the consequence was eminent: the International Olympic Committee omitted any distance longer than 200 meters for women for 32 years.

The IOC’s record was spotty. They had originally rejected the Federation Feminine Sportive de France’s pleas for women’s events in the Olympics in 1919. In response, Alice Milliat had formed the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale (FSFI) in 1921, and within a year had staged the first world games: The Women’s Olympics, which was female-only and contested a dozen events. Despite agreeing to stop using the word “Olympics” in exchange for inclusion in the IOC’s program, the FSFI continued to hold their own Women’s “World Games” every four years until 1934. None of those women experienced any undue biological effects because of their participation.

It was logical that France built momentum for the movement. They were able to provide a model that was easily adaptable in Europe: representation and organization. French women were organizing cycling races as early as 1869 in Bordeaux. The first 19 women to compete in the modern Olympics Games did so in Paris in 1900, where they played tennis, golf, and croquet. It was here Margaret Abbott, an art student in Paris, became the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, winning the nine-hole golf tournament by shooting a 47.

Rapid progress occurred in France after the formation of the first women’s gymnastics club in 1900 — where running events were also practiced. This led to the first all-female inter-club contest in track and field in 1915 at Brancion Stadium, where “Femina Sport” (founded in 1912 by Pierre Paysse) and “Academia” (founded by Gustave de Lafrete 1915) faced off. This event led to many more; the end result being the formation of the first Women’s Athletics Championships in July 1917. The resulting enthusiasm allowed organizers Paysse Pierre and Albert Pelan to establish la Federation des Societes Feminines Sportives de France (the Federation of Societies for Feminine Sports of France (FSFSF)).

Alice Milliat

Hostility from the athletics community remained strong, and Alice Milliat, the then treasurer of the FSFSF, knew that time was of the essence. With colleagues, Milliat organized the first cross-country championship for women in April 1918. With help from L’Echo des Sports and L’Auto (the two major sports newspapers of the time) forty-two participants with their associated clubs took part. Conducted with what many at the time considered indecent dress (shorts and jerseys) the race followed a course through 2,400 meters of wooded trails, and was won by Anne Tinguy in 9:58. Present at the finish to congratulate the participants was Milliat herself, who saw her dream materialize while a great adventure began for the female participants of the sport.

The French Women’s Cross-Country Championship has run annually until the present day without interruption, and remains the longest standing (and most consistent) female cross-country race on the planet. But the earliest cross-country competitions for women were all lesser in distance than the male equivalent. And while even producing such a championship challenged the status quo, the medical and social antagonizing was a real concern in the public eye during this period. As such, while the French males ran 15.5 kilometers in 1920 for their cross-country championship, the French females only ran 3.5 for theirs.

This trend was not isolated. When England introduced their first women’s local, county and national championships in the later part of the 1920s, it was equally lopsided. The sentiment was that it was simply un-ladylike (and potentially unhealthy) for women to have to exert an equal amount of strain running distance as their male counterparts. By the time Alice Milliat used her connection with the Fédération Internationale Sports Féminine (FSFI) to host the first Women’s “International” Cross-Country in 1931 — where Gladys Lunn of England was the victor — the women raced a course of just under two miles (3,000 meters).

Female representation at the International Cross Country Championships was inconsistent at best, and was often pushed-aside or treated as “unofficial”. Four events were held in the 1930s, with three more appearing in the late 1950s. 1967 was the first year a 3-kilometer women’s cross-country International was held alongside the men’s at the same venue on the same day. Coincidently, at that point in time, nations like the United States were in their infancy in developing the sport for female competition: it had only been three years prior that the U.S. hosted an official women’s cross-country championship, a stand-alone affair that took all of 2-kilometers to complete.

Women accepted these opportunities because they lacked chances to run distance elsewhere. The 800 meter distance wouldn’t return to the Olympic Games until 1960. It was 1972 before the 1,500 was added, and 1984 before women were allowed to run the 3,000 meter or marathon.

In the United States, despite names like Julia Chase in 1961 and Kathrine Switzer in 1967 grabbing headlines for running road races, equality in distance running had been slow to arrive. 1969 was the first year the AAU instituted a junior women’s national championship in cross-country. The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which evolved out of the Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (founded in 1967), instituted the first female collegiate cross-country championship in 1975. In fact, it took until 1979 before women and men ran a cross-country national championship at the same venue (an AAU event in Raleigh, North Carolina).

Cross-country Championships in the United States during the 1970s were typically run at the three-mile distance, still a shorter alternative to the male equivalent. The USA’s national athletics governing body (first the AAU, then USA Track and Field) instituted distances that fell in line with other member nations and the IAAF. In 1987, when the World Cross Country distance rose to six kilometers from five, the national standard changed as well. A second time, when the distance jumped from six kilometers to eight in 1997, USATF again followed suit. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the NCAA adopted the women’s collegiate cross-country championship, the standard length was five kilometers. It persisted that way for more than a decade.

Marie Mulder (left) was the first AAU Women’s National Cross-Country Champion in 1964. She was only 14 when she won.

The reason for this gender difference was a combination of old habits and mathematical convenience. No longer was biology used as a crutch to justify a shortened length: courses that were adopted for cross-country in international competitions saw laps equivalent to 2,000 meters. In an effort to standardize the sport, women were decreed to complete half the revolutions around the course that their male counterparts were, which resulted in length fluctuations that ranged from four kilometers to six. In the United States it was easier. Men ran 10 kilometers, so women’s distances were standardized at five. These qualifications were carried year to year, voted on by councils that saw no reason to change it.

The collegiate difference was harder to justify. When the IAAF increased the junior women’s distance from four kilometers to six in 1998, USA Track and Field also changed the national standard. But suddenly, girls who were 19 and younger were now running a kilometer longer than women in the NCAA for collegiate competition. When the Division I and II subcommittees of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Track and Field Committee voted at their 1997 meetings to extend the race to 6,000 meters, responses were mixed.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction for women’s cross country,” said Beth Alford-Sullivan, then-women’s cross-country coach at Stanford University. “Moving the distance provides some separation in terms of making cross country a separate sport, a sport within itself, which I think is great. Most high schools are running 5,000 meters. The concept of women making the transition to a greater distance is something that should be done. Making the transition is a natural step.”

Some coaches expressed concern that the longer race would close the door to middle-distance runners. Two years prior, college coaches who had been surveyed voted against altering the race distance. Tom Henderson, men’s and women’s cross country coach at South Dakota State University and a member of the Division II subcommittee, acknowledged that the additional distance would tax middle-distance runners, but contended that they could continue to thrive at the longer distance: “The 800–1,500 runner who is effective at 5,000 meters is still going to be effective at 6,000 meters,” he said. “Increasing the distance by 1,000 meters isn’t going to prevent those people from competing. It’s going to scare some people off, but not a lot.”

The change didn’t affect the growth of the sport at the collegiate level, but it still highlighted an interesting conundrum: “Was distance equality the right move?” It opened up questions as to the very nature of the sport.

In the United States at the high school level, six states still employed a shorter racing distance for girls — this being as recently as 2015. In states like Wisconsin, where girls made the jump in race distance from four kilometers to five in 2014, Marcy Thurwachter, assistant director of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA), told Newswire that, although the move had been discussed for many years, the majority of coaches opposed the switch, saying the shorter distance was better for girls’ development and citing their fear of decreased participation numbers. It was only when the Office of Civil Rights cited the issue of gender equity that the discussion was reopened.

Westernized European nations, traditionally strong in cross-country, also maintained gender differences in regards to race length at their national championships. In England, males ran twelve kilometers while women ran eight. Spain, France and Italy maintained similar distinctions. Belgium males ran 10.5 kilometers, while females ran 6.5. Even Kenya and Ethiopia maintained a difference.

The collegiate difference was also maintained in Canada, England and Australia, where women ran six kilometers to men’s ten. Runners at every level were left with a gap between race lengths. It begged the question: “What was preventing a change to equal distance?”

Middlebury College senior Katie Carlson wanted to answer this question. “When I ask my teammates and friends why they think women [don’t run the longer distance], more often than not they will tell me, ‘Oh, because we can’t. We’re weaker and slower than men, so this distance protects us,’” said Carlson. At the end of her junior year, Carlson started researching the race-distance disparity. She began by looking at the hypotheses offered by her peers. But after a couple of interviews with physiologists, Carlson easily disproved the physiological barrier myths. She realized people were grasping for answers because no one had any idea why the difference existed: “I have zero insight why it can’t be done in cross country. All I can think is that for whatever reason, nobody’s ever questioned it.”

When the women’s distance became six kilometers at the end of the 1990s, that “was a big deal,” said Ray Treacy, director of cross-country and track at Providence College. “The topic of changing it further hasn’t really come up since then. No coach has pushed for it. I would imagine coaches are quite comfortable where it’s at right now.” “You have to be careful with whatever distance you select,” claimed Sam Seemes, chief executive officer of the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. “It has to allow coaches to field teams in number and field them competitively. When you increase the distance, it shrinks the depth of competitive runners. It’s true of either gender.”

As part of her research, Carlson surveyed 91 NCAA women’s cross country runners, and nearly half responded saying they thought they would be “physically or mentally incapable of racing an 8K.” “Overwhelmingly, I found that men are more supportive than the women,” Carlson said. “Men told me, ‘Yeah, you can run that.’ Women told me, ‘I don’t know if I can,’ or ‘I could run that, but I don’t want to.’ Which is remarkable.” “I’m totally satisfied with the 6K distance and now 8K,” reinforced Abbey D’Agostino, the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Champion.

Abbey D’Agostino

In October 2015, the IAAF came to their senses and voted for equal racing distances at the World Cross Country Championships, stating that both men and women would race ten kilometers as part of the IAAF Competition Rules for 2016–17. Sebastian Coe, former world-record holder, commented: “As a former athlete I’m the first to understand that these rules are the bedrock of everything that an athlete or official does in the competition environment. Athletics like all sports is defined by its rules. They provide standardized boundaries for each event discipline and, in turn, clarity and understanding about the decisions taken for the entire athletics family including media and fans.” The IAAF recommended that similar distances be used for other international and national competitions.

Still, this debate was far from settled. Within weeks of the IAAF decision, The Canadian Interuniversity Sport association (the governing body for Canadian collegiate sport) voted down a motion with 13 coaches against, in committing to gender equality in cross-country racing distances starting in 2016.

Part of the justification in the decision came from arguments that supported a “competitive time structure” for the event. It was determined that in order to qualify a proper champion, time spent in competition needed to be relative to the field. As women found less competition at the top echelon of times, the justification held. Despite this, the debate produces more questions than it answers, and voices from both sides feel like theirs is slighted: “I’m quite surprised that it hasn’t changed,” said Gina Sperry, chair of the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Track & Field and Cross Country Committee. “Perhaps it’s a pre-Title IX thing — it’s just always been that way. Why make a change?”

For many, like the IAAF, it’s about proving that leveling the playing field does not harm competition. But like Aristotle noted: “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” This debate just may be the least equal of them all.


Andrew Boyd Hutchinson is currently writing a book on the “Fascinating History of Cross Country Running”. His website, www.therealxc.com provides material on the legacy of the sport.

Andrew Boyd Hutchinson

Written by

www.therealxc.com || The Internet's Home for the History of Cross-Country Running

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade