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Sasha Gollish writes letter on distance equity in Canadian university cross-country

Sasha Gollish expresses her opinion on sex equity for cross-country distances in a letter to Canada's governing body for university sports. (Photo: George Aitkin.)

Canadian Cross-Country Gender Equity

Canadian university cross-country coaches voted to move the women’s distance to 8K from 6K in 2017 while men will continue to run 10K at the national university championships. The disparity in race distances has become an increasingly relevant topic as the world governing body has equalized senior-level distances at the world championships. Athletics Canada too offers 10K at the national open championships for senior-level athletes.

Earlier this year, Victoria Coates spoke out about how cross-country’s race distance inequality has hindered her athletic development. Leslie Sexton has pressured Athletics Ontario, the province’s governing body, to adopt equal race distances, which she says has been successful as next year race lengths will begin to change.

RELATED: Op-Ed: It’s time for change.

Sasha Gollish, a Pan Am Games bronze medallist and one of Canada’s fastest-ever half marathoners, is the latest athlete to express an opinion on the subject. Below is a reproduction of a letter that she sent to Canada’s governing body for university sports. Note that what was previously known as the CIS Cross-Country Championships will be known as the U Sports Cross-Country Championships in 2017. Gollish’s mention of CIS as an organization is currently U Sports.

The letter was sent to Canada’s governing body for university sports prior to coaches voting to increase the women’s distance to 8K in 2017.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt, edited for clarity and length. See Gollish’s blog for the preamble where she offers “apologies and clarifications” including saying “I am not arguing for equity in the races, although that could be the correct outcome.”

Sasha Gollish’s letter (Nov. 7)

To Graham Brown, CEO of the CIS; Dick White, President of the CIS; Denis Thiboutot, CIS Cross-Country Committee President:

I write you as a former CIS athlete, a current elite runner, an engineer, and a graduate of the Advanced Coaching Diploma in your consideration of sex equity for the CIS (and conference partners) Cross-Country Championships. I am writing in regards to the careful consideration of the discussion as it relates to cross-country races distances, not just for the women, but also for the men.

This letter follows a year later on the heels of the vote and discussion that was put forward by Steve Boyd, cross-country head coach of the Queen’s University team. Last year the coaches did vote ‘no’ in regards to changing the distance for the women’s cross-country race, they agreed to leave the championship race at 6K. In recent years there was also a vote put forward to the female athletes asking them what distance they would prefer to run; they voted to keep the distance at 6K.

One of the things I believe is missing in the conversation of sex equity and equal distances for cross-country is the discussion of the athlete as a whole. By this I mean, much of the discussion has centred upon the scientific facts about whether or not women can run the distance, but at no time in the conversation has anyone mentioned that these athletes they are discussing are student-athletes; and not just the women, the men are part of this student-athlete discussion.

I believe the word student is the first part of this ‘term’ because first and foremost, athletes who participate in the CIS are students. The CIS Vision states, ‘We inspire Canada’s next generation of leaders through excellence in sport and academics,’ supported by the values of student-athlete centered, excellence, teamwork, and ethically driven. The vision and values support the case that these are not only athletes, but primarily students.

At a minimum each student is required to be enrolled in the equivalent of three-course credits; “A student-athlete must be enrolled in a minimum of three (3) courses (minimum 9 credit hours or equivalent) in the term in which they are competing within CIS.” What this does not include is the hours of tutorials and/or labs, homework, preparation, etc; the total number of hours is much greater than nine. In addition, there are students who take the full course load (typically five) and students in professional schools (engineering, for example) who have much higher course demands.

Unlike professional athletes, students have diminished recovery due to the demands to complete course work and attend classes. Some athletes are also required to maintain part-time jobs throughout their academics, to help fund their education, which again diminishes recovery time. Another component of the student-athlete life is the social aspect of their education. Again, the social demands diminish recovery as well; and the social aspect, the sense of community, an athlete has during their undergraduate career is a vital part to the overall student-athlete experience. With regards to recovery, there are differences between how men and women recover. Men and women have dissimilar recovery; women requiring more recovery time compared to their male counterparts.

Irrespective of sex, when the distance is longer it is not just races that one must recover from, but the increased volume of training for these longer races. The race, and thus decision, should not be viewed in isolation; it is not just the race that should be discussed and voted on but the increased volume of training as well. Since like the longer races, recovery is increased when you increase the volume of training for the student-athlete. In addition, it is not just the recovery but a host of increased mental, physical and emotional demands.

At the undergraduate level most students are under 23. Particularly for mid-distance running, these are athletes that when they graduate hope to begin to run at the national and international level. The CIS infrastructure is intended to be, “at the highest level of many sports, used as an intermediate step between high school and club levels to an Olympic or professional level.” What follows is that the CIS is a natural stepping stone to Olympic and national level distances.

In 2017 the IAAF will run the women’s and men’s races at the same distance, 10K. If the CIS is to be a pathway to these events, would it not make sense to run a distance between what is run in high school and what is run at the IAAF for both the men and women? As part of the pathway to get here, the distance should not be the equivalent of the IAAF but shorter. It is worth noting that historically the IAAF used to run both long course and short course cross-country; the short course was 6K. (Editor’s note: Short course was 4K.) Perhaps this is an opportunity for the CIS to learn from the past and bring back a viable option that could make sense for all middle distance athletes.

At the university level, the World University Championships (FISU) have historically been approximately 6K and 10K, for women and men, respectively. Athletics Canada has chosen to run distances at their championships to match the distance of the IAAF to select the best team possible; it would seem that this logic is sound and a good example to follow.

One final thought as it relates to cross-country distances. In the Canada Sport for Life document, under the stages of development, the opportunity to improve speed occurs in the younger years of one’s athletic life. Running longer distances in cross-country is contradictory to this, since the longer the distance would mean more aerobic training versus speed training.

Possible solutions:

– Leave the distances as they are (6K for women, 10K for men)
– Have equal distances for men and women (Options could include anything between 6K and 10K, though preferably less than 10k so the CIS can be a pathway as stated above).
– Have two distances that both men and women could both run. Instead of changing the distances you could open up both races and have men run 6K and women run 10K. Awards could be separate for men and women in each of these races. Teams awards could be done in by scoring teams of three people instead of four, (although still allow seven to participate, this would allow for the maximum participation and growth of the sport).

I ask that before any decisions are made that the following be considered:

1. Take a poll from the student-athletes regarding distance. In the past only the women were surveyed, this time it is imperative to survey the men.
2. The survey should not simply ask the women if they would like to move to a longer distance. Why are we not asking the men if they would like to run a shorter distance? Survey options could include options for both sexes between 6K and 10K.
3. Conduct more research, not only on the physical impacts of the race but the student-athlete as a whole. Research could include topics such as recovery (mental and physical), but also holistic health and wellness as it relates to the athlete.
4. I urge you to think about this holistically, to not just think of the cross-country race in a silo, but to see the whole picture. The student, the athlete, the whole person.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.


Sasha Gollish
P.Eng., M.Eng., PhD candidate
Advanced Coaching Diploma Graduate