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Victoria Coates says her athlete development was hindered by sport’s gender inequality

Victoria Coates speaks out about how discrepancy in race distances between university men and women hindered her development (photo: Maxine Gravina).

Victoria Coates

One of the most-talked about subjects in Canadian cross-country in the past year has been the glaring discrepancy in race distances between men and women. At the university level, known as the CIS system, men continue to run 10K and women run 6K.

Last year, a motion put forward by Queen’s University coach Steve Boyd to equal race distances was rejected by coaches at the 2015 Canadian university cross-country championships. The international level implemented identical race distances for the senior men and senior women in 2017 and forward. Junior men continue to run 2K more than the women at the world cross-country championships.

RELATED: The full backstory on last year’s distance vote.

Recently, former Ontario university cross-country champion and standout runner Victoria Coates spoke out about how the lack of distance events in the Canadian university system (CIS) hindered her athlete development. The now-graduated runner, who attended McMaster before moving to Queen’s in Kingston, Ont., has not seen the same success as she has stepped up in distance following graduation.


Two years have passed since Coates exhausted her eligibility in the university system and she says that only recently has she become comfortable running 10Ks. She plans to run a half-marathon this fall.

RELATED: Op-Ed: It’s time for change.

Coates told Canadian Running that she would like to see the women move up to the 10K distance. Some have argued this is a good option because there is no true long-distance event in Canadian university sport for women. After university, runners who continue to race competitively may transition to road racing, which is typically 5K at the shortest.

Men run 10K in CIS cross-country, women run 6K. The longest available option during university track is 3,000m.

To express her concerns, Coates sent a letter to the Athletics Ontario head office in early September. In the letter, she addresses the discrepancy in distance at the Ontario open cross-country championships. The women run 6K and the men run 10K, identical to the distances offered in the Canadian university system, despite the meet being an open championship. Bantam boys and girls run the same distance and midget boys run 1K more than midget girls. From there, the distance gap increasingly widens.

The letter Coates sent to Athletics Ontario

“To Athletics Ontario staff and the Athletics Ontario Cross-Country Championship hosts:

My name is Victoria Coates and I am an Athletics Ontario member. I am writing to express my full support of Leslie Sexton’s letter (editor’s note: see the transcript here) in which she requested that Athletics Ontario and the AO XC host organizing committee work towards gender parity in cross-country distances at the Athletics Ontario Championships this year. I have seen this letter circulating online on Trackie, Facebook, and Canadian Running magazine, and while I’m not someone who normally gets involved in online discussions, this is something that I cannot remain silent on.

Throughout high school and most of university, I never gave much thought to the fact that I was racing shorter distances than my male peers. It wasn’t until the decision by the OUA and CIS to increase the championship distances for women from 5K to 6K, that I first began to recognize the inequality that exists in cross-country. Why was it that women raced the same distances as men on the track and the road, but not in cross-country? Why had I been running 5K since I was 16-years-old, while the men’s distance had progressed to 10K? It took me about seven years of competitive cross-country running to really question the evident gender inequality in our sport. I am certain that other girls and boys participating in cross-country are unconsciously forming opinions about the physical capabilities of girls and women based on the persistent gender disparity in cross-country running.

Upon finishing my OUA and CIS eligibility, I started focusing on road racing. My results in the 10K did not match the level I had reached in the 5K. Having never raced a distance longer that 6K, it took me a while before I got used to racing the 10K. This transition period was something I didn’t see many of my male peers contend with who had been given the opportunity to race 10K cross-country for years. As a result of the gender disparity in racing distances that I had experienced throughout my collegiate career, my development as an athlete was hindered.

Over the past few weeks, I have been planning out my fall season of racing. I penciled in the dates for both the provincial and national cross-country championships. Knowing that the senior women will race 10k at the Canadian Championship this year in accordance with the changes to the IAAF World Championship distances, like Leslie, I was disappointed to learn that the AO Championship will continue to limit the senior women to 6K. The senior men will run 10k at both championship meets, but the women will not be given the same opportunity.

In response to Leslie’s letter, Sharon Stewart (2016 AO XC meet director), commented on Facebook that “We need to respect the fact that AO does have a process in place for changes to the Policies and Procedures. The last Championship was November 2015, and it is unfortunate that this concern was not raised a little sooner, to allow some time for the discussion and process to effect change in a timely manner for this year”. As leaders of the Athletics Ontario organization and its championship race, it is disappointing that you did not ‘raise this concern’ yourselves. I urge you to adjust your typical process and work towards gender parity for the 2016 championship meet.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Victoria Coates”

Coates has not heard back from Athletics Ontario, the province’s governing body for athletics, as of Sept. 10 after sending the email letter on Sept. 3.