How the commentary at the Canadian track championships proved that gender inequality still exists in distance running

It's not enough to give girls and women the opportunity to run long, we have to encourage them as well

Brogan MacDougall
Brogan MacDougall
Photo: Michael Doyle.

By Leslie Sexton

To the casual observer, it seems we have made great progress towards gender equality in athletics. Women now get to race 10K cross-country at our national championships and international competitions– just like the men do! While this was certainly a win, equalizing race distances between men and women isn’t enough if those in the sport continue to believe that young women are more fragile than their male peers. We have work to do. As coaches, athletes, and fans of the sport, we need to work to change our attitudes towards women in distance running. This is particularly true for young, impressionable women whose decisions could be shaped by the way they’re treated. We are still treating young women as though they’re less capable than their male counterparts because of outdated notions. It shouldn’t need to be said that such messages undermine their confidence, diminish their self-worth and impede their development as distance runners. 

Canadian Track Championships commentary

I bring this up after a recent incident caught my attention. Some of these harmful attitudes were on display during the live webcast of the Under-20 Girls 3,000m at the Canadian Track & Field Championships in Ottawa. Before the race, the announcers remarked that one of the top-seeded competitors was sixteen years old (born in 2000) and had raced the 5,000m this season, as well as the Canadian 5K road championships last fall. This led to one of the commentators expresses concern over the athlete’s development:

“Sport Canada has established some guidelines for young athletes, how you should develop athletes. The way she’s being developed is a little unusual. We’ve seen that in the past and we really hope she’s well guided. Her coach is training her properly because the guidelines are just to prevent burn-out early on. So we’ve seen girls in the past… could not really keep going after that so injuries started to happen, and so that’s why they put in those guidelines…”

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What about the guys?

The U20 Boys 5,000m followed, at which point the commentators didn’t express similar concerns. Perhaps the announcers didn’t realize that there was a competitor also born in 2000. Not to mention, this boy’s race was longer. Instead, the tone shifted massively. The commentators proclaimed that the competitors have bright futures in distance running ahead of them. They went on to predict that the athletes would even qualify for future national teams.

So what do I take from this? I’ll put it bluntly. These comments not only show a blatant double standard in this sport but they also demonstrate the underlying sexism in junior athlete development. Until recently, coaches and administrators restricted women to competing in shorter distances in cross-country. I’ll add that these commentators felt the paternalistic need to protect girls from running too far on the track and the roads. This is part of a frustrating trend in which terms like “long term athlete development” and warnings of the need to prevent “burnout” get thrown around in an attempt to justify holding girls back from from having the same opportunities as their male peers.

What’s the deal with the Long Term Athlete Development model?

Athletics Canada has indeed set out a Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model for coaches to follow so that their athletes can continue in the sport to reach their full potential. The LTAD model provides guidelines for training, competition, and recovery for the various stages of an athlete’s development. It cautions against specializing in an event too early in case an athlete gets injured during his or her most significant growth spurt. For girls, this is generally between the ages of 11 and 15. Boys, on the other hand, begin and end this phase later on. For them, the crucial period is between 12 and 16. (So why no concern for them at track championships?) 

Once past those stages, in the age ranges of 15 to 17 for girls and 16 to 18 for boys, the athletes are encouraged to specialize and increase their training volume. The LTAD doesn’t suggest a cap on race distance to prevent burnout. It does offer guidelines on frequency of training sessions that are appropriate to each age group. It also gives recommendations on the frequency of competitions, length of a season and a suggested ratio of practices to competitions. In my observations, more cases of burnout as a result of excessive racing (of ANY distance), higher frequencies of intense training, or early sport specialization. To express concern that a 16-year-old 5K runner will burn out is to misunderstand the LTAD model.

Having explained all this, I’ll point out that misguided notions that girls will burn out if they run the same distances as boys doesn’t support the LTAD model, it contradicts it. It also discourages these athletes from trying anything beyond middle distance running. 

Enter Athletics Canada and the IAAF

Both Athletics Canada and the IAAF has established that 5,000m is an appropriate distance for the age group in question. Girls in the U20 age category contest the 5,000m both at the Canadian Track and Field Championships and in international age class competitions such as the NACAC U20 Championships and the IAAF World U20 Championships. Most of the young women who raced the 3,000m at the championships will race 6K this fall at the Canadian Cross-Country Championships. The commentators didn’t express concern over teenagers covering 6K despite the typically challenging terrain of championship cross-country courses.

While I’m sure the announcers of the webcast would deny being sexist, these comments clearly display a double standard. Mohammed Ahmed, who won the men’s 5,000m that evening and placed 4th in Rio, stated in his post-race interview that he had fond memories of racing in Ottawa, having raced a 5,000m there when he was 15. I have to wonder if anyone was worried about him racing long distance on the track back then. I worry that a teenage girl with the talent of Ahmed is being hindered in her advancement right now because she’s being told she shouldn’t be racing 5K in case she burns out. 

The paternalistic notion that young women are fragile and need to be protected is an attitude I’ve also seen in some coaches. We’ve made progress towards gender equality in athletics in that longer distance are available to women. In Canada, there continues to be far fewer young women than men racing these distances competitively. Do we want to improve the depth of women’s running in this country? If so, we need to not just give them to opportunity to run long, but to also encourage them to actually do it.

This op-ed was written by Leslie Sexton, a Canadian elite distance runner and coach of young girls and women. Sexton is an advocate for females in sport– particularly distance running– and has written about gender issues in the past. This essay was written in collaboration with Steve Weiler, Sexton’s coach and partner.