‘You run like a girl’ has literal implications for female high school runners who want to compete

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Yes, they run like girls – strong, focused, athletic – but that they are girls is reason enough for the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) to mandate that their cross-country competition distances be shorter than that of boys the same age.

The OFSAA – which organizes and sanctions championships for most major sports in Ontario schools – maintains that in all age categories, high school girls should run 2000 metres less than boys during competitions:

Midget Girls, 3000 metres versus Midget Boys, 5000 metres;
Junior Girls, 4000 metres versus Junior Boys, 6000 metres;
Senior Girls, 5000 metres versus Senior Boys, 7000 metres.

Shannon Marshall is a senior member of the Huntsville Hoyas cross-country running team. She enjoyed running in elementary school and didn’t think she was good at team sports, so in grade nine she joined the high school’s cross-country team and has been training and competing ever since.

She calls the OFSAA ruling strange. “In a lot of other places, like the States, girls and boys run the same distance. But here, grade 12 girls run the same distance as grade nine boys. A lot of the time, grade 12 girls are going to be a lot more developed, a lot more muscular and have a lot better endurance than boys who are three years younger. It’s strange that they think we are on the same playing field, that we have the same physical ability. It’s kind of insulting.”

The fact that girls have a chance to run cross country is equity… We are also trying to promote cross country. The feeling is that we would lose girls. They have no desire to compete.Peter Morris, OFSAA Special Projects Coordinator in an interview with CTV Barrie

Marshall also takes offense at the assertion by an OFSAA official that girls don’t want to compete. “That’s quite the assumption to make – saying that girls don’t want to run. That’s not necessarily true.”

And she’s happy that her coach, Pierre Mikhail, is trying to change the status quo. “I think it’s really great. It all starts somewhere. Our coach has been making a lot of effort to try to change it. For our last race (at Arrowhead) he made it so that the boys and the girls ran the same distance. He’s writing a lot of letters and making a lot of phone calls and doing everything he can to change it. I really admire that because I think that’s the direction we need to be moving toward. Equality in sports is so important.”

A recent CTV Barrie story highlighted what Mikhail is up against. “The fact that girls have a chance to run cross country is equity,” said Peter Morris, OFSAA Special Projects Coordinator in the clip. Later he added, “We are also trying to promote cross country. The feeling is that we would lose girls. They have no desire to compete.” (The full video is included at the bottom of this post.) Those comments angered local female athletes.

“When I heard that I thought, ‘he didn’t just say that,'” said Kyra Watters, a local endurance coach and runner herself. “It was the most sexist, archaic comment. I had to listen twice to be sure I heard him right.”

It’s not a good message to be sending, said Watters, who has a more than 20-year career in the fitness industry. “Even if girls don’t want to run, to have these boxes checked for them with no justification other than that’s the way it’s always been done is ridiculous. We are always trying to encourage youth to get into sport. We know what it does for self-esteem and confidence. This works against that.”

Watters intends to work with Mikhail to create a video campaign with the girls he coaches and an accompanying petition to gather support for the need for change. “We need to show the OFSAA how many girls want this changed.”

Dr. Katherine Ahokas, a clinician at The SportLab and a competitive cross-country runner herself, doesn’t understand why the rule is still in place.

We have done our research on this. Really there’s no rhyme or reason to it. There’s no supportive data to say that girls can’t do this physically or mentally or emotionally or that it’s bad for health. I think it’s outdated and quite frankly atrocious.Dr. Katherine Ahokas, the Sportlab

High school cross-country runners - both female and male - compete alongside each other at the recent Huntsville Hoyas Invitational XC Race at Arrowhead Provincial Park. Photo courtesy The SportLab.

High school cross-country runners – both female and male – compete alongside each other at the recent Huntsville Hoyas Invitational XC Race at Arrowhead Provincial Park. Photo courtesy The SportLab.

“It definitely affects confidence for young girls. It’s basically saying that they can’t do it and that’s not a great attitude to start sport or progress in sport with. You’re not going to get the same drive and motivation if someone is saying, ‘no, you can’t do it.’”

Ahokas, along with members of the local running community, stands behind Mikhail’s effort to have OFSAA rules changed. “I think it’s fabulous that he’s taking the lead as the cross-country coach. I know that there are a lot of other members of the running community, both male and female, that are fully in agreement with him and support him in this.” Ahokas and other members of Muskoka Algonquin Runners (MARS), a Huntsville-based running club, have written letters to OFSAA. “We will continue to do this until we are on the same playing field, because we are.”

And as for the assertion that girls don’t like to compete? “That’s just laughable,” says Ahokas. “As a runner, I love competing and I think a lot of girls are the same way.”

Pierre Mikhail obviously feels the same way and he’s not giving up. The Huntsville Hoyas cross-country coach has been coaching at a high school level for eight years and has been trying to get the rule changed ever since. He was told last year, the only time before last week that he had received a reply, that OFSAA has discussed the issue in the past and have no plans to change it, but if Mikhail wanted to change it at a local level he could.

It’s sending a very overt, sexist message that tells girls ‘you can’t do it.’ Shame on (the OFSAA) for letting this happen.Pierre Mikhail, Huntsville Hoyas cross-country running coach

“I thought, okay if you’re not going to lead and you want the tail to wag the dog, that’s what we’re going to try,” said Mikhail. “Historically this rule was based on ignorance. We know so much more than we did 50 years ago. And there is no reason for this inequality in distances to continue.”

Some of the OFSAA arguments include fears that participation among girls will decrease if distances increase. Not true, said Mikhail. “There’s a lot of evidence that that’s not the case. Over the last 15 years, most US states have gone to equal distances and participation numbers have either stayed the same or gone up. And almost across the board female participation in cross-country is higher than boys. Yet you never hear anyone say ‘boys participation is down so maybe we should decrease the distance they have to run.’

“We should follow facts and the facts are that females can do endurance events. In fact, in ultra-endurance running, women are often much better performers than men.”

In nearby Ottawa region, the schools there voted to ignore the OFSAA rules to have boys and girls run the same distance, the only Ontario region to have done so. “I think that will be the catalyst for change because it’s going to go spectacularly well,” said Mikhail. In the meantime, he’ll continue writing letters, advocating for change, and hoping that it comes sooner rather than later.

“No matter how it started, if in 2015 girls are still not running the same distance as boys it’s sending a very overt, sexist message that tells girls ‘you can’t do it.’ Shame on (the OFSAA) for letting this happen.”

Watch the CTV clip here:

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3 Comments

  1. Joy Salmon Moon on

    When the women’s 800m was included in the Olympic Games for the first time at Amsterdam in 1928, several runners collapsed at the finish. Shocked at the public spectacle of women in such distress, the all-male Olympic establishment cut the event.
    Some eyewitness versions give even more dramatic accounts.
    “Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape,” wrote John Tunis of the New York Evening Post.
    Other newspapers preached that women would be desexed and their reproductive capability impaired by such “terrible exhaustion.” England’s Daily Mail affirmed that women who raced longer than 200m would age prematurely.
    In this Olympic year, and with the 40th anniversary of Title IX on June 23, it’s worth trying calmly to get this important story right. That 800m on Aug. 2, 1928, blocked women’s access to high-level distance racing for 30 years.
    Yet the versions I’ve quoted are almost pure fiction.
    There were nine women in the race, not 11. All nine are recorded as having finished. None dropped out. Film footage shows only one woman falling at the finish. Not “several,” which even supporters of women’s running accept without question.
    What bar was John Tunis drinking in while the race was being run? No wonder he went on to be a successful author of boys sports fiction.
    This is how the race really went.
    First, the final was run the day after the semis, which eliminated 16 competitors. That’s short recovery time for 800m. The day was warm. The field included two runners who’d been swapping the world record, Germany’s Lina (Karoline) Radke-Batschauer and Sweden’s Inga Gentzel. In one year, they had lowered it from 2:26.6 to 2:19.6. Add unknowns from Japan and Canada, and two surprising 17-year-olds who made the final. Radke-Batschauer and the two other German finalists carried extra pressure because their defeated nation was admitted to the games for the first time since 1912.
    The field of nine goes out fast in a long single file, led by Kinue Hitomi (Japan). Gentzel surges into the lead just after 200m and takes them through in 64.2. Radke-Batschauer moves in front with 300 to go, and holds on to win in 2:16.8 from Hitomi, 2:17.6, who just edges Gentzel, 2:17.8. All three were under the world record. Fourth was Jenny Thompson (Canada), age 17, 2:21.0. Then came Bobbie Rosenfeld (Canada) and Florence MacDonald (USA), no times known.
    For the much-sensationalized finish, if you own the excellent “Spirit of the Marathon” movie, you can study extracts from the footage. It cuts in as fourth and fifth finish. Radke-Batschauer is visible back-view inside the track, on her feet. Hitomi, also upright, is wrapped in a blanket. As the runners finish, they walk wearily or stand panting with hands on their hips. One–I think she is Canadian, probably Rosenfeld in fifth–is trying to beat the other Canadian in a close finish, leans at the line, and falls forward. She lies for two or three seconds, and is helped to her feet by officials and supported off.
    We don’t see the winner finish, but the photo of her and Hitomi shows no sign of exhaustion. Three seconds later, the film shows both on their feet. With the possible exception of the woman who leans and falls, no runner “collapses.” It all looks pretty much like the finish of any other hard race.
    The background history is worth pursuing. Alice Milliat of France was one of the great activist leaders in sports and women’s history. She led La Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale and in 1922 created the Women’s Olympic Games (later Women’s Games), which pressured the International Olympic Committee into including women’s track and field events in 1928. The devious IOC men agreed to 10 events, but slyly cut that to five, causing Britain to boycott the women’s events in protest.
    That was typical. It was luridly falsified versions, not the reality of what happened at the finish line in 1928, that enabled the IOC to keep the women’s 800m off the program until 1960.
    “The sensational descriptions are much exaggerated I can assure you,” wrote Harold Abrahams (Olympic 1924 gold medalist and long-time official and journalist).
    For comparison, watch on YouTube the finish of another race in those Amsterdam Olympics, the 5,000m–the iron men of track. Ville Ritola (Finland) wins in a hard finish, by 2 seconds. The defeated runner staggers to the infield, falls down, and lies there.
    It’s Paavo Nurmi.

    • Dawn Huddlestone on

      Thanks for the history, Joy. I knew some of it but not all. Looking back, it seems so silly that women were barred from athletics for those reasons. And yet echoes of it have persisted through to today.

  2. Hugh Mackenzie on

    Great article and further proof that women are just as competitive and able as men (if not more so)! Time to stop the discrimination.

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