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
“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: