Paula Radcliffe and Zola Pieterse on the cross-country distance debate

2 weeks ago
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Former world cross-country champions believe arguing about racing distances in the quest for gender equality should not be a priority

When it comes to debating whether men and women should run the same distance in cross-country races, it is hard to find two more authoritative voices than Zola Pieterse and Paula Radcliffe. Competing under her maiden name of Budd and representing England, Pieterse won the world cross-country women’s crown in 1985 and 1986. Running for Britain, Radcliffe took the world cross-country junior women’s gold in 1992 before claiming senior titles in 2001 and 2002.

Their view? In short, there are more important debates and issues to focus on, such as trying to get cross-country into the Olympics.

Pieterse believes that “instead of bickering about distances” the sport should be striving to improve its popularity in the face of competition from road and trail running, parkrun and obstacle racing.

Radcliffe, meanwhile, feels there should be more effort on creating racing and training opportunities for cross-country runners. In addition, she believes equalising the racing distances for men and women will potentially harm the development of elite athletes.

The debate has flared up in recent days after UK Athletics made it clear they wanted to push for gender equality when it comes to racing distances. This was followed by the release of an online survey with the governing body describing it as “consultation” but saying: “To ensure we sustain participation at all levels across the sport, nurture talent and develop athletes, this is the right time for the sport to achieve greater equality in cross country races and competitions. We know that we want to be a fair sport and achieve equity in cross country by giving all athletes access to the same opportunities (ie, distances).”

On gender equality in cross-country, Pieterse says: “I believe the wrong question is addressed. Cross country is in a precarious position as it has to compete against road racing, trail and the parkruns. Constant new challenges are arising, such as obstacle running, which is gaining popularity.”

The 54-year-old adds: “I believe cross country has to change and adapt to the times as many sports had to such as cricket and sevens rugby. The question we have to ask is how cross country can stay competitive in today’s world?

“I believe events such as the parkrun have led the way. Also, a return to the Olympic Games will benefit the sport tremendously.

“Instead of bickering about distances, rather aim to get cross-country back to the Winter Olympics. It will open the Winter Games to many countries who cannot compete.”

Radcliffe says: “Zola’s absolutely right – I would love to see cross-country have its rightful place in the Olympics – whether that’s Winter or Summer Games.”

The 47-year-old was particularly frustrated to see cross-country fail in its ambition to be included in the Paris 2024 Olympics, especially as she was part of the working group trying to get the sport into the Games.

On the topic of equalising racing distances for men and women, Radcliffe says: “It could have huge repercussions for the elite side which I don’t think are understood by the people who are dealing with it. I think they are trying to be politically correct and going for gender equality but not actually thinking about the performance side.

“I don’t see any elites asking for this change to be made. And I’ve not heard of elites being asked. It’s also being pushed in, but I don’t think we’ve even got an endurance manager in place yet (at UKA). So do the people who are pushing this through actually understand elite cross country?”

Indeed, UKA is currently interviewing candidates for the head of endurance role. In addition, its survey has been criticised due to it seemingly arriving at a conclusion before any responses arrive. Mara Yamauchi, for example, a 2:23 marathoner and former world cross competitor, has described it as “not fit for purpose”.

READ MORE: UKA reopens cross-country distance debate

Radcliffe continues: “For me, the current women’s cross-country distance is a better distance and it brings together runners from 1500m and even sometimes 800m through to the marathon. You don’t get this on the men’s side. You won’t get Nick Willis turning out in the world cross, for example, but you will get Faith Kipyegon running it.

“The women’s model has actually been better than the men’s, so to throw all that out in the name of gender equality for amateur runners who want to be able to run around a longer cross-country race, there is a danger that the elite side suffers.”

In recent years a group called ‘Run Equal’ has been formed to campaign for women and men to run the same distances in cross country events like the English National Cross Country Championships, where senior men run 12km compared to the women’s 8km. But Radcliffe says: “What the Run Equal people are asking for is the equivalent of parkrun over long distances where they can jump in a mixed race and run around but that won’t work on the elite level.”

Pieterse won her world titles in Lisbon and Neuchâtel on courses that were just short of 5km at a time when the senior men’s races were 12km. Radcliffe, meanwhile, won her titles in Ostend and Dublin on courses of just under 8km. In 2017 World Athletics, however, equalised the distances so that senior men and women now both race over 10km.

Paula Radcliffe wins her second senior Euro Cross title over 6.595km in Edinburgh in 2003. Photo by Mark Shearman

European Athletics has maintained the traditional distances, though, with males racing further than females across its three championship age categories. This is following a survey it carried out with its member federations in 2015 where the majority were in favour of keeping the current distances. Two thirds of the federations who voted asked for the introduction of a mixed relay, incidentally, which was subsequently added to the programme.

Pieterse agrees with the stance of World Athletics, saying: “The IAAF already ruled on a 10km for both men and women which I agree on.” But she adds: “However, nothing prevents organisers from hosting events with different distances at local level.”

Radcliffe simply thinks there is too much emphasis on the distance. “When did we ever get so hung up on making cross country dictated by distance? It should be in the range of 8-10km (for senior women) and make it a good distance to suit the course. So go for longer if the course isn’t challenging and shorter if the course is more challenging. But we shouldn’t have to hit an exact distance. Cross country shouldn’t be measured.”

Senior athletes aside, there is also a racing distances debate in the younger age groups. At the English Schools’ Championships, for example, males race significantly further than females.

But Radcliffe says: “I can’t say that I haven’t always had the opportunity to run cross country just as much as a boy has. And I actually had a better model growing up (in girls’ events). My brother stopped racing cross country because the races got a bit too long for him.”

Back in 1992, Radcliffe won the under-20 world title on a snowy Boston course that was only 4km in length whereas the junior men’s race was almost twice as far at 7.8km. “I would argue the middle ground of 5-6km would be better,” Radcliffe reflects.

“Since they made the junior women’s race longer, the European athletes have got even further behind. Before you even get into talking about age group manipulation, the African runners just mature earlier and that gap is only going to get bigger if you make those junior girls run further. So yes I did run a bit short (in Boston ’92) but taking it beyond 6km is too far.”

More important, Radcliffe feels, is improving racing opportunities for runners. “When I was growing up I could have raced twice every weekend if I’d wanted – and certainly I could have raced every weekend – but those opportunities aren’t there now. Let’s work out how to get more opportunities to race – or even to get out and train at the minute – before we start fiddling with distances for no good reason.”

READ MORE: No cross country at Paris 2024

For youngsters, shorter racing distances can be a good thing too. “When you’re growing up racing cross country as a youngster it’s a skill and the more often you do the races, the more you learn,” says Radcliffe.

“There’s a technique to running on mud. There’s a technique to running downhill. There’s a technique to jumping over obstacles. So the shorter the races are, the more you can learn, because you can’t run a 10km cross-country race every weekend if you’re a young girl.

“It’s not right and it will affect your development. We need to look at what is going to enable the kids to physiologically develop into great cross-country runners without harming or overloading them too soon – male or female.”

Was Radcliffe even aware of the racing distances when she was younger? “Not really. They were very arbitrary,” she replies. “We’d walk the course and run the race and you would never look at your time and weren’t often even aware of how far you were running. You only simply knew that when you moved into the next age group above, you’d be running a bit further.”

As for solutions, Radcliffe says holding a mixed race over 12km toward the end of the programme could be an idea. It might be similar, for instance, to the ‘mass race’ she took part in herself at the 2019 World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus.

“If you really want to satisfy the Run Equal people,” she suggests, “then put on a mixed 12km race at the end of the day and,” she adds, “maybe look at whether the younger boys are running too far.

“However there are reasons why the under-17 boys run as far as the junior (under-20) girls. There are reasons why the under-15 boys run as far as the under-17 girls. It’s because of the testosterone differences. Although,” she continues, “when it comes to under-13s, I can’t see why they can’t run the same distance.”

On the Aarhus experience, she remembers: “It was great fun and everyone ran together. They did it brilliantly and you could peel off after various distances if you wanted.”

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