It’s no secret that my friend Sara Slattery and I have been writing a women’s running book this last year and a half. One of the similarities between training for a marathon and writing a book is that you talk about it—a lot!
It’s been an inspiring project to work on. Speaking with women distance runners from across so many decades has me realizing how much the sport has changed, and will continue to change. It makes me wonder where we’ll be in another 50 years and has me evaluating where we are in this moment.
Talking with the women, it stood out that opportunities, representation, support, and media coverage were key factors to the advancement of the sport. A lot of that’s still true today, even after such structures have been built from the ground up by these ladies.
Women distance runners in the 1960s and ’70s had to expend a lot of time and energy creating the race, seeking training information and coaches, or fighting for their spot in a men’s race. The sport was only for those bold enough to shed the comfortable cloak of “normal” and run around in improvised running gear like bathing suit tops and jean shorts, with other female teammates few and far between.
Women’s gear didn’t exist, women’s teams didn’t exist, and role models for women in sport were sparse. But the primordially programmed drive to run and all the physical and mental benefits that come from it were still there in half the population, buried like a secret that only some women were brave (or weird!) enough to acknowledge.
It was powerful to hear Jacqueline Hansen talk about how she started the push for including the women’s distance events, from 5,000 meters to the marathon, in the Olympics because she wanted to compete in an Olympic marathon. (She held the world record at one point.) In the end, it took longer than her running career to get that accomplished. She watched as Joan Benoit Samuelson won gold in the event she lobbied for, and was proud of her and the wave of running it helped strengthen in the U.S.
It was equally eye-opening to hear how Cheryl Bridges held the first cross-country scholarship in the U.S. for a woman and connect that to all that her daughter Shalane Flanagan went on to do in a sport where she had many college scholarships to choose from by the time she was 18, as well as the added chance to run professionally afterward. Madeline Mims told us how a Kenyan official came up to her years after her career and said watching her win gold in Mexico City enlightened them to the athletic potential of the women back home. (Kenyan women are doing pretty well in the Olympic medal department now!)
These women were truly blazing the path they ran on as they went, and it wasn’t really that long ago. They all remembered much of the story as if it were yesterday, and are still involved in the running world today.
Some progress, some problems
This has me considering where we are now. How are we doing? In a way, it’s relative.
Women now make up 60 percent of road race participation in the U.S. Thanks to Title IX, there are hundreds of scholarship opportunities for women every year. There are women-only races that thrive, and equal prize money at major races. Compared to what the pioneers of the sport faced, things are great. You can become a marketable and well-paid female athlete today. We are only recently making strides in studying and sharing information around training through a woman’s changing physiology, but at least it’s common a conversation now. Motherhood, which was at one point considered a career-ending event, is even being supported in the professional sports world. My experience coming up in the sport was, overall, one of empowerment, which isn’t something every woman can say.
That said, there have been moments where I felt like womanhood butted up against the way the sport operated, rather than flowed with it. (You can hear more about that in Meg Waldron’s documentary You Go Girl, which comes out in a few months.)
If you zoom out, it’s clear we still have a lot of progress to make in the women’s sports world, including in track and field. For all those women’s scholarships we protect, U.S. men are still awarded $133 million more in athletic scholarships per year. As for individual contracts and appearance fees, in the running world those aren’t disclosed, so we’ll never know of potential patterns of gender disparity there. We do have great role models in the sport, but it’s tough to connect them to young runners when women’s sports stories only make up 4 percent of U.S. sports media coverage.
I do think track and field likely has better parity in coverage because we compete at meets together, but I couldn’t find exact numbers on that. (Then again, there’s this stat, so maybe not all equal coverage is...equal: “Television networks even choose different shots and angles for at least female beach volleyball players (4) and track and field athletes (26), exploiting their bodies.”) Also, for most of the recent past, many of the media images and advertisements show only a certain narrow demographic of female runners, limiting the concept of representation to thin white women.
As for leadership in the sport, only 17 to 26 percent of NCAA D1 track and field or cross country programs are headed by women coaches, earning them an “F” grade when compared to other sports’ percentages of female head coaches in a review by the Tucker Center For Research On Girls & Women In Sport. So, that this was even a viable career option for me is a huge improvement, but we aren’t in the anchor leg of this relay by any stretch.
The road ahead
In the next 50 years, I’d love to see the sport change as much as it did in the last 50.
I’d love to see high-quality media coverage of not just track and field, but all women’s sports in primetime hours. I’d like to see sports shows where all the pundits are women talking about women’s sports. (Call us, ESPN!). We see the seeds of this with self-started media like Burn It All Down or the recent hit Track Girl Summer with Olympians Natasha Hastings and Kori Carter.
I’d love to see more diverse and creative media and advertising that doesn’t focus largely on sex appeal, because that’s limiting for a lot of reasons. I’d love to see more women in leadership positions in the sports industry. That means more women at the helm of major athletic brand companies, as race directors, as athletic directors of universities, and as sports marketing department leaders. I’d love to see more women as sports agents and other positions dealing with money in the sport. I’d love to see those positions better adapted to a woman’s lifestyle in ways that welcome and encourage them to stay there and climb. What do you want to see?
I’ll end this overview with a favorite Kathrine Switzer story. After being run off the road by a woman in a car while she was training, Kathrine realized that her mission is to encourage other women like the one who reacted negatively to her running to try the sport themselves. She realized then that so many women don’t know running can make them feel, as Kathrine puts it, “strong and powerful and free.” She changed many lives by encouraging that so publicly. I get floored considering how that was a revolutionary idea at that time.
I think we are on the step beyond that. We are aware of the power of the sport, and participating now is normal. But it’s no longer enough to be allowed into the sports world. It’s time to take part in ruling it. I hope that’s normalized in the next 50 years. I think that’s the baton we’re working around the curve now.