[This article first appeared on the xcottawa web site. Used by permission. Thanks XC Ottawa!]
"Women: 10k Skate, Men: 15k Skate. Why the difference?"
The above might be a typical excerpt from a race notice. It's become so normal to see this that we don't tend to question it. But why not? Other sports certainly have. Athletics, perhaps most notably, has moved to make running distances the same for men and women. I think people would be taken aback, for instance, if men raced 42.2kms and women did only 25kms.
For a long time I have wondered about why girls and women race shorter distances than boys and men in the sport of cross-country skiing. One recent event that prompted me to think about this a bit more was the last time that the Vasaloppet was designated as a World Cup. While the men raced the traditional 90kms, the women's "World Cup" event was shortened to something like 60kms ( I forget exactly, but something like that). This seemed particularly backward (and arguably, even insulting) given how tough I know the World Cup women are, and how fast the top women in the full distance typically complete the event.
From my point of view, these discrepancies are a reflection of a backward time in sport in general, a time when people actually believed that somehow women were not physically tough enough to subject themselves to the same sporting rigors as men.
It's relatively easy to blow that argument cleanly off the table. I won't bother to waste much time on it here. There is no doubt that women could very reasonably race all the same distances that men do without the slightest problem. In fact, they basically do race all the same distances as men do, but just not on the same days.
Another argument that is sometimes made is that because it takes women slightly longer to complete the same distance, they should race shorter distances. There is some acceptable logic to that argument. For instance, if we were to structure race distances so that men's and women's races actually finished in the same amount of time, this argument would make a certain degree of sense. Clearly, however, this is not the rationale for the current discrepancies in race distances. Women are only slightly slower than men on average, yet the standard race distance differences are, relatively speaking, huge (30k vs. 50k, for example).
Personally, I would say that the differences in finishing times between men and women over the same distance are so negligible that it wouldn't really be worthwhile to bother using this approach. It would be much simpler to simply have men and women race the same distances. This would certainly result in having finishing times much closer than we do at present. I think that there is also some symbolic value in having men and women race the same distances.
Occasionally I have heard people say that, regardless of reason, the sport has evolved such that the established differences are part of an accepted tradition that people don't generally want to tamper with.
I suppose that thinking is o.k. as far as it goes, but I would hope that we respect our sport's integrity a bit more than that. In other words, if the thinking behind the tradition is fundamentally flawed, it would seem to make sense to be willing to adjust the tradition. The sport has made all kinds of other compromises to tradition for reasons that are arguably less strong than the ones for equalizing distances.
One aspect that I do find odd is that when I bring this up with women racers (admittedly, hardly a scientific review), most of them don't really seem to be bothered very much. I can understand that they aren't. They have their hands full trying to race. They also point out, rightly, that race distances are largely arbitrary anyway. For example, we could also decide to shorten all the men's events thanks to the same logic, and nobody is pushing for that. Generally, women seem to be happy racing the distance they race, and men seem to be happy with their distances.
This is, I will guess, the reason that we haven't seen any changes in this regard. I think that the likely path to having the race distances changed would probably involve women competitors and organizers pushing the issue onto the discussion table. While I won't prescribe action in this regard, I would say that if you are someone who wanted to make an effort in this direction, you certainly have some good arguments in your favor.