Some More Equal Than Others?

The Trail Sisters discuss gender-based team-size differences at the World Mountain Running Championships.

By on December 9, 2015 | Comments

From Pam:
In early November, I was killing time scrolling through Facebook and noticed that several people had posted a link to a petition or published a post stating that they had signed the petition for women’s equality at the World Mountain Running Championships. Were you two aware that the men’s teams are allowed to field six athletes whereas the women are limited to four?

From Gina:
Yes! I saw that, too! I’ve known about the difference in team size since 2008. I remember trying to make the U.S. Mountain Running Team, but was always a few spots off. It definitely irked me that they only took four women and six men. If the women had those two extra spots, maybe I would have had a better shot to represent the USA… Well, that and more hard work.

From Liza:
I saw that Sage Canaday had posted something about it, but my two year-old grabbed a jar of Bag Balm and started rubbing it into her hair just as I clicked on the link, so I didn’t get to read the petition. Why do the women only get four slots?

From Pam:
As the Trail Sisters have discussed previously, women make up a smaller proportion of the trail running community. While in the U.S., this is no longer the case for many of the shorter-distance trail races, in many countries, there are still a lot fewer women on the trails. The smaller team requirements for women were set up to allow more countries to participate on the team level. But women’s participation has come a long way since the World Mountain Running Championships were started in 1985 and this year the women’s team competition had almost as many countries competing as the men (16 versus 18).

From Liza:
So who decides that the magic number is four? Or who would review that number? And could we bring six runners, but only have four score?

From Gina:
Ah! Nancy Hobbs and the USATF Mountain/Ultra/Trail Sport Council (MUT) has all the beta. I dropped her a note and here’s her response.

“The World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) has rules and a constitution regarding this item. In order for any change to occur (there will be discussions in January at our meetings in Monaco by the way), the [WMRA] Council must approve and then the full [WMRA] Congress must approve. There has been discussion about equal distance and equal size in the past and surveys, both at the world champs and at the European champs with interesting (and varied) results. What could occur is a team size of five men, five women with three to score (perhaps an option), juniors same. If a change goes into effect it wouldn’t be until 2017 or 2018 at earliest and also affects the contracts for the location who stages the event with the support of their federation.”

As for the USA bringing an additional two women even though they couldn’t race or score, Nancy explained, “For the six men, the top four score. Of the four women, the top three score. These are the rules at present and we adhere to the rules via our federation USATF, and send a team of the size indicated by the rules.”

From Pam:
Yeah, I was aware of those rules, but the U.S. Women are really trying to push to get the WMRA Council in January to vote for equal women’s teams. The Council recently approved equal representation for the men’s and women’s junior teams.

The IAU 100k and 24-Hour World Championships only require three scorers for the men and the women, but countries are allowed to have up to six runners for each team. Keeping the number of women’s scorers at three may alleviate any fears of not getting enough countries with full women’s teams.

The biggest issue for all the world championships has been funding and I wonder if the male runners would enthusiastically support equal women’s representation if it means losing a men’s spot (which would allow for the number of funded athletes to stay the same). What do you two think?

From Liza:
Well, I guess more than anything, I’m curious what effect a petition from mostly U.S. runners can have on the Congress of the World Mountain Running Association. I can’t find a list of the member nations, but it looks like there are at least 40. What countries would be swayed by a U.S. push for parity? Or is the goal of the petition to have the voting Council members to back the proposal? I think your point is a good one, Pam. If countries have to drop a male spot in order to bring more females, will they vote for the change? And would there be a negative impact for less-wealthy member countries?

I support team parity, and the petition is valuable because it brings attention to the issue. Like I said, I had no idea the teams were different sizes. Heck, I didn’t even know what WMRA stood for before we started talking about the petition. (The Washington Midget Racing Association–think small cars–and a public radio station come up long before the World Mountain Running Association on a “WMRA” Google search.) And now I’ve actually read through the Monaco-headquartered organization’s constitution. (“Article 1.7 WMRA shall strive to ensure that no racial, religious, political or other kind of discrimination be allowed in mountain running and take all practicable measures to stop such discrimination.”) And I made time to read the petition. But how many runners from how many countries would have to sign it to effect change? And does sponsorship money come into play at all in all this?

From Gina:
Pam and Liza, all good points! When it comes to funding and equalizing team numbers, it makes sense to me to have it divided equally across the board. I’m not sure if all the U.S. national teams (24-hour, 100k, etc.) are 100% covered by the USATF. If they are not, and there are six men and four women on the U.S. Mountain Running Team roster, is more funding provided to the men because of their two extra members? Additionally, are there doctors, trainers, or coaches who attend? I understand having one team liaison to organize and help out, but how many other funded, non-racing representatives attend? I think that if funding puts any type of strain on the number of athletes competing, maybe we should look at how the funding dollars are being spent.

Liza, I have a feeling the petition won’t do anything but create noise. That noise is definitely needed and appreciated (this article was triggered by that noise), but I think the WMRA Congress will still vote the way they see fit. Maybe you are right, Liza, that there is some number of signatures that can create change, though. This is a bit of an extreme example, but what if participating nations and associate members decided to withdraw from these events until the WMRA agreed on equal opportunities? Actions speak louder than words! If the USA were to pull out, that could potentially affect sponsorship dollars, and if money talks (which it normally does), we might just see a change. Just a thought!

From Pam:
No major change happens immediately. Ideas take time to gather steam and gain support. A petition from a single nation is unlikely to change the outcome of a multi-nation council. But it is part of the process of moving toward change as it can get people talking and make people more aware of the issue, and of mountain running in general. I don’t doubt that the founding members had good intentions when originally setting up disparate teams. A boycott seems a little extreme to me and I think it also penalizes the athletes who would be able to go.

Hopefully, just by talking about it and sharing opinions and even signing petitions, the World Mountain Running Association Council will make appropriate changes to fit the current state of men’s and women’s mountain running.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How important do you feel it is to have equal men’s and women’s team sizes at world-championships events? Do you think the present differences in team sizes represent actual gender discrimination, or do think they are a product of the WMRA’s effort to get more women to race at the championship level?
  • Male mountain runners, how would you feel if the WMRA voted to equalize team sizes and this meant decreasing the men’s team size in order to do so?
Trail Sisters
Trail Sisters is a group of three women, each with unique opinions, ideas, and attitudes toward all things trail and ultrarunning. Pam Smith is a mom, physician, and lover of running who lives in Oregon. Liza Howard is a mom and 100-mile specialist from Texas. Gina Lucrezi is a Colorado-based short-distance speedster exploring the realms of ultrarunning.