Gender Inequality in Sport of Track and Field

by Alex Hislop

The discrimination of women and the reaffirmation of gender roles based on women’s bodies in the sport of track and field is a contemporary example of oppression of women in sport. This primarily stems from male coaches, officials, and other authoritative figures telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies. There are many modern examples of women being told by male coaches and governing bodies that they need to be skinnier, have less testosterone, or run shorter distances. This problem is historical and long-lasting -- most of the inequality today is caused by events or ideas that date from long ago but aren’t questioned enough in today’s world. I argue that the roots of injustice in track and field are based on fake science and outdated ideas. The restrictions put on women by men can cause physical, mental and financial pain for women track and field athletes. They can develop eating disorders, mental illnesses like depression, and can even be phased out of the sport if they are not “good enough,” which leads to dropped sponsorships and financial hardship. The gap in modern men’s and women’s track and field is generated by unfair historical bias, perpetuated by male figures of authority in the sport, with women in the sport left to deal with the consequences. 

Gender inequality has been woven into the fabric of the sport of track and field since its very beginning. Like many other sports, track was used as a way to reaffirm male dominance on and off the playing field. However, the scientific backing and reasoning for keeping female track stars in the shadows for so long is extremely questionable and even laughable in some cases. Nevertheless, issues about gender politics still bloom in the sport today from the seeds of bias that have been planted throughout track and field’s long history. Today, it seems normal for a woman to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon; more than half of all marathon runners in the US are women. However, it was not too long ago that women were banned from running a marathon altogether. The first woman did not officially compete in the Boston Marathon (one of the most famous marathons in the world) until 1972 (Mather 1), which is quite recent when you consider that men have been running the Boston Marathon since 1897 (History.com Nov 2009). As stated earlier, over 50% of today’s marathoners are women, which begs the question: why were women excluded from this event for so long? The answer that women were given for the first 75 years of marathon history was that women were too frail to run 26.2 miles and their bodies would break down before the finish. Others not backed up by any research claimed that a woman's uterus would fall out if she attempted to run a marathon, which led the Amateur Athletics Union to officially ban women from running over 1.5 miles (Hamilton, June 2018). Obviously, this unsubstantiated opinion has been debunked, if only based on the fact that over 13,000 women now run the Boston Marathon each year. Female participants even had a higher completion percentage than the men did in 2018 (“statistics” BAA.org). As you can see, women were banned from marathoning for over 75 years based on fake science that is comical to us today. This shows that male authority figures, such as the Boston Marathon race directors, wanted to keep women out of the sport not because they were afraid for their health, but because they feared women would be seen as equals.

One might think that running might be more equal in the present time, considering how many times women have proven that historical bias is untrue; this couldn’t be further from the truth. One very popular and contemporary example of prejudice in the sport of track and field is the case of Caster Semenya. Semenya is a multiple-time world champion in the 800m run, but her dominance and appearance has caused many people to advocate that she be kicked out of the sport for being too much like a man. Semenya has had to defend her identity in front of a jury many times since she burst onto the world running stage in 2009. She has been criticized for naturally producing more testosterone than a normal woman. This has become a problem for her because the I.A.A.F, the governing body of track and field, claims that there is a definite link between testosterone levels and performance. This led them to create a testosterone limit for women if they wanted to compete. If they were above this limit, then they would be forced to take pills that would lower their naturally occurring levels of testosterone. However, any high level runner can tell you that there are many other factors besides testosterone that make a good runner. Things like nutrition, coaching, lactate threshold, VO2 max, and mental toughness, all of which come through hard work and knowledge of the sport (“The problem…”Vox). These are some reasons why it is unfair to ban someone from competition just because they were born with a perceived advantage. We don’t ban Michael Phelps from swimming just because he has unnaturally wide feet and long arms which help him swim fast, right? So why would we ban someone from competing based on a hormonal advantage they were born with? The answer lies with the main source of gender inequality in the sport, which is that men are making decisions and rules about what women can and cannot do with their bodies. The I.A.A.F is the governing body that has the power to keep women out of the sport, but of the 26 members of the current board only 6 are women. So, this far majority male group is essentially regulating and restricting competitors to fit their idea of what a woman should look like and what qualities they should have, even if they are beyond the woman’s control. This is not the only example of a majority male governing body perpetuating gender roles in the sport today, however. Ever since women began competing in distance running events, they have been relegated to shorter distances than men. This was originally justified, again, by saying that women were too frail and weak to run the longer events. Unfortunately, this idea was further promoted in 1928, as several 800m competitors in this first ever women's Olympic distance race collapsed as they finished, (“The Fight…” Marathon Guide). However, the first 6 finishers all went under the previous world record!

This solidified bias against women in the eyes of the men in power, and the situation of women being forced to run shorter distances persisted for many years to come. One would think that with all the progress women runners have made over recent decades, they would be allowed to run the same distances as men, right? However, this is not the case, as per NCAA Cross Country rules women are never allowed to run over 6k, while men run 8k or 10k regularly. This is mind boggling when you think about all of the progress women have made on and off the track in recent years, but these almost century old ideas are still embedded in the fabric of the sport today. The reason for this continued bias becomes clearer when you look at the breakdown of the decisionmakers for NCAA Cross Country. The NCAA D1 Men’s and Women’s Track and Field and Cross Country Committee is only 33% female (“Division 1….” NCAA.com). Again we see a majority male group that makes rules for women that subtly reaffirm gender roles that have been present in the sport for decades.

Modern day female runners of all levels have to deal with the consequences that result from these prejudices in the sport. The most recent and relevant example of this came to light in a New York Times op-ed written by professional runner Mary Cain. Cain was one of the fastest female high school runners ever, shattering national records and winning race after race. When she received a call at the age of 16 from Nike Oregon Project, a pro running team coached by Alberto Salazar, she decided to turn pro right out of high school. When she arrived in Portland to train, Salazar and his all male coaching staff became convinced that Cain needed to lose weight in order to get faster. She was regularly shamed about her weight by the coaches, and it quickly caused her running career to go downhill. She was running so poorly because she was fully consumed by the idea that she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t light enough. Cain developed Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S) Syndrome as a result of pushing herself beyond her capabilities at a young age. RED-S caused her to lose her period for three years straight, and her extremely low estrogen levels made her bones unhealthy and frail, causing her to break a total of 5 bones in that three-year span. The effects of the mounting pressure on Mary Cain were not just physical. She described herself having suicidal thoughts and feelings of depression (Cain, Nov 2019). The final nail in the coffin for Cain was the financial trouble that she was in as a result of finally quitting the Nike Oregon Project. With no sponsor and no college degree, Cain was left in extreme financial hardship as a result of this system that was designed by men, for men. Cain is not the only one who has felt the effects of pressure put on young girls by male coaches and administrators; the number of eating disorders present on female high school running teams is growing steadily. These illnesses can leave girls with health problems like the ones Mary Cain described, but can also lead to mental problems such as depression and low self-esteem. The current system of training young girls is largely created by men, leaving female athletes with extreme mental, physical, and financial effects that often fly under the radar.

The gender gap between men and women in track and field today persists because of three main factors: historical bias based on fake science, male authority figures continuing the tradition of inequality, and the fact that women are left to deal with the physical, mental, and financial repercussions of a broken system. This falls under the larger theme of men setting the standard for what is acceptable for women to do with their bodies. Some males in power keep women athletes at bay in order to reaffirm the classic gender roles for women and to keep the male gender on top. To combat this in today’s track and field, we need to have truly equal male and female voices at the top of the sport. High school, college, and professional track and field decision-making boards need to have a more equal ratio of women to men. We also need more women working with female athletes; in most cases young women are coached in a system that is built by men and for men that can break down women’s bodies. There should be more acknowledgment that women are different from men, not inferior, but different. Having more female coaches, trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists in the sport would serve to benefit young girls who are trying to make their way up the running ladder. Progress has been made for female runners in recent decades, but there is still a very long way to go to close the gender gap in track and field.

Annotated Bibliography

Cain, Mary. “I Was the Fastest Girl in America, Until I Joined Nike.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/07/opinion/nike-running-mary-cain.html.

Elsey, Brenda, and Joshua H. Nadel. Futbolera a History of Women and Sports in Latin America. University of Texas Press, 2019.

“First Boston Marathon Held.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 24 Nov. 2009, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-boston-marathon-held.

Hamilton, E.L. “Until 1972, Women Were Prohibited from Running the Boston Marathon and the First Female to Complete Race Had to Hide in the Bushes before Starting.” The Vintage News, 29 June 2018, https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/12/03/boston-marathon/

Mather, Victor. “First Woman to Enter Boston Marathon Runs It Again, 50 Years Later.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Apr. 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/sports/boston-marathon-kathrine-switzer.html.

NCAA. “Division I Men's and Women's Track and Field and Cross Country Committee.” NCAA.com,http://web1.ncaa.org/committees/committees_roster.jsp?CommitteeName=1TRACK

The Fight To Establish The Women's Marathon Race, http://www.marathonguide.com/history/olympicmarathons/chapter25.cfm.

“The Problem with Sex Testing in Sports.” Youtube, Vox, 29 June 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=154&v=MiCftTLUzCI&feature=emb_title.

Alex Hislop Archive

My Running Career


Alex, who was one of Shen's leading track stars, is now a freshman Division I runner at SUNY Buffalo and an exemplary student. He came in first at the Bill Hogan 3.5 miler in 19:39 four minutes ahead of the second-place runner. We look forward to his future contributions to The Pace Setter and his record HMRRC runs when home from college.


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