Bad weather and breakthrough marathon performances usually don’t go together. Not when race day brings freezing rain, 30-mile-per-hour winds, and risk of hypothermia.
But in exactly those conditions at this year’s Boston Marathon, Jessica Chichester, Veronica Jackson, and Rebecca Snelson ran personal-best times and placed among the top 15 women.
Cue the we’re-not-worthy GIFs and the controversy.
Chichester, Jackson, and Snelson weren’t eligible for the prize money awarded the top 15 women because of where they started. They weren’t part of the separate elite women’s start at 9:32 a.m. Instead, they were among the sub-elite women who left Hopkinton with Wave 1 at 10 a.m.
You’re probably wondering why that matters. Everybody’s competing on the same course and racing as fast as they can, right? Isn’t it the same race?
The Boston Marathon considers the elite women’s start and Wave 1 different races. And that’s where things get complicated.
If Chichester, Jackson, and Snelson were men starting in Wave 1, they’d be able to collect any prize money they earned. In the view of Boston Marathon officials, they’d be in the same race as the elite men who started at the front of Wave 1.
As news spread about Chichester, Jackson, and Snelson not receiving cash awards, a critical chorus emerged: There’s inequality baked into the Boston Marathon’s prize money eligibility rules. It’s sexist.
To be sure, it’s not a good look when rules dictate that sub-elite men get rewarded for a top-15 finish and sub-elite women don’t. It cries out for change.
On Thursday, the Boston Athletic Association announced it was doubling up on cash prizes, sending checks to the women who were part of the elite women’s start and to the women who started in Wave 1. So, Chichester will get $15,000 for finishing with the fifth-fastest time. Jackson (13th) will receive $1,800 and Snelson (14th) will take home $1,700.
That’s a temporary fix. Anything more permanent raises issues of gender equality and fair competition. And there’s a twist.
Female marathoners are actually better served by a system that treats men and women differently. Yep, I went there.
Absolute equality would mean the elimination of the Boston Marathon’s separate elite women’s start, something the BAA won’t do. And it shouldn’t. Without the elite women’s start, you would miss great, side-by-side competition among the world’s best female marathoners. The women’s race would fall back into the shadows cast by faster male runners.
Boston went to a separate elite women’s start in 2004. Most, if not all, elite women prefer the separate start because it allows them to race openly. They don’t have to worry about losing track of rivals while surrounded by fast men.
Separate starts also make the race more honest since elite women can’t pace off fast men. Another advantage: More media coverage for the women because broadcasters can easily follow the separate races, and the women finish several minutes ahead of the men’s winner.
Shalane Flanagan, the 2017 New York City Marathon champion, said a separate elite women’s start creates a race that’s like “a game of chess.”
She added: “We’re capable of sometimes running much faster, but we’re tactfully making moves, conserving energy. The women behind us [starting in Wave 1] are racing, however they’re looking at their watches and they’re running their own race and they’re clicking off splits. They’re time-trialing when they start behind us. So, it’s a very different mind-set and different outcome.”
The chess match versus time trial gets to the heart of why the elite women’s start is considered a separate race and why prize eligibility rules are the way they are. The rules are meant to promote fair competition, not create a system that treats women unfairly. But there can be unintended consequences.
Are the current rules unfair to Chichester, Jackson, Snelson, and any other Wave 1 female runner that has a prize-worthy, breakthrough performance in Boston? Absolutely.
But what if a woman from Wave 1 finished with a faster official time than 2018 Boston Marathon champion Desiree Linden — a woman Linden never saw and never knew posed any competition? Does she become the women’s winner?
Is that fair? Remember Linden and the other elite women are playing a game of chess, not racing the clock.
If they were part of the elite women’s start, Chichester, Jackson, and Snelson might have run much different races. Instead, they’ll have a special place in race history, though 2018 wasn’t the first time that sub-elite women finished in the top 15.
In 2004, the year the elite women’s start made its debut, the 14th- and 15th-place finishers were sub-elites. Since then, sub-elite women have come close to a top-15 finish on three other occasions. On the men’s side, since 2004, sub-elites have twice finished in the money — 14th in 2008 and 11th in 2012.
Going forward, BAA executive director and CEO Tom Grilk wants breakthrough performances by sub-elite men and sub-elite women rewarded equally. There’s no debate about that. The question is how to make sure that happens.
The obvious solution: Increase the size of the elite women’s start. That’s something Grilk said is “on the table.” He added that the BAA “will model it” to see how it might work logistically.
“I agree that is the simple solution, on paper. Although I’m not sure logistically if it’s so simple,” said Linden via e-mail.
“The BAA and John Hancock host and accommodate the elite field for the weekend; everything from hotel, food stipend, buses to the start, prerace staging in the Korean Church, elite athlete fluids on the course, recovery rooms, and so on.
“You’d be blown away by how challenging it is for organizers to get the John Hancock elite field in a line to walk out to the start. Not lack of competence, of course, but nervous elites doing final prep is like herding cats in the rain at a circus.”
Every year, the number of men and women given elite status hovers around 60, including masters. The BAA has found that number is the sweet spot when it comes to handling the elite field logistics.
And it’s worth noting that some women who qualify for the separate start actually choose to be part of Wave 1 because they’ll run faster times with the masses.
Still, the BAA has to realize that no matter how many times it explains the difference between the open racing in the elite women’s start and the time trialing among sub-elite women in Wave 1, no matter how many times you talk about Chichester, Jackson, and Snelson being outliers in a bad-weather year, the status quo still smacks of women being treated unequally and unfairly. And they have to do something.
But if the BAA expands the elite women’s start, how many women should be eligible? What should the new cutoff time be? What kind of fluid support will be offered to sub-elites who now find themselves part of the elite start? With more runners, how much earlier will the elite women’s start need to take place? And how will the race ensure that any sub-elites who have breakthrough performances are held to the same anti-doping standards as their competitors?
That’s a big one.
“I don’t think any elites like myself who are sponsored have any issue increasing the size of the field,” said Flanagan. “But in order to accept that money, you need to be drug-tested.”
Maybe the BAA institutes a system similar to Olympic Trials with an “A” qualifying standard and a “B” qualifying standard.
Maybe the “B” standard is three hours or faster and doesn’t come with all the perks of the “A” standard. It’s hard to imagine any woman who hasn’t run under three hours coming anywhere close to the top 15. That would be less a breakthrough performance and more a suspicious performance.
As for the other numbers, if you take the less-aberrational 2017 Boston Marathon results, there were 92 women who finished in less than three hours. Other years it’s hovered closer to 130 women.
Would the elite women’s start be manageable with 90 women, with 130? There’s probably some number crunchers at the BAA asking the same thing right now. Or, they should be.
It’d be nice to find a sweet spot that’s a little sweeter and a little fairer.Fair Play is a column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.