Photo by Hinterhaus Productions

Do women-only sports categories matter if you’re rubbish?

You don’t have to excel at something for it to be important to your identity

Artillery Row

Six years ago I took part in the mums’ race on my son’s school sports day. It was his birthday and, for some inexplicable reason, I thought it would make him proud. I’d recently taken up running. Eyeing up my competitors, I was convinced some of them would be slower than me. After all, what were they? Just a bunch of mums!

Reader, I did not make my son proud. Years later, I still can’t work out how over a mere 50 metres, it was possible for me to fall so far behind the second to last runner. My son and I do not speak of what was definitely not my finest 15 seconds.

These days I am certain I would do better, though I have no intention of testing it (not even with another son at the same school). I do a great deal more running, including half-marathons, and Parkrun most Saturdays, but sports day mums’ races I avoid.

I love and hate Parkrun, which is to say, I love all of it, apart from the actual running bit. The running bit is hell, probably because I run much faster than I do at any other time. This is because I am paranoid about “spoiling my averages” in terms of time, age grading, overall position and gender position. I worry that someone having a birthday will stop me attaining my “usual place” in my sex and age category. Suffice it to say, I really care about a bunch of numbers no one else sees.

To the serious runner, I am sure my results would look deeply unimpressive. I am, though, apparently better than the average woman my age (got that, sports day mums of yore?). When I’m having a particularly good/hellish day, I even rank quite well — by my standards — amongst the female runners overall. Even if no one else is, I’m impressed.

Should it matter to someone like me, who is never going to get anywhere near a women’s record, if several of those for Parkrun are held by people who are male? Or if male people finish second or third in the female category, thus pushing female runners further down the ranking? It’s not as though it would make a great deal of difference to me, statistically speaking. Why should I care whether the category in which I am doing “not as bad as I used to” is no longer for female people, but for people who call themselves female, regardless of sex?

On Saturday, the former elite marathon runner Mara Yamauchi tweeted her disapproval at a male athlete finishing third in a female category for Parkrun, “pushing,” she noted, “nearly 200 females down into a worse finishing position.” She was inundated with replies asking her why she thought it mattered. Why was she bothered “if none of the participants are”? Didn’t she realise that “these are not competitive events, except on a purely individual level in terms of personal bests”? Hadn’t she grasped that “Parkrun is a fun run”? (Not for me, it bloody isn’t.)

A high proportion of those replying to Yamauchi happened to be men (including one who pointed out that he’d once lost his Parkrun placement to “a female who cut corners all the way round” and “no one tweeted about it though”). The implication was that Yamauchi was being petty, churlish, spiteful, not in the spirit of things. Why couldn’t she be more generous and open-minded? Heavens, it’s only a run.

The struggles women tend to be seen as somewhat vain and self-inflicted

It is indeed only a run, though not so much that a male competitor should be expected to slum it in the male category if the female category is preferred. The race itself is not segregated. Everyone runs together, yet for some reason, it is of supreme importance that male people get to define both the male and the female categories to their liking. Why is this? Why does no one tell them, “Aren’t you just competing against yourself?” Why does no one say to them, “Isn’t it for fun”? Why aren’t they told that Parkrun categories are arbitrary constructs, so why does it matter which one you’re in?

I know what the answer to this will be. The distress caused to a male person by being “miscategorised” is far more legitimate than any upset a female person might feel at her category no longer being just for the female-bodied. The former is meaningful and existential; the latter is just being a bitch. It’s not all about winning, you know? For some people — and weirdly, it tends to be the people who take winning for granted already — it’s a matter of being your true self.

To me, this seems hardly fair. Telling women to stop being competitive at any level is a striking reinforcement of gender norms, the very things that prevent us from being our “true selves”. What’s more, ranking in sports can matter even for the relatively rubbish. Sometimes, it is far from trivial to care about these things that appear to mean nothing at all.

None of the men responding to Yamauchi would, I imagine, have had much time for the argument that maybe the female category matters to women like me — the average, the even below average — because running is about our identities, too. Competing as female people, against other female people, is a rejection of a secondary status, of the belief that we are simply inferior versions of males, always destined to come last (even if some of us will never come first).

The struggles women have to inhabit and value their female bodies tend to be seen as somewhat vain and self-inflicted, certainly not something that the rest of the world should seek to alleviate. No matter whose distress it is — the male person’s, the female person’s — the answer is always the same: the female person could always resolve to take up less space. Sport is a place where we reject that. It should not be the place where we are told, yet again, that our bodies don’t count in their own right. Sad though it is that the organisers of Parkrun are unwilling to change their stance on gender self-identification, it’s even sadder that they should need to. A basic level of respect for female runners — or female people in general — would mean it never became an issue at all.

This Saturday, I will probably do Parkrun again, and I will hate it, apart from when I’m cheerily shouting “thank you, marshall!” just to prove that actually, I’m totally fine and definitely not dying at all. There’s a part of me that enjoys the fact that I am so ridiculous about this. I don’t turn up to Parkrun to do a nice, fun run. Not even I, who just looks like one of the mummies. As I learnt years ago, you underestimate us — at least when we’re in our own category — at your peril.

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