3 top finishers of the 2018 Boston Marathon won’t get prize money because they’re women

Runners approach the 24-mile marker of the Boston Marathon in heavy rain on April 16, 2018.

The marathon has different rules for men and women. Because of them, three women who finished in the top 15 this year aren’t eligible for prize money they would have received if they were men.

In 2004, the Boston Marathon changed its setup so that the top women runners would start about a half an hour ahead of the pack in an effort to “better showcase the women’s elite field.” Fourteen years later, in 2018, that adjustment left three top-15 female finishers ineligible for prize money they would have been entitled to had they been men. Critics are crying foul, while others are saying it’s just an unfortunate — and uncommon — side effect.

Here’s what happened: Men and women at the Boston Marathon have different parameters for when they start. This year, the “elite women,” or 46 of the best of the best, qualified to start at 9:32 am in the elite group. Another group of women started in wave one, at 10 am. The “elite men” started at 10 am as well, as did the first wave of men. The elite men get a 50- to 60-foot head start as opposed to the 28 minutes the elite women get. (If it seems confusing, here’s a video of what it looks like.)

The male runners who start in the first wave of men are eligible to race with the elites, so if they pass the guys who got a head start, they can still win prize money. But for the female runners, if they’re not in that original elite group of 50 or so runners, they can’t — even if their final times place them among the top competitors.

That’s exactly what happened this year to three women racers. Fifth-place finisher Jessica Chichester, who ran a time of 2:45:23; 13th-place finisher Veronica Jackson, who finished at 2:49:41; and 14th-place finisher Rebecca Snelson, at 2:49:50, are all ineligible for the prize money they would have been awarded had they started with the elite women. And had they been men, it wouldn’t have been a problem.

All of the 16,587 male racers were eligible for prize money in this year’s marathon. Just 46 of 13,391 women were. This year’s race winner, Desiree Linden, finished in two hours, 29 minutes, and 54 seconds.

“Of course I should be awarded the prize money, because I feel what I did — what I’m sensing from the public and from the people I know — is an extraordinary thing,” Chichester, a 31-year-old nurse from Brooklyn, told me. “I don’t think anyone from the masses has broken into the top 15 since 2004, and I think we deserve something for that.”

Chichester, who worked a 10-hour shift the day after the race, is missing out on a $15,000 prize generally awarded to the fifth-place finishers of women and men. The 13th-place finisher, Jackson, would be awarded $1,800 had she been in the elite group, and the 14th-place finisher, Snelson, $1,700.

Chichester, Jackson, and Snelson all appear as top-15 finishers on the Boston Marathon’s 2018 results website. But they won’t be collecting a cash prize. The money will instead go to the top 15 finishers within the elite group — in other words, three women who had slower times but were prequalified as elite.

The rules were clear from the beginning. That doesn’t mean they’re good.

Boston Marathon organizers in 2004 changed the way the women’s race is set up by implementing a separate start time for top female runners that’s about a half an hour ahead of the first wave of the rest. The overhaul was meant to allow the fastest women in the race to “race each other without obstruction,” T.K. Skenderian, communications director for the marathon organizer the Boston Athletic Association, told me. “It allowed for the women’s race to get the attention it deserves and not to be overshadowed by the men’s race,” he said, adding that the decision was communicated with the athletes.

This year, women had to have a prior performance of 2:47:50 or faster to qualify for elite women’s status and therefore get into that first 9:32 group. (Women over 40 were eligible if they had a time of 2:54:00.) Men had to have a qualifying time below 2:24:00 or 2:25:00 to get the 50-foot head start, Skenderian said.

The Boston Marathon’s website lays out the separate rules for women and notes that the elite women “will be scored separately” from the women starting in the open field. The rules also state that women who “choose” not to participate in the elite wave waive the right to compete for prize money — except the women left out, of course, didn’t choose. For example, Chichester’s prior time was 2:53:30, about six minutes slower than the qualifying time for the elite group. “I would have started there if they had allowed me in there,” she said.

“This is a nuanced thing that has never happened, and when you get down to the real DNA of what we’ve built, it’s been done only with fairness in mind, only with an even playing field in mind, and this year, with the circumstances that unfolded, yeah, it was a little different,” Skenderian said. “This year, like every year, we’re going to take time to consider any changes moving forward to the event.”

Chichester said the Boston Athletic Association has not responded to her inquiries about the prize money rules. The insurance firm John Hancock, one of the race’s top sponsors, has acted as a sort of mediator and said it is reviewing the procedures with the BAA.

“This creates barriers for runners like me who are at the top among average runners and who can get in with [the elite] women and compete against them, but we’re not given the opportunity to, and I don’t think it’s fair,” Chichester said.

The matter has kicked off chatter in the marathon community. Mario Fraioli, a running coach and author of the running newsletter the Morning Shakeout, in his Monday letter responded to Chichester’s complaints and a BuzzFeed article about the situation. “Chichester caught a tough break at Boston by running the fifth fastest time on the day en route to an 8-minute personal best while not being eligible to take home any prize money, but she was not a victim of sexism,” he wrote. “She was an unfortunate victim of the rules, which were put in place to ensure fairness for all the athletes — not as a prejudice against women.”

A lot of races are actually set up this way

The Boston Marathon is not the only major race to have a distinct set of rules for women and men. The New York City Marathon, for example, does something similar. Michael Pieroni, the athletic performance director for the BAA, told the Boston Herald that every Abbott World Marathon Majors event, which runs marathons all over the world, and other leading prize money races “have virtually the same policy” as Boston.

“It’s actually really common,” Steve Magness, an elite long-distance coach, told me. “A decade or two ago, races figured that to showcase the women’s field, if they started them before the men, then the women got more television coverage, more exposure for the race, and they didn’t become a secondary part of the men’s race.”

This is the first time the Boston Marathon has run into a problem with non-elite women finishing with times that theoretically would make them eligible for prize money. This year’s race was an especially brutal one weather-wise, with runners facing rain, high winds, and temperatures in the 40s. The winning times for both men and women were the slowest since the 1970s, according to the New York Times, and the mid-race dropout rate was up 50 percent overall.

It’s hard to compare times from one race to another, even if they’re on the same course and only minutes apart. Each race has its own dynamic, with different pacing, strategies, and tactics.

“This year, the weather and craziness of the race just changed the dynamic,” Magness said. “I’m not sure it’s something that’s a total flaw in the sense that this is a once-in-a-generation kind of event for a marathon that we’ve seen, and I understand the exposure that it’s got, and I definitely feel for the women who missed out, but … it’s tough to suss out.”

Different rules for men and women in sports is a feature, not a bug

Skenderian, from the BAA, told me the prize money structure for the elite men and women has been equal for many years. “The rules are the same, the prize money is the same, everybody is racing off of the same gun time,” he said.

Of course, that’s not the case — the setup is, in fact, different for men and women. But that’s not uncommon in sports.

Men have always played full-court, five-on-five basketball, while women’s basketball was initially six-on-six and players were stuck on their halves of the court. A women’s basketball is still a bit smaller than the men’s ball. Women play softball; men play baseball. Women in tennis play three sets; men play five.

“It really goes all the way back to the early 20th century, where women’s sports were modified to make them more acceptable,” Susan Cahn, a professor at the University of Buffalo with an expertise in gender and sexuality in sports, told me. “It always means that women’s is the lesser, and so it affirms men’s sports as the ‘real thing’ and women’s as the modified or the marked other.”

The same goes for prize money. Women and men didn’t get equal prize money at Wimbledon, for example, until 2007. “There are differences in reward and there are differences in structure, and those both reflect the lesser value of women’s sports,” Cahn said.

To be sure, women’s sports have come a long way in recent decades, including marathons. Kathrine Switzer in 1967 became the first woman to officially run in the Boston Marathon. She registered as K.V. Switzer, and when officials realized during the race that she was a woman, they tried to stop her. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Amateur Athletic Union — then the governing body for marathons in the US — let women officially take part in distance road running.

This year, the Boston Marathon organizers and the broader long-distance running community find themselves at a bit of an impasse — their rules, while clearly outlined ahead of time and perhaps well-intentioned, have left three women without prize money that they would have received had they been men.

“It seems like almost a microaggression,” Cahn said. “I do think it probably gives women more media coverage, because women get an infinitesimal of overall sports media coverage, but the prize money rule just seems like a needless rule.”

Chichester said she’s received offers to start a GoFundMe page to crowdfund the prize money for her and the others who missed out, but she doesn’t want it. “I think that’s great and generous; however, I don’t feel right about accepting money under that circumstance,” she said. “I want the money to come from the Boston Athletic Association.”

source: vox

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