Thursday, March 13, 2014

Prize Money Equality in Races

I saw a recent post about the Irving Marathon that offered prize money for the first place finisher only. Not per gender but overall. This sparked a discussion about gender inequality and how it will ruin this race in the long run and a dozen other tangents. I had to sit back and think about whether this bothered me and I still don’t know if it does. So I decided to try and think it out before coming to an opinion (how novel!)

Firstly, the prize was offered to the first person crossing the line so on its face it is not discriminatory.  If a female won the race, she would win the purse (a term which I am surprised has not come to be called sexist.) So, that doesn’t bother me. First person wins. Good.

However, more realistically, the chances are far less that a woman will women based on physics, previous race results and common sense. What I found interesting was watching people decry this prize money structure and flat out admit that the chances of a woman winning were slim to none. Undoubtedly, a large percentage of these people are the ones who also say that anything a man does a woman can do better. Except run faster, I guess.

It reminded me of an article written by Ellie Greenwood, an elite ultrarunner, about the politics of prize money. The situation was basically the same but this time it was in a 100 mile race instead of a marathon. If you follow ultrarunning at all you will have seen many articles recently touting that ultras might be where the pendulum finally turns an women beat men on a semi-regular basis. Women, the articles say, are better built for it.

Now, all of those articles have stopped recently as, well, none of that has actually happened. The gap in times between the absolute elite men and the absolute elite women has stayed the same or widened. Sure, more women are less likely to DNF at ultras than men but that is mostly because women seem to have more common sense about taking on a distance that they are likely to finish. Male hubris takes over upon registering and they often take on a challenge without proper preparation. Hence more DNFs. (Yes, I am probably over simplifying this, so deal with it.)

So, even in the distance and sport where the playing field seemed more level, women haven’t quite closed the gap yet, if they ever will. Which leads us back down to marathons. The women’s world record in the marathon is a 2:15:25. That is so fast the closest other world record is nearly 2 minutes slower and it was set by Paula Radcliffe.  In addition, it was set 11 years ago. The men’s world record (not world’s best which is actually faster) is a 2:03:23 and that was set just last year. Women have seemed to stagnate (or Paula Radclliffe was so otherworldly good we won’t realize this for another decade) while men continue to get faster.  This seems to go well for those saying there needs to be separate purses for this race as, obviously, men and women are basically competing in different worlds.

But as much as I am an advocate for women in running (an entire chapter in my book sings the praises and documents the trials and tribulations of women fighting for even footing in the racing world) I just can’t seem to get bothered by this one race offering one prize in a winner-take-all style. There are something like 600 marathons in North America alone. This race in Irving is one out of many, many, many marathons out there with prize money. In addition it is hardly the standard bearer for races. I doubt other races will follow suit and give away the same sort of prize money. So it sort of sits alone. If you feel it is not right, then don't run the race. It is not like it is the only deal in town.

[Sidebar: Interestingly, I never heard any females complain about the LA Marathon challenge bonus.  This year, elite women were given an 17:41 head start. I am not sure where that number comes from but I am sure there is some scientific reasoning (obviously it is not the difference in the World Record times.) When the smoke settled, the male winner won the race in 2:10:37 and the female winner in a 2:27:37. Because of the headstart, the female winner took home $50,000 by “beating” the male by 47 seconds. Ever since this was instituted in 2009, I have thought it was the most sexist thing imaginable. But if you were against it, you were a chauvinistic pig. I have heard that because there were men’s races for so long that events like this and “women’s only” races exist rightfully to make up for lost time. I cannot even begin to talk about how ludicrous an argument that is.]

So, even though I wanted to bothered by this, I simply cannot. It is one race. They had a decision to make about what they wanted to do with their prize money and they are sticking to it.  No matter what. Or until enough people complain about it and it get changed, as it did almost during the time that I first saw the hubbub about the event and the time it took me to write this article, that is. (I am not joking.)

I would have had greater respect for the race if it had simply kept to its original intentions. Reminds me of a few years back when a marathon in DC had a 5:30 cutoff.  People were up in arms. Never mind how difficult it is to shut down the nation’s friggin capitol on any given day, people were bothered the race wouldn’t let those finish over five and a half hours. I thought it was a great idea. What is wrong with having a race that encourages people to try harder? Like I said about the Irving Marathon, there are literally hundreds of other marathons in the US alone and I guarantee 99% of them would not follow suit. Why? Because slower runners make up the bulk of registrations, sales of apparel and merchandise. If race wants to make money it has to accommodate those in the back of the pack. Which leads me to the final point I heard about accommodating elites and its effect on the race’s success in general.

As I said a few months ago when Competitor, the owners of the Rock N Roll series, decided to end their elite program, it is their prerogative to do so. They know what benefits them the most as a company making money and it was not helping elites. (Of course, they did a semi-about- face a few months later but that is another story.) I heard elites complaining that prize money is how they make their living. Well, this is a bitter pill to swallow but it is not up to anyone else to make you earning a living easier. I have learned this many times personally the hard way. Just because you think more races should coddle elites because you think it will help the bottom line and bring in more sponsors and grow the race, doesn’t mean it is true or that the race sees it that way even if it is.

All told, if I felt that offering money for the top finisher (or the top 3 or 5 or whatever) was a trend that was going to take hold and, for all intents and purposes, completely shut women out of making a living at the sport, I too would have to give this a thumbs down.

As it stands, if you want something and it is given to the first person to get to it, I guess you just have to run faster than everyone else.


JayWind said...

Hey good buddy Dane

Here in the DC area, U.K. 2012 Olympic marathoner Claire Hallissey frequently wins races overall.

More power to her!

Last summer, I ran a 5K race starting at Marymount University's Ballston Campus (Arlington VA). I knew a couple of runners were ahead of me, so I was quite surprised when race officials held a winners' tape across the line for me as I finished in 22:15.

The two runners ahead of me turned out to be Rachel Clattenburg in 20:38 and Katie Cranston in 21:14.

So I was the first male! The crowd applauded for me, and the photos clearly show me ahead of 3 seconds ahead of Aaron Sacks, who finished in 22:18.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the final results placing Aaron 2 second ahead of me, which meant he started 5 seconds behind me.

For complete results, see

So "first place" can be not what it seems.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I would have never thought of the prize structure being gender unequal until it was brought it up.

Of all the races I've done, a man always wins first overall. I've never even seen a woman come close (3 minutes behind has been about average for the 5K's, more for longer distances). But that never meant to me that a woman couldn't win first overall. Maybe that kind of structure can help motivate women to simply run faster.

Not a big deal in my opinion. But then gain, I am not a competitive runner who goes after the financial prize at the end.