We Must Change the Narrative Around Women's Sports

Sally Bergesen, founder of Oiselle and a running activist, asks why don't we have established women's equivalents of the four-minute mile or the two-hour marathon

Wilma Rudolph, the pioneering American sprinter, at the 1960 Olympic Games. (Mary Delaney Cooke/Getty)
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“What’s the equivalent of the four-minute mile for women?” The question was casually thrown out in a group of about ten sports-minded women, a mix of athletes and business leaders. We were all gathered around a big open table inside Oiselle headquarters in Seattle. There was no immediate answer, and the question lingered awkwardly in the air.

“4:40?” Someone said. “4:40 or 4:30?”

Another long pause. “4:30, definitely 4:30.”

There were a few nods, but the long pause and the unfamiliarity with this number, 4:30, tinged the air with sadness. Here we were, a group of avid runners, some with athletic careers spanning more than two decades, including a Division 1 runner and several post-collegiate athletes, and yet the question and the answer felt foreign. How are our own benchmarks so unfamiliar?

On the men’s side, the milestones are easy to call up, featuring names you’ve heard hundreds of times: Roger Bannister, the four-minute mile; the life and death of Steve Prefontaine; the “World’s Fastest Man” and its parade of kings—Lewis, Johnson, Bolt.

It’s not that the women’s side of the sport hasn’t had fearless protagonists and watershed moments. There’s Wilma Rudolph, the iconic sprinter of the 1950s and ’60s who became the first American woman to win three Olympic golds in track and field. There’s Joan Benoit-Samuelson, the first ever women’s Olympic marathon champion. And many more. But their stories are less well-known outside the insular running world. And when you look closer at the dominant narratives for female athletes, it becomes clear that many are not focused on a woman’s heroic talent or strength but center more around the simple concept of inclusion.

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer became the first registered woman to run the Boston Marathon. Her finish time (4 hours and 20 minutes) is infrequently cited; it’s not considered the point. Few people realize that Switzer went on to run 2:51 at the New York City Marathon in 1975, making her the third-fastest American woman marathoner at the time. Instead, the picture of the race director attempting to physically remove her from the course is one of the most iconic images of a female athlete.

In 1972, the passage of Title IX made it illegal to discriminate against female participation in sports at federally funded schools. And it’s often Title IX—rather an individual or her athletic achievements—that’s cited to celebrate progress for women in sports. Title IX was pivotal, but isn’t it reasonable to ask for more? Haven’t we earned the right to have athletic traditions and narratives that go beyond simply being allowed to participate?

The predictable counterpoint to all of this is that the dearth of women’s milestones and tradition is a result of our relatively recent entry into competitive sports—we’ve been sending large numbers of women through the college sports system only for about 45 years. But unfortunately, the tradition of nontradition marches on.

This spring, Nike made its attempt to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon, Breaking2, with no female equivalent in sight. The men’s goal is not to be discounted. It’s so ambitious that Nike built a special shoe, recruited world-class pacers, and guided the lead athlete, Eliud Kipchoge, with a laser pointer through every step. The company then poured millions of dollars into the creation of a moment—and an incredible moment it was. People from all over the world watched the live broadcast and followed it on social media.

But where is the women’s Breaking2? Was it never even considered because, like the four-minute mile, we lack a goal with numeric roundness? Or was it because the company—and the industry itself—lacks the necessary interest and creativity to define what the equivalent mark would be for women? (The world record progression suggests that a sub-2:12 women’s marathon, three minutes faster than Paula Radcliffe’s world record of 2:15, is the number to chase. Though others have argued that Radcliffe’s time may be even closer to the women’s equivalent of a sub-two-hour performance.)

Round numbers are nice, but women’s participation in sports is about more than that. Tradition is a result of both cultural reverence and the way we tell stories about female athletes. This means sharing those moments with a broader audience so we understand the significance of the feat. For example, Emma Coburn’s recent gold medal at the IAAF World Championships was one of the most iconic, exciting races in recent running history, for men or women. Don’t take my word for it. Watch it.

Regardless of the sport, milestones and lore give sports fans and participants something to look toward, celebrate, talk about, and even shoot for.

But traditions are also an investment that must compound over time. After all, it’s easy to celebrate a single moment—like Joan Benoit’s winning of the Olympic marathon. But we must continue to cherish its value, emphasize the tradition it started, and at the same time be on the lookout for what’s next.

So, as our team pondered the women’s equivalent for the four-minute mile, we concluded with a directive: We would put a stake in the ground for the women’s mile. We would add our voices to a nascent group that was already talking about sub-4:30. (Bring Back the Mile, a website and community that aims to reestablish the mile as a preeminent distance in the United States, has done an excellent job of tracking the American women who have broken 4:30.) The sub-4:30 club is a rarefied group—even more so than the sub-four-minute milers, a mark that almost 500 American men have achieved. Only 71 American women have broken 4:30 (including former Oiselle athletes Kate Grace, Lauren Penney, and Amanda Winslow).

The 4:30 mile. We will shout it from the rooftops, drop it into casual conversations, and speak of the women who break it with reverence. Because as it turns out, if we want someone to be a household name, we might have to build the houses.

Sally Bergesen (@oiselle_sally) is the founder and CEO of Oiselle, a Seattle-based athletic apparel company and athlete sponsor by and for women.

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