Separate and Equal?
by Laurel Park, Mar. 28, 2003
Separate and Equal?
The proposal to have male pacers for Paula Radcliffe at this year's London Marathon has provoked considerable discussion, both pro and con. On the "pro" side, people have pointed out that with or without pacers, it is Paula herself who must cover the 26.2 miles so the pacers would merely provide an additional "tool" to allow her to run at maximum potential, much like wearing high-tech racing flats or drinking electrolyte fluids along the way. Detractors note that first of all, receiving assistance of any kind from individuals not entered in the event is illegal (even though most races are co-ed, technically men and women are considered to be competing in separate events), and second, should the weather be windy or rainy, the presence of pacers would allow Paula to "draft" and thus in essence gain a performance-enhancing advantage that might not be available to her competitors (one of whom, Tegla Laroupe, has stated that she will not compete if pacers are allowed). It is common, of course, for male competitors to have pacers but the problem is that Paula is so much faster than the majority of her competitors that finding one, let alone two or three, women who could pace her through even the first half of the race would be very difficult. Anyone that talented and fit is likely going to want a shot at the prize money herself rather than be satisfied with "rabbit food." And I suspect that for most women, a 1:08:30 half marathon - Paula's split on world record pace - would be a heck of a PR.
I don't think that the issue should be as controversial as it is. My own feeling is that it should focus on performance, not gender. If Paula is so much faster than the rest of the women that the only option is male pacers, I say go for it. I don't see how that is fundamentally different than providing pacers for the men. The purpose is the same, regardless of chromosomes. It certainly happens all the time in other races, both elite and local. Women pace off of men and yes, men pace off of women. I understand the desire for separate events and in fact I'm a big supporter of races that have men's and women's heats. I was thoroughly disappointed when the Detroit Race for the Cure abandoned its two-race format and went co-ed three years ago. I enjoy competing among women and also enjoy having a chance to cheer for the men. It's also nice for women to be able to find each other and work together during a race, something that can be difficult to do when surrounded by men. But do I think that there is some higher philosophical reason for separating the sexes? No. Some have argued that women have more of an advantage in co-ed races because there are generally more men and thus almost every women has someone to run with, while the top males are forced to "go it alone." Well, that's not always true. Two of my loneliest races were co-ed events and I have a number of friends who have also experienced the thrill of "no-man's land." It's true that men tend to outnumber women at most races, but if a man and a woman end up running together, who's to say that they are not benefiting equally?
I suppose the argument could be made that if the point is to produce the fastest time possible, men should be allowed to use bikers or even pace cars. Would providing male pacers for Paula be the same as providing Lance Armstrong for Khalid Khannouchi? I think the difference is that there are a handful of men capable of running near world-record pace but only three women who have run sub-2:20. So the potential for having three men running together at the 26th mile is pretty good. In the 2002 London Marathon, 10 seconds separated the first and second men; however, 3:35 separated the first and second women. Also, there are quite a few men who can cover a half-marathon in 1:02, so finding suitable pacers of the same gender is not usually a problem.
Personally, I'd like to see what Paula could do at London. Given that London has separate starts for the men and women (unlike the co-ed field at Chicago, where she set her current WR), I think providing male pacers is a great idea. We all know she'll be motivated, and if she's as fit as she thinks she will be, it could be one heck of a thrilling race. Human performance is human performance. Rather than focusing on separation of the genders, why not focus on equality - athletic equality.
As of December 20, 2002, 18 American men have run faster than Paula.