The cycle gets more sickeningly familiar by the day.
In the past few weeks alone, a deluge of men in positions
of power have been revealed as abusers who knew no
consequences, in some cases for decades.
The most high profile
of these stories have come from the world of celebrity,
but the running community can’t pretend we have
no role in the conversation or in changing this violent
For years now, we’ve
had certain cycles of our own on repeat. On social
media and message boards, womens’ athletic ability
and talent can’t seem to be separated from their
appearance. Every now and then, an article documents
the violence that women face on the run. Stories of
abusive coaches crop up too. A furor follows, but
we know some variation of that article will appear
should read: Running While Female)
These dynamics are not
isolated from the stories we’ve read in the
past few months. They’re part of a cultural
cancer that continuously reinforces the notion that
women are inferior and can be controlled and intimidated.
When we’re silent,
it grows. What we permit, we promote. The we I’m
referring to in this case is the men in this community.
We’ve long been past the point where we can
claim shock or ignorance. We have no choice but to
own this issue.
This is precisely why
I didn’t interview any women for this piece.
For one, women have told their story and at this point
it’s merely a matter of whether or not we choose
to accept the reality of the situation. Additionally,
this is not meant to be a piece that proposes magic
bullet, simple solutions to a complex issue. Each
of us runs in a unique context and there is no one
size fits all solution.
The objective I had in
putting these words down is to encourage us to see
ourselves as part of a solution that begins with dialogue,
especially the listening part, and accountability.
This is an invitation to acknowledge this issue in
a real way and for any male runner — whether
a coach, writer like myself, or run group leader —
reading this to listen to the women they run with.
In a sport that celebrates
community, we know that running shapes our values
and the people we are in the world at large. Cross
country and track teams of all levels, races, and
local running groups are all spaces where we learn
and are shaped as individuals. These same spaces have
to be where change begins.
Jean Paul Bedard has
for years used running as a vehicle for advocacy on
behalf of victims of sexual abuse. “There’s
an opportunity for mentorship in this sport,”
Bedard says. “Running is not solitary, it’s
a community that has leaders and role models.”
Bedard adds that running
should take lessons from professional soccer, where
community engagement and mentorship is written into
the contracts of players. Running at its very top
level has to model and encourage the behaviour we
want to see in the world.
should read: Real Talk Reflections with Myself on
Canadian running is lucky
to have a wealth of exceptional role models among
our elite athletes. For Bedard, the privilege of being
a sponsored athlete (Bedard is sponsored by Brooks
Running) entails a responsibility to engage with the
have a responsibility too to promote and celebrate
the diversity of those who pursue our sport. If the
elite athlete, and the associated body type, is all
that we celebrate, we find ourselves complicit in
a toxic culture. The images we put into the world
have a power to dismantle or reinforce the notion
that someone’s body, usually a woman’s,
is tied to their worth.
should read: What Does a Runner Look Like?)
For editors and writers,
we can’t be tone deaf and ignorant when it comes
to how we talk about women. We can’t in one
breath express outrage over abuse and mistreatment
but in our words and actions not afford women an equal
place among their male counterparts.
There’s an obligation
as well for publications to serve as a forum for honest
conversations about body image to also be a place
where the images of women we convey to the world show
them as full human beings. Our role is to allow women
to tell their story or to honestly capture their perspective,
not impose our own.
We’ve been comfortable
enough condemning harassment and the violence women
face on the run and within the running world from
a distance, but dealing with it as it occurs directly
in front of us is imperative. This is where awkward
conversations have to begin.
Local running groups
can make the space for these conversations. Uncomfortable
as it may be, running groups have to make it explicit
what will and will not be tolerated and understand
directly from those who are vulnerable what they’ve
faced, what needs to change, and follow through on
Have the conversations
outside of the run to understand what the women you
run with are dealing with, how to identify it, and
what you’re expected to do when that happens.
Most importantly, we need our fellow runners to know
that when they come forward that they will be greeted
with trust and compassion.
We’ve learned that
it can’t be taken for granted that unacceptable
behaviours will be acknowledged and addressed. If
we care about the women we run with, we have to make
it clear that we’re ready to listen and act.
should read: Men Stop Me Running)
It’s not meant
to be enjoyable to bring to light abuses or harm that
may be taking place in our own community, or the ways
in which we may be complicit, but it’s essential
to living up to the values we claim to cherish. Furthermore,
it’s essential to creating spaces where these
values will be passed on to other men who run.
“When we run,”
Bedard says, “We’re travelling through
a community and have a voice in it. When we can be
brave enough to acknowledge a problem and show that
we won’t stand for something, we create the
space for more allies to come forward.”
This understanding has
to work its way through from the smallest of run clubs
to the largest of university teams. No one’s
right to participate can trump another’s right
to safety, respect, and autonomy. Every failure within
our own community to listen and take action says that
we don’t care.
As runners, we won’t
change anything until we are that change. If that
change can be reality in our community, it can be
a reality in the wider world.