Boston Marathon 2019: what happens when a man runs as a woman?
Some American traditions are as beautiful and renowned as to appear sacred. You can’t import original. You can’t duplicate legacy. You can’t argue with pride.
The Boston Marathon will always be out on its own, only at times the Masters at Augusta runs it close. Even I would put winning the green jacket on a par with winning Boston. The prize money is a little unequal – $1.98 million for winning the Masters, $150,000 for winning Boston – but at least in Boston men and women are treated fairly, equal funds and opportunities for both. Not that it was always this way.
Traditions aren’t quite equal either: Boston has 40 years on Augusta, Monday’s race the 123rd edition since 1897, always staged on Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April, inspired by the first modern Olympic marathon in Athens the year before; the now 83rd Masters has been going since 1934, only stopped during the second World War, when cattle and turkeys were raised at Augusta National to assist the war effort.
Boston has provided one Irish winner. Back in 1974, during his final year on scholarship at East Tennessee, Neil Cusack figured he'd give the marathon a go, despite no experience over the 26.2-mile (42.2km) distance. There was no appearance fee or prize money, only the college agreed to pay his way, and for good luck Cusack sewed a green shamrock onto his otherwise plain white vest.
Given the Limerick man’s ferocious appetite for running, it was little surprise he found himself a minute clear at halfway. Surviving the infamous Heartbreak Hill, Cusack arrived home a comfortable winner in 2:13.39, still only 22. Asked how he intended celebrating he replied “by drinking lashings of porter”, and that gave the New York Daily News their headline: “Irishman wins Boston, trains on beer.”
John Treacy made four brave attempts to win Boston, twice falling just short. In 1988, entered on only four days notice, Treacy broke everyone except the African duo of Ibrahim Hussein and Juma Ikangaa, and while Hussein took the win, Treacy held on for third in 2:09:15 – and 31 years later that's still the Irish record. He was back again in 1989, again finishing third, in 2:10:24, victory this time going to Abebe Mekonnen from Ethiopia.
Anyway, back to that gender gap. Fionnuala McCormack is set to run Monday’s race, her first marathon since Rio 2016, and just six months after giving birth to daughter Isla. Her 18th place at the World Cross Country in March suggests she’ll be competitive. The Boston crowds (about one million people will line the course on Monday) are also in-your-face encouraging.
It was like that in 1967, when Kathrine Switzer, a 20-year-old journalism student from Syracuse, upstate New York, entered Boston as "KV Switzer", given women were then strictly prohibited from running any distance over 1,500m in sanctioned races. Presuming she was a man, starting officials paid no heed, until race director Jock Semple noticed he was a she, and promptly tried to force Switzer off the course, before her boyfriend, a former American footballer, got their first, shoving Semple back onto the pavement.
The image was perfectly captured by The Boston Globe, and the rest is women's marathon history. By 1972, women were allowed run in Boston, and two years later Switzer was the women's winner of the first New York marathon.
Since then Boston has prided itself on being perfectly gender balanced. Augusta, by the way, still has some way to go, last weekend’s inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur marking the first time women were allowed compete on the famous greens, after keeping them out until 2012, when they first admitted two women members.
Women's marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe is one of the few women to speak out about the issue
Now here is where Boston may be opening the gender balance debate on another level: not by giving the men an “elite” start as they do the woman, again in the interest of fairness, but by allowing transgender runners to take part without proof or requirement of gender identity history, or indeed medical intervention. Only this quest for further equality may not quite be as equal as it seems. Runners can now “self-identify”, entering as male or female, depending on which gender they identify with, the only requirement being a standard ID.
The issue here is that Boston, unlike most other big city marathons, has strict qualifying criteria for men and women, the 30,000 entries divided out by age and gender. Men aged 18-34 for example need to run under 3:00:05 to qualify; for women of the same age that qualifying time is 3:30:05 – half an hour slower.
Last year, three transgender women ran Boston, including 53-year-old Stevie Romer, a year and a half after beginning her transition, running 3:41:19 to qualify, well inside the 4:00:00 for her age and gender category – only perhaps with an advantage over cisgender runners chasing the same qualifying criteria.
It’s a sensitive subject, naturally, entirely different to the situation surrounding Caster Semenya and athletes with differences in sexual development or other such outliers, the realisation now being transgender athletes may well be the more challenging issue when it comes to protecting the category of women in any sport. Support for the Democrats’ Equality Act, part of which would require schools to allow male athletes who identify as transgender girls to compete on female teams, suggests as much.
Women's marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, her 2:15:25 from 2003 a sort of outlier in itself, is one of the few women to speak out about the issue, suggesting this week that Boston's transgender policy is "unfair", and could result in skewing women's qualifying times, making them harder due to added numbers achieving them. Or what if a man does end up running as a woman?
Boston officials have stated that while openly welcoming transgender runners, those who qualify for prize money will need to submit test results according to International Olympic Committee policy, including the requirement that transgender women demonstrate low levels of testosterone achieved through hormone therapy and/or gender confirmation surgery.
The worry is what happens if one does qualify for prize money, the unfairness that might create. Or indeed if an openly transgender woman ever shows up at Augusta.