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Almost all of the 2021 World Marathon Majors took place in the fall, weekend after weekend, making up for rescheduled 2020 pandemic races. It was a distance-running fan’s dream—like college football season (without marching bands, cheerleaders, or head injuries). Then, for many of us, it became painfully obvious that we weren’t really going to see the competitions we came to watch. In the year 2022, how can we convince broadcasters to give women equal airtime?
Key race moves were missed. Men’s award ceremonies appeared on our screens as battles along the final miles were being waged between the top women. While I enjoy the Yoda-like wisdom of Eliud Kipchoge as much as the next person, I don’t need to see a post-race interview with him while world-record-holder Brigid Kosgei is breaking Ashete Bekere and Gotytom Gebreslase with 5K to go. How do we order a split screen situation? Sunday after Sunday we had to deduce when paces changed or how key surges happened by calculating splits instead of watching the drama unfold on camera. Alison Wade, the writer behind the Fast Women newsletter, graded the coverage of each race and noted in March after the Tokyo Marathon (the final broadcast) that she had hoped “this was rock bottom for marathon broadcasts.”
“I don’t know who puts together these broadcasts….but my only hope is that this one was bad enough that we’ll hit a breaking point and something will actually change,” Wade wrote.
She hasn’t been the only one to question why the men’s races continue to dominate the airwaves—a chorus of fans and industry insiders also have taken note, including long-time broadcast analyst Paul Swangard, who tweeted, “Until we create some standard production values/expectations across the Majors and even the elite track and field circuits–we are hurting more than helping the sport.”
In some ways, running is a sport that boasts equality between professional athletes more than almost any other. In most cases, men and women run the same distances and earn the same prize money. Sponsorship contracts, performance bonuses, and appearance fees aren’t made public, so under the current systems, we can’t speculate if women are receiving their fair share. But one way every athlete’s worth is evaluated is by how much exposure they have in the media—how big their platforms are—to promote the products and the brands that they represent. If we never see women performing on the biggest stages, how can we be sure they’re getting their due?
Molly Seidel, 2021 Olympic marathon bronze medalist who is competing on Monday at the Boston Marathon, says she, too, has felt frustrated while watching some of the coverage lately. As many sports like U.S. women’s soccer and the WNBA move toward improved parity, she says, we still can’t watch some of the best runners in the world, who provide compelling entertainment and intrigue, race each other.
“I honestly hope that things are changing for the better,” Seidel says. “I do see that happening. I see women’s contracts being equal with men and a greater focus on women [from brands sponsoring pro athletes]…it’s a slow, steady process, honestly. It’s going to be two steps forward, one step back at times.”
Desiree Linden, two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champion, has dipped her toe into on-air analysis in the past year. She’s seen what it takes to put together a broadcast of simultaneous 26.2-mile races and the factors that make it challenging. She favors the races that include a separate men’s and women’s start, like Boston and the New York City Marathon, not only because as a competitor she can better compete with a clear view of the field, but because it at least gives producers an opportunity to cover both races equally. Still, it doesn’t always pan out that way.
The main issue is that the broadcasts use what’s called a “world feed,” Linden and others explain. That means that one crew is capturing the footage for all broadcasts around the world while regional announcers like Linden provide the live commentary from what they see. And they’re often asked to update viewers on moves they also didn’t witness themselves.
“When you’re on a world feed, you have to ask, ‘How does the rest of the world prioritize this?’” Linden says. “And when there’s a mixed [gender] start, you’re putting women in the mid- to back of the group and then you’ve gotta try to fit vehicles in there, you have to have spotters to find them—and then you get a shot but [the women] are tucked in a pack of guys, which is really smart if you’re a woman who wants to run fast, but it really sucks for TV.”
Equality, exposure, and fan experience are valid reasons why broadcasts need to improve, but for Mary Ngugi, who finished third at the 2021 Boston Marathon and is racing again on Monday, the lack of television time goes beyond any of those factors.
“It makes me so angry, to be honest,” Ngugi says. “ As Kenyan women, we inspire so many girls in Kenya, and then when they’re just watching the men they believe the women are not as important. We have a message that we’re trying to bring to the young girls in Kenya, that we are all equal, that we deserve the same rights as the men, so when they see this, it doesn’t really help.”
Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the first official women’s field to race the Boston Marathon. If we think the broadcasts are bad now, they probably didn’t even exist back then. But we can be grateful for how far women have come since 1972 and still question why they aren’t receiving equal respect and acknowledgement for the performances that they’re putting on display today.
Stephanie Bruce, who will run her final Boston Marathon on Monday before she retires from professional competition at the end of the year, believes that women are gaining ground in fan interest. The storytelling has come a long way, even in the span of her 15-year career. But enough with the warm-and-fuzzies, she says. Athletic ability can also stand on its own.
“I’d also like to see more about how fit these women are. Let’s look at her workouts, look how hard she’s working,” she says. “There’s always this feel-good story with women like ‘She’s a teacher! Or, she’s a mom!’, but she’s a badass, too, so tell a little more of that part. Like, a man is watching who will realize, ‘Damn. I can’t run that fast.’ And maybe that impresses him.”
C’mon Boston broadcasters. Let’s show them how it’s done. We’ll be watching.
Splits is a twice-a-month column by Erin Strout, a freelance writer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, who covers health, fitness, and women in sports. This space offers commentary and analysis on the running culture, news, and events that move women. You can find Erin on Twitter and Instagram: @erinstrout.