On February 23, 2020, 25-year old Ahmaud Arbery went for a run in the Satilla Shores, an upper class locality in Glynn County, Georgia, United States of America. In the process, he entered an under-construction site and spent some time inspecting it without causing any damage. Alarmed by the presence of a stranger in that area, the neighbours chased him and eventually killed him. His crime – A black person jogging in a largely white neighbourhood.
It was one of the many racial crimes that happen in United States. But, this time, it raised a question – Did the crime occur because it was unusual to see a black person go for a run? In her column for New York Times, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela wrote,
Running has been a pastime marketed primarily to white people ever since “the jogging craze” was born in the lily-white Oregon track and field world of the late 1960s. Black people have not only been excluded from the sport — one survey by Running USA found under 10 percent of frequent runners identify as African-American — they’ve also been relentlessly depicted as a threat to legitimate, white joggers. The most apparently egalitarian exercise of all, running, is anything but — especially when it comes to race.
The lack of representation of black runners in long distance running should come as a surprise for many outside the US, especially in a sport dominated by the likes of Kenyans and Ethiopians. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes in this article, that blacks are under-represented in most sports with the exception of basketball. The last known racially discriminative practices in long distance running can be traced to the Comrades Marathon in South Africa which allowed black athletes from 1975 onwards; and apartheid itself being dismantled only in the early 1990s.
Mitchell S. Jackson, in his Pulitzer Prize winning article, “Twelve Minutes and a Life” asks some simple questions to ponder about.
These questions are not only applicable to runners in United States, but everywhere, including India. Recreational running in India is only about two decades old, and has relatively been free from the shackles of casteist society, as only would like to assume so. From my personal experience, Running Groups have been the ‘most open’ social group that I have ever been part of – in comparison to family, school, college, workplace, and others. The characteristics of open group,
- Open to people of all age groups and gender.
- No discrimination based on race, religion, caste, or economic status.
- No discussions on physical characteristics or body shaming.
- No restrictions on clothing or footwear; and runners are rarely judged based on what they wear. You can see runners sporting clothes dyed in every colour in a spectrum!
- No entry/exit formalities.
- Consideration for the weakest – In most group runs, the last runner is rarely left alone.
- No hierarchy
The concept of diversity is rarely discussed, as one would easily assume that running groups would easily be an effective sample of the population. If I use three attributes to categorise runners – gender, religion, and caste – I feel that it is not the case. While it is not possible to verify my assertion on caste or religion due to lack of data, under representation of woman can be explained through data from running events, if we assume that participation in events to be a proxy for regular runners. Anecdotally, I would assume that many women runners participate in events more than regular runs.
Participation of Woman Runners
Most running events in India offer equal prize money for men and women participants and entry fee/process also remains same for all genders. If I use the finisher data from Mumbai Marathon over the last decade as a sample, it is very clear that the % of woman runners have been stagnating at around 7.5% for the full marathon and about 18.7% for the half-marathon. The positive side to the data is that the number of woman participants are increasing in the same rate as men participants. It is still disproportionate to gender balance in India (sex ratio of 943 for 1000 males; Much higher in developed states though)
In comparison with international events, 33% and 44% of the total finishers in Berlin Marathon 2022 and New York Marathon 2022, were women runners. Further, New York Marathon has introduced third gender as a category. There are plenty of reasons for this disparity and it needs a more nuanced and detailed discussion.
I am using Gender only as an example to highlight the lack of diversity. The same applies to religion or caste or urban-rural divide when it comes to diversity, but the evidences can only be anecdotal. The issue remains the same. Mere absence of discrimination does not automatically imply inclusivity or diversity. There need to be a willing and conscious application of affirmative actions to ensure diversity.
In November 2020, Runners World organised an informative discussion between four runners from diverse backgrounds “to Make Running More Diverse” and arrived at four simple ways.
- Focus on changing the system
- Adequate representation in media
- Influential runners using their voice to highlight the issue
- Running clubs to strive for inclusivity.
Recreational running is still in its nascent stages in India and some of the issues discussed in the article above may not be relevant in Indian context. However, it certainly gives some orientation to think through the issue.
Firstly, we need to recognise the lack of diversity and the need for it. While the first part is easier, the second part present some challenges. Running is an individual sport and one can happily pursue it without being concerned about this issue. More over, there are many critical areas where we lack diversity. Hence, it is unlikely that issue will even be considered as a starter in many forums and groups.
Bengaluru based Runners’ High, started by Santhosh in 2009, have always focused on inclusivity since its inception. Although not an ‘open group’, as runners pay training fee to be a part of the group, Santhosh has successfully integrated his work with schools for underprivileged with the group. When asked how he managed to do it, Santhosh said,
“I don’t see Philanthropy distinct or as a separate stream of activity in our community. It is in line with our philosophy of none any lesser, none any better. Once admitted in our programs, there is no difference between paid or unpaid runners.”
Over the years, Santhosh has been instrumental in getting many children from underprivileged backgrounds to take up to running; and now some of the children from earlier years are leading the training for the younger ones.
Second, promotion campaigns for running events is a good opportunity for showcasing diversity. Unfortunately, most events use stock photos that largely contains photographs of runners outside India. The natural inclination for most Indians is to use pictures of models from caucasian ethnicity. In addition, use of image correction softwares results in using images of non-existent runners with flawless body shapes. After all, what’s the point of using images of runners who don’t resemble any closer to the target audience?
Third, creating forums and ‘safe spaces’ for interaction and engagement of runners from under represented groups. Although running groups as such can be a safe space for interaction and expression, it would certainly help people to reach out to someone ‘like them’ before integrating with the larger group. One such initiative that I have been aware of is the Chennai Runners Women Ambassador’s program, which facilitates woman runners to reach out to those already running with different groups.
Finally, the responsibility remains with every individual to rise up to the occasion. Recreational running is relatively a new social activity and is certainly not mandated to carry the regressive ills of the society from the past. While it is easier to blame elsewhere for the lack of diversity, it is still important for everyone to reflect it on themselves. I don’t hesitate to say that there is lack of diversity among those I choose to run with; even if they are more heterogenous compared to my acquaintances before running. The onus is still on me to use running as an instrument to know more about the ‘other.’ Over the years, I have always found widespread acceptance in many places as a runner. It is up to me to reflect on what I can and have to give back through running. As Eliud Kipchoge once said,
I would like to thank Santhosh and Ram Viswanathan for kindly accepting to review and provide feedback. The opinions expressed in the article remains with me.