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Can We Run Away From Politics?

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When Keshia Roberson hears anybody call running an “escape from politics,” she has some mixed emotions.

As a running coach and wellness advocate based in Washington, D.C., she understands that running can serve as stress relief and personal solace, a way to bond with friends or improve your mental health. But her identity itself makes politics unavoidable in any space she occupies.

“I am a Black woman,” Roberson says. “I don’t get the privilege of saying, ‘I’m going to go for a run, and my Blackness or my woman-ness aren’t going to come into play.’ Nothing in this world is not related to politics in some kind of way.”

This year has delivered a never-ending barrage of tough challenges: the novel coronavirus pandemic (and the abrupt cancellation of plans and jobs and schools that came with it); protests over racial justice and police brutality; raging wildfires across the western states; and an exceedingly contentious and divisive presidential election. And while each of these issues has seemed to amplify activism efforts among many runners throughout the country (and world), others have pleaded for a respite from it all—for running to be apolitical.

The plea is likely a wish for a moment without the emotionally taxing noise that has, in many ways, become relentless. But what some runners may not realize is that the sport has always been political; running has been used as a critical platform for social change for decades. If not for the runners who came before us, women wouldn’t be allowed to race farther than 200 meters. Black people wouldn’t be able to represent the United States at the Olympics. Title IX wouldn’t have opened up equal opportunities for female athletes.

“I think when someone’s gut reaction is, ‘Keep your politics out of my sport,’ it’s an unawareness of the politics already embedded in the system,” says Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and assistant professor at Arizona State University, who was the 2006 NCAA 10,000-meter champion. “I think it’s actually an opportunity for learning. If we move beyond that gut reaction of opposition and actually listen, that’s the opportunity for growth.”

To be sure, running has never been as democratic as it may appear. It requires money to buy gear, enough time to do it free from other obligations (such as work and childcare), safe places to go, unpolluted air to breathe, clean water to drink, and an invitation to belong to the community, as Gene Demby explained in a widely circulated “Code Switch” episode on NPR. When you can check these boxes without second thought, it is easier to separate politics from the activity.

“Those people tend to be the people with more privilege,” says Alison Désir, founder of Harlem Run and Run 4 All Women. Désir is also a mental health coach and activist based in New York. “The reason why running can appear apolitical to you is because your movement outside isn’t legislated by anybody. It takes a bit of reflection for people to make those connections … while we may want to go seek refuge while running, we have to understand that for many of us, where we can run, what time of day, what property we can go on, what we wear, that stuff is legislated to us.”

Running will remain a powerful agent for social change long after 2020 ends. But by gaining an understanding of the sport’s history and how it has collided with politics, we also gain an appreciation for how that’s led to progress not just for runners, but society at large. And maybe that will put more meaning into our miles. Because the simple truth is, you wouldn’t be lacing up today—or reading this article—if running hadn’t gotten political.

A Woman’s Right to Run

Every step of the way, women have had to defy the rules and push the powers-that-be just for the simple permission to lace up. Until 1960, when the women’s 800 meters was reintroduced at the Olympics, female runners weren’t allowed to race farther than 200 meters. (Fun fact: The 800 meters was first allowed in 1928, but men thought the women appeared too winded and taxed from the effort at the finish line, so they eliminated the event for 32 years.) Back then it was assumed (mostly by men who governed the sport) that running long distances would harm reproductive health and some fear that women’s uteruses would fall out.

Nonetheless, women pushed ahead and fought for the equal opportunity to compete. Arlene Pieper Stine quietly became the first American woman to complete a sanctioned marathon at the 1959 Pikes Peak race in Colorado, which never barred women from entering. But it wasn’t until road-racing pioneers like Bobbi Gibb, who ran the Boston Marathon unofficially in 1966, and Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to finish Boston as a registered runner in 1967 (she entered under her initials), endured the brunt of the backlash, helped to prove these theories wrong.

Illustration of Joan Benoit Samuelson winning the 1984 marathon
Photo: Moira Zahra

In 1984, the first women’s Olympic marathon was finally held in Los Angeles, won by American Joan Benoit Samuelson. And in case you were worried: She went on to have a fully functioning uterus that produced two children. She even ran six miles the day her son was born in 1990 and she continues to run competitively in masters divisions today.

Women have long recognized that joining forces often leads to progress. In 1972, the same year Title IX was passed, the Amateur Athletic Union (then the sport’s governing body), allowed female entrants in long-distance road races for the first time. But the organization refused to sanction events in which women competed at the same time as men. They were only allowed to run separately. At the starting line of the New York City Marathon that year, women protested the rule by sitting down when the gun went off, waiting 10 minutes until the men’s start to begin running. Soon after, the AAU lifted its separate-but-equal rule.

That might sound extreme, but if you take a look at the throngs of people on any (pre-pandemic) race course today, you’ll see them running for all sorts of causes, from cancer research to youth fitness programs, homeless shelters to food banks. Events are used to raise funds and awareness for countless issues. Including equality.

In 1977, about 3,000 women championed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by running a 2,600-mile relay from Seneca Falls, New York, to Houston, where the National Women’s Convention was taking place. The distance symbolized the ground women had covered in the fight for equal rights since the first Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848.

This concept remains today, as 10,000 participants registered for the Womxn Run the Vote virtual relay in September this year. The event sought to be more inclusive to Black, Indigenous, and people of color than previous women’s movements. The virtual course from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., was marked by important locations in Civil Rights history. Désir, who helped organize the event on behalf of the women’s apparel company Oiselle and Run 4 All Women, says the relay symbolized collective action to help protect voting rights in marginalized communities.

“It’s about building power and about showing that when we come together, we can tackle these really massive, scary issues,” she says.

Standing for Something

Wyomia Tyus was the first athlete (man or woman) to win gold medals in the 100-meters in consecutive Olympics. At the 1968 Games in Mexico City, she wore black shorts instead of the official team uniform in a show of support for the Olympic Project for Human rights, an organization that opposed racial segregation. The group also encouraged an athlete boycott of the 1968 Millrose Games, then sponsored by the New York Athletic Club, which at that time didn’t allow Black or Jewish athletes in as members, while still profiting off their athletic performances.

Tyus’s black-shorts protest was upstaged by the podium protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously raised their fists during the national anthem. But she was still one in a generation of Black female runners who used their athletic ability to draw attention to issues surrounding racial equality.

In her upcoming book, Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow, Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University, details the story of Rose Robinson, a high jumper who refused to stand during the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1959 Pan American Games.

Robinson opposed the U.S. State Department’s propaganda trips during the Cold War, in which Black athletes were used as props to convince the Soviet Union that the United States didn’t condone racism or sexism. Robinson rejected the trips and was (probably not coincidentally) indicted for $380 in tax evasion. She used her time in jail to go on a hunger strike, and in doing so, garnered even more attention for her cause. Wilma Rudolph, the iconic triple gold medalist sprinter, participated in the trips, but later became an outspoken critic and used her fame to fight for pay equality for female athletes and integration.

“The women who competed in track and field in the 1950s and 60s, they were doing the work, they just didn’t get the credit for it,” Jackson says. “They were the organizers, the grassroots workers. They really didn’t get much coverage in the press because it was so male-dominated.”

Illustration of Gwen Berry raising her fist on the podium at the Pan Am Games
Photo: Moira Zahra

In the present day, track and field stars are still using podium moments, even at the risk of breaking Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which punishes athletes for displays of protest. Gwen Berry, U.S. hammer thrower, received probation and a reprimand from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee after she raised a fist on the podium at the 2019 Pan Am Games. Berry wanted to draw attention to her struggle as a Black female athlete and the way in which Black Americans are treated. Now, Berry is a member of the USOPC’s Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice, looking into recommendations to help eradicate racism and discrimination in Olympic sports.

“If you actually listen to athletes who protest during those moments, it’s an opportunity to express their patriotism, that they are part of the project of making the country better,” Jackson says. “My hope is that the definition of what it means to represent our country means working on this project—it shouldn’t always have to fall to Black athletes to press the country to be better.”

The Reality of Inclusivity

In 1932, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes were the first Black women to make the U.S. Olympic track and field team, but they weren’t warmly welcomed. They were uninvited to athlete banquets, harassed by their teammates, and shunned from their rightful spots on the 4 x 100-meter relay in favor of two slower white women. But their mere presence at the Games, representing the U.S., broke an important barrier for Black female athletes.

Unfortunately, Black, Indigenous, and people of color still bear a high degree of racism within the sport today. Women experience sexism and misogyny. LGBTQ runners are targets of homophobic and transphobic threats.

When Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in February while out on a run near his Georgia home, it spurred a wider discussion and an awakening within the running community. White men in a pickup truck chased and shot Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, a tragic example of why many Black people don’t feel safe doing what most white runners take for granted: heading out for a few miles during the afternoon.

In May, Désir prompted runners to think about why Arbery’s death didn’t initially receive more attention from the media and how Black runners aren’t better represented in publications like Women’s Running or Runner’s World. And why are there so few Black long-distance runners at the top of the sport in the U.S.?

Jackson says that the problems that exist today are a reflection of systemic racial inequalities throughout the country—segregation still exists and many communities still don’t have safe parks, sidewalks, or trails to run, so few people take it up.

“If you look at the places where people are not running, that’s where we have food deserts, less city services, more issues with policing, and schools are potentially getting failing grades,” Jackson says. “I think there’s beginning to be more awareness from people in positions of privilege that it’s dangerous for some people to use their bodies in public spaces.”

It also takes courage for athletes like Nikki Hiltz, one of a few openly gay pro runners in the U.S., to make public displays of sexual orientation. When she won the road mile at the Adidas Boost Boston Games, she was wrapped in a rainbow flag in celebration. The image was used in Adidas social media and promotion, prompting some hateful comments and retaliation. Hiltz didn’t shy away from responding. Still, after she made her first world championships team in the 1500 meters, she traveled to the competition in Doha, Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal.

“I want to show people that your sexuality in sport doesn’t matter. The faster I run, the more people I’m going to reach,” she said at the time. “And maybe some little kid in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will know who I am and realize it’s OK to be gay.”

The U.S. still has work to do in becoming the inclusive running community it often claims to be, but Désir sees progress and a structure already in place to do the work, if participants choose to.

“There are running clubs and running crews all over the country, where hundreds of people will gather again [after the pandemic],” she says. “Think about the leaders and the opportunities they have to speak to folks and engage folks. It’s a massive opportunity. It’s not new to use running this way, it’s just about waking up to the fact that nobody’s going to save us but ourselves.”

Illustrated diverse group of 5 women
Photo: Moira Zahra

Defining Our Own Success

As the COVID-19 pandemic grew more worrisome in the U.S., it became clear that track and field’s Olympic hopefuls needed to band together on how they wanted officials at U.S.A. Track & Field to advocate for them while determining if the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed. In other words, they had to get political.

The Athletics Association, formed by Olympian Christian Taylor, seeks to fight for athlete rights and provide an independent voice. With vice president and world champion steeplechaser Emma Coburn, they surveyed thousands of athletes about how the coronavirus was disrupting training and creating some impossible situations in preparation for the Olympic Trials.

Ultimately, the athletes didn’t feel safe and believed that their health was at risk in trying to train for the Tokyo Games. USATF voiced those concerns and called for postponement until 2021. It was one of many issues that the Athletics Association is undertaking to look out for the welfare of its members.

“There are assumptions made [by officials] about what athletes want and what’s best for them,” Coburn told the Washington Post in July. “We’re grown-ups and we’re professionals. We’re no longer OK with just accepting those assumptions. We want to gather opinions, distribute those opinions, and provide support.”

Sprinter Allyson Felix, the most-decorated female track and field athlete in U.S. history, was named to Time’s “100 Most Influential of 2020.” She spends much of her energy off the track speaking publicly about racial disparities in maternal health. She also joined Olympians Alysia Montaño and Kara Goucher in calling out the lack of financial protection for athletes who become pregnant during their competitive careers—not unlike people in most career paths who suffer professionally and financially when they have children. In turn, her former sponsor Nike rewrote its maternity policies for athletes on contract.

“I finally got to a point where I was willing to risk it all because I believed what I was doing could bring change for the next generation,” Felix says.

Other athletes have also taken up issues that impact future generations. Take Mary Cain, for example, the former teen track star, now 24 years old, who trained under Alberto Salazar at the defunct Oregon Project. In a 2019 New York Times op-ed she alleged that Salazar weighed her in front of teammates and publicly shamed her for not hitting his predetermined number. Under his coaching, she suffered depression, suicidal thoughts, five stress fractures, and didn’t menstruate for three years, she said.

Salazar, who was already serving a suspension for doping violations (he is appealing the decision and denies wrongdoing), has been temporarily banned from the sport pending investigation by the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, an independent nonprofit organization designated by the U.S. Congress to respond to reports of sexual misconduct within U.S. Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Cain’s story unleashed a conversation about the destructive culture underlying sports at all levels, where outdated science and antiquated training philosophies (many perpetuated by a male-dominated coaching profession) often result in eating disorders and emotional abuse. Cain decided to turn her experience and the experiences of so many women in running into action.

“I have this renewed love of the sport … because I do have so much hope in what women’s sports can and will become,” she said in January, adding that it’s her goal to help develop better education and training for coaches and runners. “Due to lack of education and inappropriate societal norms, many people have a poor understanding of how to address topics such as women’s cycles, weight, and training appropriately.”

And so we see that it’s difficult to divorce the politics of running from what we do when we head out the door every day. The issues are wide-ranging, complex, and always present. But Keshia Roberson, for one, hopes that those issues inspire more runners to embrace the difficult topics, instead of asking for them to stay out of running.

“I do recognize that because we don’t feel comfortable talking about some of these things, then we’d rather not talk about them all,” Roberson says. “But discomfort is part of the running process. If you want to get better as a runner, you’ve got to learn to deal with the discomfort. That’s how we grow and that’s how the running community progresses.”