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 cycle.
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 again.
(You 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.
(You should read: Real Talk Reflections with Myself on Body Image)
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 public.
Running publications 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.
(You 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 that change.
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.
(You 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.