Confessions of a Trainee Feminist
On my social media profiles, I profess to be a “Trainee Feminist”. As the lone male in our household (even our cats are girls) I might joke that this is merely a survival tactic but, having been blessed with two daughters, it is actually a genuine attempt at improving myself and the world into which my daughters grow up.
I recently wrote an article on the oldest road race in Johannesburg, the Jackie Gibson Marathon. The race also has a half marathon named after another South African running legend, Allan Ferguson. I thought I’d done a pretty good job conveying the personality of the marathon – as well as highlighting the impressive achievements of both gentlemen which resulted in them getting honoured with race naming rights (Allan Ferguson actually has two road races named after him – as far as I know the only person in the world to be so honoured).
I enjoy positive feedback as much as the next guy. Whilst I was hitting the refresh button on my keyboard and hunting down favourable comments for the article on social media, I noticed a remark from Tracey McKay that left me slightly perturbed, “Notice how we only have races names in honour of men.”
I wish I could say that I read Tracey’s message, nodded wisely and sagely said, “Great point Tracey”. As previous stated, I am still a “Trainee Feminist*” – and this is the excuse for my immediate response being largely unprintable. However, I was able to reflect on Tracey’s statement (my remedial schooling occurred over a couple of runs) and realised that her point was indeed valid.
* My battle against conscious chauvinism is made even harder being burdened with the surname ‘Mann’. This leads to perpetual stereotyping and labels that are hard to overcome – even my mother was a Mann.
You, the reader (especially the reader with both X and Y chromosomes), might still be doubting whether this is a real issue. Who better to answer this question (and bring some class to this article) than Caroline Wöstmann, the first South African lady to win Comrades in the 20th century (2015) and double Two Oceans winner (2015 & 2016), “I feel that we have moved in leaps and bounds over the last decade in heading towards an era where no discrimination based on gender is present in sport. Whilst this trend of acknowledging female athletes is evident I also feel that we are a long way from reaching a place where past prejudices have been eradicated and are no longer evident in the current sporting environment. I believe that if we continue to push towards a culture of equality through articles such as this and other female sports initiatives this gap will close more rapidly.”
Jackie Gibson, Allan Ferguson and the plethora of other men who are honoured with naming rights certainly deserve their accolades – this article is not trying to take anything away from them. However, I want to highlight that whilst many of our male running heroes are honoured with the naming rights for races, medals and trophies, there is just one South African race and a solitary trophy named after female runners.
I scoured the internet and scrutinised the fixture list. My findings are as follows:
There are at least 75 races named after people. Of these about 60 are named after male runners, notable honourees include Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler and Alan Robb. I was really pleased to see that Olympic marathon gold winner Josia Thugwane is finally getting some much deserved recognition with the SA 10km Champs in September bearing his name.
There are about ten races named after male politicians. Nelson Mandela dominates with several races and even JG Zuma has captured a race name (whilst he might be good at running from the law, I’ve seen little to suggest any athletic prowess on two feet).
There are just four races named after women.
- The Hanlie Steyn Memorial half marathon in Polokwane. Whilst not a runner herself, Hanlie supported her blind husband, Stefan, to his Comrades Green Number. After a brave fight against breast cancer, she passed away in 2015 and her husband has subsequently organised a race to honour her memory.
- The Ma’am Jila Memorial 10km in Hammarsdale on the outskirts of Durban. Ma’am Jila dedicated her life to the education and upliftment of the local community starting creches for orphans and education programmes for learners. She is still revered in the local community.
- The Florence Ndlovu Memorial half marathon in Impendle, central Kwazulu Natal. Jabulile Florence Ndlovu was a member of NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) and the UDF (United Democratic Front ) who was shot dead during the political turmoil in the late 1980s. She was born in Impendle which now honours her memory with a race bearing her name.
- The final entry in the list is the sole race in the country named after a female athlete: The Riana van Niekerk Run & Walk for Bibles Race held in Pretoria.
Riana van Niekerk & Her Race
Riana was a well-known road runner who earned four Comrades and three Two Oceans gold medals. She won many races over her career (ironically the list includes record wins at Wally Hayward, Jackie Mekler and George Claassen) but is best remembered for her domination of the Om Die Dam 50km (the third largest ultra marathon in South Africa and largest 50km race in the world) which she won six times (more than any other runner). Less than a month after winning her final Om Die Dam in 2015, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 12 months later.
Riana graduated from Hoërskool Zwartkop, who hosted the Run & Walk for Bibles race. Shortly after Riana’s passing the school principal, Mr. Dewald Strydom, approached the race committee about renaming the race in honour of Riana. The idea was quickly and unanimously approved.
For any race organisers fearing “author’s dilemma” where female authors initial their first names (like J.K. Rowling) or use a male nom de plume for fear of stereotyping and poor sales (by alienating the male market), I would point out that the race has grown substantially since adding “Riana van Niekerk” to the title and this year 2,500 runners and walkers took part in the event. On these numbers, it makes it the second largest race named after a female athlete in the world.
South Africa is unique in having medals named after specific people. Comrades started the trend and Two Oceans quickly followed. Although there are currently just a handful of people honoured with medal naming rights, this is another area that has proven difficult for women to engrave their names upon. As far as I know there is no female athlete anywhere in the world who is honoured with a medal name that is awarded to both women and men.
Comrades has three medals named after men: the Wally Hayward (for men* who finish outside the top 10 but under 6-hours), Bill Rowan (for anyone who finishes between 7:30 and 9-hours) and the Vic Clapham (for everyone who finishes in the final hour before the 12-hour cut-off).
* Theoretically a woman could win a Wally Hayward medal but only in the unlikely event that 11 or more women finish under 6-hours. In the history of Comrades, only three women have ever broken 6-hours.
The closest we’ve got to a feminine touch on any medal is the sub 5-hour Sainsbury medal at the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon which honours both Chet and (his lesser known, non-running wife) Annemarie Sainsbury. Chet, as race director, and Annemarie, as race secretary, served Two Oceans for over 20 years and were instrumental in transforming the race into the great event it is today.
Although Two Oceans does the best in the medal stakes, the trophy cabinet is emptier than the shelves at a Venezuelan supermarket. There are a large number of floating trophies awarded at Two Oceans for the various category and team prizes but the titular trophies are all named after men.
As one would expect the male categories are dominated by male names – for example the first male veteran (40+ years) earns you the Dave Venter trophy (named for the race’s founder) and Chet Sainsbury gets another nod with the trophy awarded to the first male grandmaster (60+).
However, Sebastian Coe would take issue with the amount of testosterone mixed into the female trophies (and I can assure you that my research is more scientifically sound than his): The first master (50+) lady wins the Leo Benning Trophy, the first local Western Province female athlete gets to proudly display the Brian Benningfield Trophy and the youngest female finisher earns the Chris (short for Christopher) Roux Trophy. The biggest race in the Mother City honours plenty of her sons but none of her daughters.
Before anyone thinks that there is some sinister conspiracy at play, it’s important to point out that the various male athletes and officials donated trophies specifically to recognise female athletic achievement at Two Oceans – and the trophy name was credited to the donor. For example, Leo Benning gave a huge amount of his time and effort to Masters Athletics so it is fitting that he is honoured in that category. However, it is still remarkable that no ladies have yet been honoured with a trophy name.
Comrades does do slightly better in this regard with the Geraldine Watson Trophy. This is earned by the last person to stumble across the Comrades finish line (although on current runner demographics, the odds are four to one that this will be won by a man). From the research I’ve done, this is one of only two trophies worldwide named after a female athlete that can be won by both (dare I say) traditional genders*. However, before we laud the chivalry of the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA), it should be pointed out that Geraldine Watson (in the 1930s she became the first woman to complete both the Up and Down runs) donated the trophy for this specific purpose so it would have been difficult to call it anything else.
* The other is at a relay race around Norfolk, England where the best age-graded overall individual performance wins the Kelly Holmes Trophy.
Having laid out the facts, the obvious rebuttal to the argument is “history” – that’s where my brain went when I first read Tracey’s “all named after men” comment.
Yes, there was a long period when women were not allowed to run marathons. It was believed “medically and physically impossible” for a woman to run Comrades until 1975 (although several “freaks of nature” managed to defy all logic and conventional wisdom by completing the trip between Durban and Pietermaritzburg without ill effect long before a bunch of men changed the rules to “acknowledge” women).
Yes, there are plenty of historical reasons why there will be more races, medals and trophies named after men but a lot of history has taken place between 1975 and today. I would argue that 43 years is enough time to warrant more than one lonely race name and trophy honouring female runners.
Now I don’t think that there is a massive conspiracy against female runners but I do think that there is undercurrent of unconscious bias. The asphalt ceiling is clearly a hard one to break through!
Aside: The History of Women’s Medals at Comrades
“Women were first acknowledged in 1975 with them being awarded Bronze Medals.
From 1979 to 1981 a Silver Medal was awarded to the 1st Woman.
In 1983 a Gold Medal was introduced for the 1st Woman.
In 1988 Gold Medals were awarded to the first 3 Women and in 1995 this was increased to the first 5 Women.
From 1998 the first 10 Women were awarded Gold Medals, the same as the men’s event.”
The history of women’s medals at Comrades reads a lot like the struggle for equal recognition for female athletes. Whilst Comrades was not the first South African race to offer equal status and (eventually) prize money to female athletes, what Comrades does everyone else follows – and their 1998 “equal prize money” decision drove equality throughout the local running scene. Until this time most races would have fewer prizes and less prize money for female athletes. When I started running in 2002 there were no “unequal prize money” races left but the concept was still fresh enough that most races would proudly emblazon their flyers with “Equal prize money for men and women”*.
* This holds true for road running but there were some trail races that remained in the backwoods and have only recently embraced gender equality.
Likewise, South African races actually allowing women to participate was ground-breaking in itself. Especially when one considers that just a few years beforehand in the 1960s, the IAAF restricted female athletes to run no further than 800m (and forbid men and women to run together) and the first time that women could run an Olympic marathon was at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Spoilt for Choice
So, what are the options? I tried to get input from as many current and former elite athletes as I could. Who were the female athletes that inspired them and who do they feel should be honoured?
Here is a lovely long list of female athletes for potential race, medal and trophy naming honours (where possible, I have linked the best article about each athlete that I could find): Alet Kleynhans, Ann Ashworth, Ann McKenzie, Blanche Moila, Caroline Wöstmann, Christine Kalmer, Colleen de Reuck, Elana Meyer, Elizabeth Cavanagh, Evelina Tshabalala, Farwa Mentoor, Frances Hayward, Frith van der Merwe, Geraldine Watson, Grace de Oliveira, Gwen van Lingen, Helen Lucre, Isavel Roche-Kelly, Jowaine Parrott, Ulla Paul, Lettie van Zyl, Lindsay Weight, Maureen Holland, Mavis Hutchison, Monica Drogemoller, Nicole Fuller, Rene Kalmer, Riana van Niekerk, Sarah Mahlangu, Sarina Cronje, Sonja Laxton, Tanith Maxwell, Tilda Tearle, Zola Budd.
Note to race directors and decision makers: There are plenty of great names to choose from!
Note to everyone else: If you feel anyone is missing from this list please send me the name and details and I will update this section.
As for Comrades medals, this is touchy subject – but don’t worry, I am not tactile sensitive, so I’ll jump right in and make some recommendations for new (or renamed) medals.
Aside from the obvious option of simply renaming the silver, bronze and/or back-to-back medals after one of the many female pioneers in this race, I think that there is still some room to manoeuvre with the introduction of new medals.
A sub 7-hour female medal
The sub 6-hour Wally Hayward medal is currently the hardest time-based medal for men to earn (and is impossible for women to earn). An equivalent sub 7-hour female only medal would be fitting and met with unanimous support from the female elites I spoke to – especially Nedbank’s Fikile Mbuthuma (who would have been one of only two recipients this year).
Newcomer on the elite running scene and recent winner of the Skukuza half marathon, Team Massmart’s Mia Morrison ran her debut Comrades this year finishing 17th in an excellent time of 7:16. She highlights the rationale for a new medal, “The female field is getting faster and more competitive. Historically, a sub-7 time would have guaranteed a gold medal, this is no longer the case. I think a sub-7 is worth celebrating.”
The two favoured names for this medal would be the Frith van der Merwe or Frances Hayward medal. Frith needs no introduction as she is the lady whom most consider the best female ultra runner South Africa has ever produced – her 1989 down run (5:54:43) where she finished over an hour ahead of the second lady is still the fastest female Comrades time ever. As for Frances Hayward, in 1923 she became the first woman to “unofficially” finish the race (which would also make her the first woman in history to complete an ultra marathon) and coincidentally shares the same last name as Wally (which has a nice ring to it with both men and women being able to earn ‘Hayward’ medals).
Salome Cooper (who finished 11th at this year’s Comrades and would have been the second beneficiary of a sub 7 medal) threw her weight firmly behind a Frith van der Merwe medal, “I always felt that Frith never got the recognition that she deserved. If we could have a Comrades medal for female athletes named after her – that would be awesome!”
A tongue-in-cheek third option, since this is for women who “just missed gold”, would be to name it after the current CMA Chairperson, Cheryl Winn. Cheryl was the last winning lady (1982) to receive a silver medal (Lindsay Weight earned the first female gold when she won Comrades the following year).
A sub 10-hour medal for men and women
There is a huge gulf between 9 and 11 hours for bronze medal winners. Introducing a new 10-hour medal (for both men and women) will give an incentive to a large portion of the field to run a little faster over the second half of Comrades (as one of them, I would definitely be motivated to stuff around a lot less if there was a 10-hour medal!).
As for the name options – there are plenty to choose from, including:
- The Betty Cavanagh medal since she was the first “acknowledged” female finisher in a time just over 10 hours and the first female to earn a Green Number the hard way with 10 finishes (her four unofficial pre-1975 finishes were recognised after the fact).
- The Mavis Hutchison medal after the original ‘Galloping Granny’ who, after a 32-year absence of estrogen at Comrades, finished the 1965 race unofficially in just over 10 hours thereby reopening the door for other female athletes to emulate.
Aside: Mavis Hutchison – The Original ‘Galloping Granny’
After completing Comrades, Mavis turned her attention to “long distance’ running. In 1973 she ran from Germiston to Durban (approximately 600km) in 6-and-a-half days. The following year she did the ‘Up’ run back to Germiston is just over 7 days. Pretoria to Cape Town (about 1500km) in 1975 was next on her list (completed in 22 days) and in 1976 she ran from Germiston to Cape Town (about 1400km) in 19 days. These were all training runs to realise her dream of running the width of the United States of America.
In 1977 she did her “taper run” from Messina to Johannesburg (about 550km), after which a 52-year old Mavis Hutchinson (who had recently become a granny) set off from Los Angeles City Hall and arrived at New York City Hall 70 days later. She averaged 72kms a day and her time is still recognised by Guinness as the official world record. Once her legs recovered, she tackled the John o’ Groats to Land’s End ‘length of Great Britain’ route in 1978 which she completed in 16 days (averaging 88kms a day and set another world record).
She did several more long distance runs in South Africa including a 3200km circuit race around the country (which was a loop from Cape Town to Kimberley via Bloemfontein, then up to the Kruger going through the old Transvaal, back down through Natal, Transkei, the Eastern Cape, the Garden Route and then finally back to Cape Town again). This took her 56 days (she just did one lap).
Mavis retired to Fish Hoek in the Cape and was still competing in athletics events into her late 80s.
Special achievement medal
This medal would be for physically challenged athletes who start the race early but finish the full route before the final cut-off. This year there was huge controversy after Xolani Luvuno (a one-legged amputee on crutches) won the hearts of South Africans but was not eligible to win a medal. This category medal would solve the, “Yes they achieved a great feat but what medal do we give them?” problem.
Once again, this medal idea got the thumbs-up from the current lady elites – although there was some difference in opinion on the naming. If the “just missed gold” female medal does not meet the approval of the CMA or is not called a “Frith”, she would be a contender to have her name attached to this medal.
The other popular choice is any of the women who completed Comrades unofficially (Frances Hayward, Geraldine Watson, Elizabeth Cavanagh, Mavis Hutchison, Maureen Holland and Alet Kleynhans) before their efforts were legitimised in 1975. This year’s ladies champion, Ann Ashworth, highlighted that a medal named after Frances Hayward or one of the other female pioneers would be “symbolic of overcoming adversity”.
Two Oceans Medals
There is a medal cut-off every hour at Two Oceans but only the 5-hour Sainsbury is “claimed”. This leaves the sub 4-hour silver, 6-hour bronze and 7-hour blue medals open for naming rights.
Previous race winners who would be contenders include the first official female finisher, Ulla Paul (like Comrades, Two Oceans officially opened the event to females in 1975) and Beverly Malan (who won the race three times in the early 1980s and was the first lady to break 4-hours).
My personal favourite would be a medal named after Monica Drogemoller (who shares the most wins – male or female – with Elena Nurgalieva). Drogemoller achieved 4 wins from 4 starts and all of them were under 4 hours – so renaming the sub 4-hour silver medal in her honour seems numerically fitting.
Om Die Dam Medals
Although she already has the solitary female race name, a medal renamed after Riana van Niekerk at Om Die Dam to honour her domination of the race seems an appropriate memorial to her achievements.
Helen Lucre (who broke the Two Oceans record in 1984 before winning three consecutive Comrades titles from 1985-7) provided a detailed response with a myriad of insights and ideas. One of these was the simple observation that, “Clubs could start by naming a regular club running route, event or medal in acknowledgement of a woman who has positively contributed to the club or running in general.”
Helen also reminded us not to forget the loyal servants of the sport who work tirelessly in the background. She relayed a lovely story about Vreni Welch (who has spent a lifetime dedicated to the administrative side of running and, together with her husband Dick, is an institution at Rand Athletic Club): After hearing about a wardrobe malfunction, Vreni dashed off to the airport with her sewing machine to save the day. She quickly got to work to ensure that the South African running team’s uniforms and kit fitted properly before take-off.
READ: The Famous Five – Frith, Zola, Elana, Blanche & Sonja (no last name required). These five fantastic female athletes were the most popular choices for naming honours from their peers. This spin-off article highlights their achievements and proposes how they can be appropriately honoured.
There is no doubt that women are underrepresented when it comes to being honoured with race names, medals and trophies. There is no doubt that current and former female elite athletes strongly support honouring their heroines and contemporaries. There is no doubt that there is a very long list of exceptionally worthy female athletes who deserve to be honoured.
When I was a kid, I was dragged to races my father was running (I expect that this will be a future complaint of my daughters). I can remember when significant races like Knysna and Voet of Afrika stipulated that the marathon distance was for men and the half marathon for women. They had “relaxed” the rules by that stage (sometime in the 1980s) so that women could run the full and men the half but there were only official placings and prize money for the gender the distance was “intended for” (and the women’s purse was much smaller).
We’ve certainly come a long way: I can remember when women weren’t supposed to run marathons. I can remember when there was unequal prize money and recognition for female athletes. Some really old runners (much older than me anyway) can even remember running marathons and ultras without any female company at all.
When Frances Hayward lined up outside the Pietermaritzburg City Hall in 1923 she started the gender equality ultra marathon. It took over 50 years until women were allowed to officially run South Africa’s largest ultras. A further 23 years passed before female athletes could earn equal prize money. We’re right at the end of this ultra – and like the finish of every long race, it will be great cross the finish line, relax and reminisce.
Hopefully this will happen very soon. Hopefully the finish line is just around the corner. Hopefully this year’s batch of novice runners will be the last to say, “I can remember when there were no races and medals named after female athletes.”
The author would like to thank the many people who have taken the time to contribute thoughts, ideas and insights to this article, in particular: Ann Ashworth, Salome Cooper, Sean Falconer, Dave Jack, Jenni Kruse, Ian and Sonja Laxton, Helen Lucre, Richard Mayer, Fikile Mbuthuma, Elana Meyer, Blanche Moila, Mia Morrison, Alec Riddle, Tilda Tearle, Cuan Walker and Caroline Wöstmann.