One small head start for woman. One giant step backward for women.
You know something's screwy when the first runner to cross the Dallas White Rock Marathon finish line isn't the winner. And when, in an era of monumental gains by female athletes on the cusp of competing against males on level playing fields, women are awarded a 20-minute lead because, well, they're women.
The Rock has long been one of America's most-respected, best-organized running events. But after last week's horrible handicapping ploy that bestowed glory and greenbacks on a leggy female armed with an unfair advantage, it's also making a late push for 2005's Dumbest Idea of the Year.
"It's insulting," said the National Organization for Women's Texas president Hannah Riddering. "There are obvious physical differences between women and men--we have babies and you don't. But this kind of thing is ridiculous. It's a step in the wrong direction."
In fact, The Rock's crappy concept sent gender equity spiraling 30 years.
1973: Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs, helped, of course, by a 26-year youth advantage and use of tennis' doubles alleys. Title IX!
2005: Lioudmila Kortchaguina beats Pavel Andreyev, helped, of course, by a head start of 19 minutes, 24 seconds. Title Nein!
As part of The Rock's inaugural Cooper Complete Challenge presented by Hummer, 10 elite women runners started the December 11 race in front of the American Airlines Center at 7:40 a.m. The field of 10,000, including the elite men's group, wasn't allowed to start until 8 a.m.
Who devised this scheme--Rosie Ruiz?
Actually it was the brain burp of Todd Whitthorne, president and chief operating officer of the Cooper Aerobics Center's Cooper Concepts division. Whitthorne stole the idea from the Los Angeles Marathon, hoping it would distinguish The Rock in a landscape of 300 U.S. marathons, create drama for The Rock's TV debut on Channel 8 and generate a bigger check for The Rock's charity of choice, Scottish Rite Hospital.
"The event elevated the profile of our marathon," Whitthorne reasoned. "A guy chasing a girl for a big paycheck is compelling."
Ideological intentions often come with costly consequences. Bottom line: The force-fed sprint between the sexes degraded a legitimate race into a made-for-TV exhibition.
By the time runners made their way around White Rock Lake and into downtown, they faced a conclusion littered with confusion. In setting a women's Rock record, Kortchaguina crossed the finish line first, 4:45 ahead of Andreyev. For that, she received the gender challenge's prize of $25,000. Andreyev, despite running the 26.2-mile course 14:39 minutes faster than Kortchaguina, was left an overall winner feeling like a sore loser.
"I didn't think it was fair," Andreyev told reporters after the race. "It was impossible."
Admitted Kortchaguina, "It was comfortable for the women. For the men, it was tough."
Allowing that the handicap gap was "way off," Whitthorne remains married to the spirit of the head start.
"We're not tricking up the marathon," he said. "It's not a shorter distance for the women. Everybody in the running community--male and female--has had nothing but great things to say about the challenge."
Neanderthal noggins at work: Women can only win marathons with head starts and can only appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing half a bikini.
Like the 29-year-old King whipping the 55-year-old Riggs in a rigged Battle of the Sexes, this radical result is somehow supposed to empower women? It's more likely to make Martha Burk blush.
"All things being equal, women don't want a head start," says Dallas legend Nancy Lieberman, a member of the co-ed Basketball Hall of Fame and ESPN's top women's basketball analyst. "I'm not a big fan of unfair advantages, never have been. [The Rock] wasn't a pure race. The rules were manipulated."
The Rock earned itself a nice corporate sponsor and a sexy, sexist subplot. But at the risk of losing credibility and sending minds right into the gutter...heavy-breathing women physically motivating men to finish? All sponsored by Hummer? Hmm. We won't go there but Riddering will. Sort of.
"Probably the [H3]," she says in an exaggerated dainty voice. "You know, the little cute one for women. Because little girls can't handle the big, bad Hummer built for men, right? Geez."
I ran The Rock in '91, thoroughly humbled by countless women who trained harder, desired stronger and were built better. That was 14 years and 24 pounds ago, and I still don't see the need for shameless concessions to girls.
Neither do the Dallas Diamonds, two-time champions of the Women's Professional Football League. It's not Powder Puff Football, but padded, tackle football. Their star running back Jessica Springer is 5-foot-9, 220 pounds of nasty that will turn you and your stereotypes into grass stains.
"If women want to compete for overall prize money, they need to be judged exactly the same," says Diamonds captain and Arlington native Aurelia Green. "If I had an advantage over the men and someone proclaimed 'a woman beats the men!' I'd be insulted and embarrassed that the glory was taken from the true winner."
First a head start, then what?
Annika Sorenstam out-drove Fred Funk at last month's Skins Game. Do we make her and Michelle Wie play the red tees when trying to qualify for men's tournaments?
Does Danica Patrick only have to go 450 laps to win the Indy 500? Do female kickers on college football teams, like New Mexico's Katie Hnida, get to use a tee? Are women jockeys in the Kentucky Derby, like Rosemary Homeister, given cattle prods instead of traditional whips? Does The Lady of the Lake get to start her White Rock Halloween hauntings on Labor Day? Does Laura Miller--you can almost hear her wheels turning--get a 1,000-vote jump start in the next mayoral election?
Of course not. Because, like metroplex Olympics heroines Babe Didrickson in 1932 and Carly Patterson in 2004, women don't need this city's charity via unfair advantages.
Neither did Lioudmila Kortchaguina. To be $25,000 richer, yes. To be a champion, no.
Just look, the gap between The Rock's men's and women's winners is shrinking faster than Britney Spears' baby fat. In '96 the winning man beat the top woman by 28 minutes. In '00 the margin was down to 21 and this year to less than 15. At this point all they need is patient support, not patronizing shortcuts.
"It's frustrating," says Lieberman, "because things like this just pour fuel on the fire for critics who think women will never be on equal footing."
One small loss for men. One giant victory for male chauvinist pigs.
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