During the past five years in particular, transgender athletes have fought for their right to participate in every level of competitive sports. The battle for inclusion is taking place at schools where kids are just trying to play ball with other children of their gender all the way to the Olympics.
Now, five of the six top global marathons have announced policies that recognize nonbinary people in competition. That reads like progress, but there’s some pretty important fine print attached: Nonbinary athletes can run in marathons, but they can’t actually win.
As of late, there’s been a major push to create nonbinary divisions in competitive running, largely driven by runners themselves. And to be fair, the marathoning world has seemed responsive. In 2021, the New York Marathon included a nonbinary division, and this year, Chicago, Berlin, Boston and London all announced they would also allow nonbinary runners. For those who don’t follow competitive running, there are six major marathons ― five of which are above ― and only Tokyo hasn’t yet announced a plan for nonbinary inclusion.
The glaring problem is that all of these seemingly inclusive races have dramatically different prize categories for nonbinary people. The Boston Marathon, for example, announced last month that nonbinary people can race, but they can’t win any money. The London Marathon said it will also include a nonbinary identifying option, but not in the higher-level races. The nonbinary division of the Chicago Marathon literally doesn’t have a finish line — those are reserved for “elite” races.
None of the marathons have an elite nonbinary division, which means that nonbinary runners can only compete at lower levels and win smaller dollar amounts. In other words, nonbinary athletes will have to do the same amount of intense training and preparation that every other runner does, but they don’t have a shot at the same cash prizes, which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Marathons have been generally ahead of the curve when it comes to transgender inclusion in athletics, and trans people who identify as one of the binary genders have been allowed to run in some races as far back as 2015, technically speaking. But the issue has always been fraught and we didn’t actually see trans people openly participating in the Boston Marathon until 2018. Now that fully 5% of American adults identify as nonbinary, it seems obvious that trans people who buck the binary also should be recognized in marathon competitions, right? Right.
Marathon organizers say that the situation is complicated, but they’re working on it. Organizers claim that because the nonbinary divisions are new, they have to establish guidelines in terms of both race times and prizes. “As we prepare for future races, participants can expect nonbinary times to be updated accordingly,” Boston Marathon organizers said in a statement. For now, participants — and fans — are concerned that these inclusion efforts are a kind of Big Sports virtue-signaling that ends up feeling dismissive.
From here, it looks like marathon organizers don’t really have a solid grasp of what it means to think outside the binary. For example, until they have their own history of stats, nonbinary runners will have to meet the qualifying times of the women’s division for the Boston Marathon, the New York Times reported. This doesn’t make sense for prominent marathoners like Cal Calamia, a nonbinary marathoner in Chicago, who met both men’s and women’s qualifying standards, according to the Times.
Still, some runners are choosing to run as nonbinary despite the limitations. “I wanted to register as myself,” Jake Fedorowski, a nonbinary marathoner in Seattle who is spearheading efforts to change the gender restrictions in the running world, told the New York Times. Trailblazers like Fedorowski are trying to pave the way for progress.
Marathon organizers, too, seem to see nonbinary inclusion as the first step to leveling the playing field for competitive runners. “We view this first year as an opportunity to learn and grow together,” Boston Marathon organizers said in their statement. Hopefully, that means that the cash and prizes afforded to nonbinary athletes will also grow.