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2022 World Championships Marathon Qualifiers By Country, And What It Says About Gender Equality in Japan

The qualification window for this summer's Oregon 2022 World Championships marathon wrapped up last week with the May 29 Ottawa Marathon and a couple of other races. Athletes had four ways to qualify:
  1. By meeting the qualifying standards, 2:29:30 for women and 2:11:30 for men.
  2. By finishing in the top 10 at platinum elite label marathons like Boston or New York without hitting the standards.
  3. By earning a wildcard spot by being the defending world champion.
  4. By being high up enough in the world rankings to fill the quota of 100 athletes each in the women's and men's races after everything above was taken into account.
14 countries had a total of at least 10 women and men qualify, with 3, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Japan, each having over 100 athletes on the list. No other country had more than 40. Ethiopia led the way among women with 93 qualifiers, Kenya next with 71 and Japan 3rd with 41. Apart from them only the U.S.A., Great Britain and China had more than 10 women qualify. Here and below, relative to population these numbers would of course look different, Ethiopia and Kenya having enormously more, China dropping close to none, Japan having about 5 times as many as the U.S. and Great Britain just over double the American numbers.

Kenya unsurprisingly topped the men's list with 124, but Japan surpassed Ethiopia 102 to 83 for 2nd. To put it another way, Ethiopia had 81% as many men qualify as Japan, while Japan had 82% the number that Kenya did. The U.S.A. narrowly beat Eritrea 18-17 for 4th, but again relative to population it was farther down the list, Great Britain having proportionately a bit more than twice as many qualifiers as the U.S., just like among its women. Relative to population, Japan had about 14 times as many men qualify as the United States did.

Like I said earlier, Kenya had the largest total number of qualifiers at 195, Ethiopia next with 176, and Japan 3rd with 143. The U.S.A. had 40 and China 23, with the other 9 countries all between 10 and 19 total qualifiers apiece. Again, both the U.S.A. and China are a lot farther down the list relative to population.

And what about parity in numbers of female and male qualifiers? This isn't really a rigorous academic study, although it seems like there's a good one to be made here, but, recognizing that the smaller number of qualifiers for some countries means a greater impact from a difference of only 2 or 3 athletes and waving a hand vaguely anyway, let's define "parity" as a ratio of 0.7 to 1.3 women to 1 man, "disproportionately high female representation" as 1.4 or more women to 1 man, and "disproportionately high male representation," or whatever pejorative you want to use for that instead, as 0.6 or fewer women for 1 man. 

On the table above red indicates disproportionately high male representation, yellow parity, and green disproportionately high female representation. 6 countries fall into the first category, 6 into the second, and 2 into the third. The higher the number of total qualifiers the stronger a country's position in its category, and the smaller the number the weaker.

4 of the 6 countries with disproportionately high male representation are in Africa, with the addition of Japan and Israel. Japan had one of the most disproportionally high levels of male representation at 0.4 women to 1 man, with only Eritrea, Uganda and Morocco scoring higher. The 6 countries with parity were from 4 continents, half from Europe, and among them Ethiopia was notable as the only African country on the list not to have disproportionately high male representation. Great Britain and Germany were the only countries among the 14 on the list with disproportionately high female representation. Given its small total number Germany could be counted on the parity list instead, and given its large number Ethiopia should probably get the nod for the green group, but see previous discussion of hand waving. Broad strokes.

How do these levels of representation of women compare with the general state of gender equality in those countries? Let's see what the World Economic Forum says.

This chart ranks the 14 countries with at least 10 total World Championships marathon qualifiers by Gender Equality Index. Both countries with disproportionately high female representation ranked in the top 25 by GEI, and every country on the list in the top 31 by GEI had at least parity. Every country with disproportionately high male representation is ranked 60th or lower by GEI except Eritrea, for which the U.N. reports not enough data being available to give it a GEI ranking. There were a few exceptions, with Poland, Ethiopia and China all having parity in representation despite low rankings on gender equality, i.e. parity in their elite marathoning if not in other aspects of their societies. But broadly speaking a higher rating of gender equality correlated with greater parity in representation in elite marathoning. Japan was near the bottom of the list again, its GEI ranking of 119th globally putting it ahead of only Morocco and the unranked Eritrea.

Socioeconomic factors no doubt play a big role here. Ranking the 14 countries by GDP, every country in the top 21 worldwide had parity or better except Japan, while every country 33rd or lower by GDP had disproportionately high male representation except Ethiopia. That looks like a pretty strong correlation and it's not hard to imagine how there might be causality here, but what the actual causes are would be better answered in a more serious academic study. In any case, Ethiopia is clearly unique in the position of its women, and there's another interesting study to be done there.

In Japan it's a nationalist pastime to bring up what's perceived as its uniqueness on the tiniest of pretexts. One example: Sometimes I get invited to the victory banquets for Hakone Ekiden winning teams. A few years back I was at one getting some food from the buffet when a distinguished-looking older man came up and started a conversation in English. It turned out he was a professor emeritus of cultural history or something along those lines. When he found out I'd lived in Japan for a long time he said with no prompting from me, "Tell me, do you know what makes Japan unique?" I immediately answered, "Yes. No guns." He smiled, shook his head sadly, then leaned in to impart his wisdom to me. "No," he said in a half-whisper. "Japan is unique because it has four distinct seasons."

If you've had any substantial contact with Japan then someone has probably said that to you too at some point, but although that kind of thinking permeates almost everything, here's an area where Japan really is unique. Among global top 25 economic powers where elite marathoning is a significant thing, Japan is the only country without parity in the sport between women and men. The men outnumber the women 2.5 to 1. Why? Other countries with similarly disproportionately high male representation generally don't have a comparable economic situation, and there may be factors resulting from that which could limit their women's access to equal opportunity in the sport. Do Japanese women not have equal access to opportunity in the sport? 

The country's GEI ranking isn't encouraging in that regard. It's one of the most disproportionately male-dominated societies in the world, period. Women en large do not have equal opportunity. But it was also the first country to start holding annual elite-level women-only marathons, i.e. to invest in the development of its female marathoners in an organized way. At every level from junior high school to the corporate leagues there are dozens of teams and national championship ekidens for women just like for men, so at least on the surface it looks like there's equal access to opportunity even if participation numbers are higher for men.

The incredible popularity of the Hakone Ekiden makes it a magnet for men's talent that just doesn't exist for women, so that would partially explain participation. But I think what's more relevant here is the distances at Hakone. As I've written before, the intense focus on Hakone's half-marathonish stage distance for four years in university makes it a shorter jump to the marathon, exactly what Hakone was intended to do. At the New Year Ekiden, the corporate men's national championships, there's a stage that length too, and it's not a surprise that most of the top marathoners run it.

None of that exists for women. All the way up, their ekidens are shorter and the longest stage is also shorter than what the men do. In high school the longest stage is 6.0 km for women and 10.0 km for men. At the National University Women's Ekiden it's 9.2 km vs. 19.7 km at the National University Men's Ekiden. At the Mt. Fuji University Women's Ekiden it's 10.5 km against Hakone's 23.1 km. At the National Corporate Women's Ekiden it's 10.9 km vs. 22.4 km at the New Year Ekiden. Only the National Women's Ekiden and National Men's Ekiden, where runners of all ages compete for their home prefectures, come close to equality, women running up to 10.0 km and men 13.0 km.

When the main focus is 10 km it seems like it'd be harder or take longer to work up to the marathon than when it's on the half-marathon, a jump fewer women would take successfully, or at all. Even the National Corporate Half-Marathon is now split between a 10 km and half-marathon for women, but not for men. It's also a fact that back in the day when the women were at their peak globally in the marathon Japan had a whole circuit of women-only half marathons too, and that many of them are gone now. In other words, yes, Japanese women today don't have equal access to training and racing that focuses on longer distances and might give them the same chance for success in the marathon.

Not that the marathon is the be-all end-all or that more people running longer younger is necessarily a brilliant idea. One flip side is that more Japanese women qualify for international championships on the track, and do better there, than men. But given the context we're talking about, maybe having a half-marathonesque stage at the women's university and corporate national championship ekidens would be a good place to start in increasing the numbers of Japanese women having success in the marathon. There are a lot of other things that could stand to be changed, but that seems like one concrete, easy-to-implement takeaway from what's worked with the men that could help bring Japanese women one step closer to parity. Assuming that's a priority, at all.

© 2022 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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Dave Fujiwara said…
Brilliant, Brett.
Andrew Armiger said…
Great post, really enjoyed it.

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