Parkrun faces a major backlash over its decision to scrap all-time records, with one event director resigning on Thursday night and the organisation’s chief executive calling for less “heat” in the transgender debate.
An online poll of Parkrunners found that more than 80 per cent disapproved of the sudden disappearance of gender, age and course records from the websites of every Parkrun and Junior Parkrun around the world.
Russ Jefferys, the chief executive of Parkrun, is adamant that the decision was not influenced by an ongoing campaign to make participants declare their sex at birth after it was reported that at least three female records – which are among those now removed – were set by transgender women.
Parkrun was accused by former Olympic swimmer and BBC presenter Sharron Davies of “sex discrimination” and taking a “cowardly” position but Parkrun have long maintained that their primary function is working as a public health charity rather than facilitating competition.
“I think we need to be careful about making serious accusations – sadly there is just a lot of anger and emotion in this conversation,” said Jefferys. “I know that is not helped by how these things play out on social media especially. I think we would all benefit from just turning the heat down and remembering that, in the end, Parkrun is a free, fun community event and a great way to start the weekend.”
‘If the records offend you, don’t look at them’
There is huge unrest within the Parkrun community, however, over this week’s decision. Mick Anglim, who was the Parkrun event director at Brockenhurst, announced his departure on Facebook on Thursday night. “In response to HQ’s new ‘inclusive’ policy I’ve just resigned as Brockenhurst Event Director,” he wrote.
The Facebook page ‘Parkrun Statsgeek Group’ has more than 13,000 members and launched an online poll in response to Thursday’s news.
Of more than 2,000 responses by Friday morning, 83 per cent had indicated their disagreement against fewer than 10 per cent who were in agreement with the new policy.
“The most disappointing news I’ve heard in a very long time,” wrote Christian Dyer. “Why not stop times altogether and see how quickly parkrun participation evaporates in a matter of weeks?! Tamper with the magic formula and the phenomenon that is parkrun will be no more. Why would parkrun wish to take away features adored by the vast majority to please a tiny – if that – minority?! It’s simply absurd and very sad.”
Nat Konners said that she had an “80-year-old friend who is motivated by going out to see if they can get the age record at different parkruns” and that they would probably now lose motivation. “How’s that fair? Seriously if the records etc personally offend you… don’t look at them,” she said.
Paul Curtayne questioned whether people would really be put off, as has been suggested by Parkrun, by the now-removed tab of records and “drill-down stats” that was previously on their websites. “It’s obviously nonsense,” he said. “I know many runners who run 40-50 minutes and are not remotely worried that there are faster people. I mean, it’s pretty patronising to suggest that.”
‘Not a competitive athletic event’
World Athletics, along with domestic running governing bodies, have moved to protect natal girls and women in female categories over the past year by banning transgender women. Campaigners had wanted a “sex at birth” category in Parkrun but organisers refused, saying that it was first and foremost a community event and have continued to let people self-select their gender. There was concern that transgender people, whose transition might be entirely private, would stop attending if a ‘sex at birth’ category was mandated.
Speaking on BBC 5Live, Jefferys, who is the Parkrun chief executive, said: “I think there has been a bit of misinformation since we made the changes we are making. Parkrun is in its 20th year and of course it did start as a time-trial back in 2004 but it has clearly evolved to where we are today and that is a health charity with now more than 2,500 free community events around the world.”
Asked if he had any evidence that records on a Parkrun website were off-putting to new entrants, or whether there had been any complaints, Jefferys said: “Not so much complaints but we did conduct regular surveys and we know that one of the biggest barriers that people tell us to participation is the misperception that Parkrun is a race. We constantly look at new ways to address those concerns.
“I think the criticism we faced from the Women’s Rights Network and others is down to a misunderstanding of what Parkrun is. It is not a race. It is not a competitive athletic event.”