Ageism in Running Races
How large is the running race industry? It amounts to about a billion and a half per year. If you toss in associated products such as running shoes, race t-shirts and other such paraphernalia, it nears $5 billion on an annual basis. In a recent year, some 1.8 million Americans entered races of 5k, 10k, half and full marathons. The Boston marathon limits participation to roughly 30,000; many thousands more wanted to attend but we not deemed fast enough. Covid, of course, has put a damper on the upward trend in this industry, but the outlook remains a good one.
Yet, all is not well in this sector of the economy. It is guilty of rampant age discrimination. Nor is this practice even slightly hidden.
For example, here are a few typical instances of this blatant practice. One race organizer announced prizes as follows:
Overall and Division Awards:
1st, 2nd, 3rd Overall Male and Female
1st Masters Male and Female (age 40-over)
1st Grand Masters Male and Female (age 50-over)
1st Senior Male and Female (age 60-over)
1st Youth Male and Female (age 17-under)
Here is another example:
Award Info: Awards will be given to overall male & female for the half marathon as well as the top 3 male/female finishers in each age group for the half marathon. Top 3 male/female finishers in each age group 10k & 5k.
• 5K Age Groups: 0-7, 8-12, 13-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, 70+
• 10K Age Groups: 19 and under, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, 70+
• Half Marathon Age Groups: 19 and under, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, 70+
Where is the discrimination? It’s hard to notice after a brief perusal. It seems that every age is covered. But a more careful examination will dispel this thought.
Notice that in the typical announcement, virtually all runners are separated into 10-year age gaps. This is important, since number of years on the planet strongly affects ability. It does so in most sports, and running is certainly included in this phenomenon.
For example, here are world record times based on age:
Now return to those age-based award announcements. A careful perusal will indicate that there is one exception to the general rule that competition occurs, only, within single decade age groups: people aged 80 and above. They are the only ones who are required to compete with runners 10 years or more younger than themselves. If the cut off point is 60 years and older, then an 80-year old must race against others 21 or more years younger; if 70+, then 11 or more years. Everyone else is limited to a 10-year age gap.
(Full disclosure. I am 80 years old. I will benefit if this system is changed. True confession: before I turned 8 decades of age, I was blissfully unaware of this issue.)
What is the source of this age disparity? Did race organizers sit down one day and ask themselves, How can we make it difficult for octogenarians to compete with others? Not bloody likely. Many of them, presumably, have parents and grandparents who have reached this number of years or more. That was the last thing on their minds. Rather, the reason is that there are very, very few people 80 years and older who seriously compete in 5k, 10k, half and full marathons, and race organizers implicitly took this into account.
No, this ageism is not likely purposeful. But it is systemic. It is not intentional, but it has real effects nonetheless. Consider the plight of Ed Whitlock, an 85-year-old marathoner who broke the four-hour mark. That is truly phenomenal. It is, surely, deserving of a medal. But if the age cut-off point is 70+, there will be dozens if not hundreds of 70 and 71-year old “kids” in who will be able to run rings around this world class athlete in a race with thousands of participants.
Nor is money likely an issue. The medals given out at most races are pretty cheap. Sometimes, ribbons are the only award.
Do race organizers have a right to discriminate against elderly athletes? Of course they do, at least in a free society. They are private individuals and business concerns, and that is what freedom is all about: the right to do whatever you wish, provided only that you do not violate rights. Elderly runners have no “right” to have their competition limited to nine-year age gaps. However, and here I presumably speak for all of my geriatric fellow racers, it would be the nice thing to do to stop this petty annoyance.
It is time, it is past time, for this petty annoyance to be ended.
Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans and is co-author of An Austro-Libertarian Critique of Public Choice (with Thomas DiLorenzo).