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Boys and girls, a 2018 sports day story

Last week, for the final time, my wife and I attended a primary school sports day for one of our children. Our 11-year-old daughter starts senior school in September, so this was the last time that we will cheer her and her classmates on while they throw bean-bags and compete in obstacle races.

More than once over the last year I have mentioned some of my daughter’s accomplishments in athletics (beginning with this piece about parkruns). More recent achievements have not been recorded here, such as the Mini-Marathon in April and the Westminster Mile last month. The former took place on the day of the London Marathon, covering the last 5km of the course just before the main event began, and she ran a faster time on that bright Sunday morning than on any of her 5k parkruns. The Westminster Mile was the largest competitive mile event ever held anywhere in the world, and the finishing line was right in front of Buckingham Palace. She finished in just under 6 minutes 30 seconds. She now trains with a world-renowned local athletics club, on a proper 400m track. Unsurprisingly, her final primary school sports day was not as significant an occasion in her calendar as in previous years. She won her first event (the obstacle race) and was the best-placed girl in the other two (a skipping race and a regular sprint), but she was competing with boys. She finished second and third overall in those other two races.

As usual, the competitive element of the day’s events finished with races for parents and for teachers. Eight years ago, when my son was in his first year at the same ­school (in Reception Class, as it’s known), I competed in the Dads’ Race for the only time. I came third from last, in a field of 9 or 10. I was in the outer running lane and hadn’t realized how close it was to the trees at the edge of the common space where these races take place. The trees’ roots had made the ground uneven and I nearly turned an ankle near the finishing line. I was relieved to come through unscathed (and relieved not to have finished last) and vowed never to take part again. The following year one of the competitors in the Dads’ Race looked a few years older than me. He might have been a grandparent rather than a parent. He was smiling broadly at the starting line and set off tidily enough. About halfway through he collapsed, clutching his leg. It looked like his hamstring had gone, and he was in too much pain to drag himself away from the running lanes. Several people attended to him immediately and he was eventually carried away and placed on a chair, unable to walk. “That,” I told my son, and everyone else who had been urging me to run, “could have been me”. Last week, for the seventh year in a row, I recounted this story to explain why I would not be running. For a year or two the men were obliged to run with bean-bags on their heads, to slow things down, but we’ve been back to full-on sprints for the last few years.

One of our friends has competed in the Mums’ Races in each of the last six years, and has won every time. This year we cheered her on as usual and were surprised to see her finish second to an unfamiliar runner. We joked about demanding an official inquiry but were genuinely surprised that she hadn’t won. When the races were over, and we were enjoying our last primary school sports day picnic, we learnt something about this unfamiliar competitor. How can I put this? Let’s see. It turns out that the winner of the Mums’ Race was born without a womb, if you know what I mean, and would have competed in boys’ races at primary school. Now, all grown up and some way down the path of gender reassignment, she is running in Mums’ Races at her child’s primary school. I offer you this information with careful choice of pronouns and without any further comment, as I did over the weekend when telling friends about it. Their opinions were expressed rather forcefully.

I do not feel especially strongly about this aspect of the day’s fun and games but would have enjoyed the whole thing a little more if my daughter hadn’t had to race against boys. She would then have won all three of her races, but I note that her winner’s ribbon from the obstacle race has not been added to her collection of medals building up in that dish in the hall. She will not be competing against boys again in the foreseeable future. She starts at an all girls’ school in the autumn, and at her regular athletics events, from cross-country races in the winter to today’s all-day meeting on the outskirts of London, she only competes against other girls.



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