Jess Welborn criticised London Marathon's policy over qualifying times and deferrals

Credit: Geoff Pugh

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London Marathon has become embroiled in a discrimination row, after denying a woman the opportunity to defer her 2021 Championship entry due to pregnancy.

Jess Welborn, a 31-year-old London lawyer, twice posted the qualifying time for the Championship race – a step down from the elite race and catering for serious club and amateur runners – ahead of the 2020 race, which took place virtually last October, and the 2021 race but, after finding out she was pregnant with her first child, requested to defer her entry to next April’s date.

Welborn told Telegraph Sport she "naively" thought there would be no issue with her request. The 2021 London Marathon takes place on October 3, just eight weeks after Welborn is due to give birth, and deferrals are permitted for ballot entries.

But London Marathon said she would not be allowed to defer on the Championship race and instead suggest she either runs the October marathon, runs a new qualifying time – either in the marathon or half-marathon distance – before December 31 to qualify for the 2022 race, accepts a "guaranteed" general entry for a future race, or is issued with a refund.

Currently, NHS guidance advises that women do not return to high impact training, such as running, until six weeks after childbirth. Welborn said London Marathon’s policy puts pressure on women to go against that advice.

"I think the policy at the moment can be detrimental because it encourages women to return to running too quickly," she said. "It would be very foolish to run a marathon eight weeks postpartum, as it goes against every single medical guidance out there. So I’m effectively having this once in a lifetime opportunity, to run the Championship entry of the London Marathon, taken away from me because I’m pregnant."

A leading campaigner for maternity rights in endurance sport, ultra-runner Sophie Power has called on London Marathon to reconsider its policy for Championship entries, to give "equality of opportunity" to women. Welborn sought Power’s advice because of her experience lobbying races to accommodate for pregnancy, after a picture of her breastfeeding during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc went viral in 2018. In tennis, Serena Williams becoming a mother was integral to the WTA giving players a protected ranking to use for 12 tournaments over a three-year period following their comeback from pregnancy.

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There is a precedent for elite competitions to change policies, which is why Power says she is disappointed with London Marathon’s decision. "I expected them to make the change, because it’s so blindingly obvious," Power told Telegraph Sport. "The reason why they don’t allow any deferrals is because the further you are from when you posted your qualification time, the less likely you are to run [that pace]. With pregnancy, that argument simply doesn’t hold, as Jess is far more likely to reach her time eight months postpartum than eight weeks postpartum.

"My hope was, with contacting them, that they would change it and actually come out with a positive statement in support of female athletes at every single level. [It would] set the tone for other races to do the same. But they’re holding firm and that’s why it’s really disappointing. We’re only asking for equality of opportunity."

London Marathon would not be moved on the issue though, and told Telegraph Sport that deferrals were not accepted for Championship places "under any circumstances", including "pregnancy, service abroad, illness, injury, jury service or any other reason".

"The London Marathon has one of the most generous deferral policies of any marathon in the world," Hugh Brasher, Event Director of London Marathon Events, said in a statement. "Everyone with a general entry is able to defer their place for one year and we are very supportive to pregnant women… However Championship places are not deferrable under any circumstances.

"The places are awarded on a year by year basis to runners who achieve the necessary qualifying times in the designated qualification window. This is the same principle as a runner going for an Olympic Qualification or World Championship Qualification. The runner must have run the qualification time in the qualification window."

He added: "Jess is, in fact, not really asking for deferral but rather that she should be allowed to qualify for a 2022 Championship place based on a performance achieved outside the designated qualification window."

Women in Sport CEO, Stephanie Hilbourne told Telegraph Sport that she would "welcome conversations" around ensuring female participation, adding: "The London Marathon welcomed women from its inception, and did so before women were first allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon. Women in Sport would welcome conversations about how the rules here and in the wider sports sector can ensure that women can participate actively in competitive sport at every life stage."