Is running a bit posh?

Why do you run? What was it that made you choose running rather than any of the other hundreds of possible pastimes you could spend your time, energy and money on?Why do we run?

Of course there are many potential reasons – from wanting to win medals to enjoying the social scene and fresh air – but have you ever thought about running as a status symbol?

A team of Belgian researchers looked at the socioeconomic backgrounds (levels of income, education level, occupation etc.) of participants in a wide range of sports and found that there was a strong relationship between their social background and the sports they participated in, with better off people participating in some sports and the worse off in others. In fact, a ‘social status [wonky] pyramid of sport’ emerged with high status sports at the top and lower at the bottom (see below).


sailing, windsurfing, tennis

skiing, squash, yoga, horse riding

club running, hiking, table tennis, track & field, volleyball

non-club running, club swimming, mountain biking, badminton

aerobics, going to the gym, scuba diving, cycle racing, casual swimming

basketball, casual football, dancing, karate, motorcycle scrambling

angling, club football, walking, judo

(adapted from diagram in Scheerder et al. 2015)

This general pattern undoubtedly exists and similar findings have appeared in studies from all over the world, albeit with local variations. There are probably many reasons for this. Of course some sports (like sailing and golf) require more financial outlay than others, making them harder to access for those with little money. Also, people feel most comfortable around others who are similar to them, so we will tend to be attracted to sports where we meet lots of ‘nice people’ (i.e. people like us) leading to a clustering of social backgrounds around certain sports. And perhaps different sports embody different values (running might embody endurance, stoicism, individualism) that are attractive to some groups more than others.

Of course this is a picture made up of averages, and people of all backgrounds can and do participate in running, just as in any other sport. But it’s interesting to think about the factors that might have influenced our choice to become runners, and to recognise what might be putting other people off joining us. After all, running has been very successful at increasing the participation within the middle classes (i.e. by increasing the number of women and older runners), but has largely failed to trickle-down to less affluent sectors of society.

In future posts I’ll be looking at research that explores running’s special relationship to key values of the middle-classes.

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  1. Pingback: Sport and Social Class – The Rankings | Runometer

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