Mind you, the Mail article appeared in 1928 and Coubertin was speaking in 1896. The first modern Olympic marathon was in 1896, and because of Victorian prejudice, women were barred from taking part, mainly because it was believed that they couldn’t safely cover any sort of distance, but, because they weren’t allowed to run, they couldn’t prove they were capable of it. However, in 1926, England’s Violet Piercy was the first woman to be officially timed for the marathon, when she clocked 3:40 on the Polytechnic Harriers Marathon route from Windsor to Chiswick. It wasn’t until 1964 that her time was bettered by Scotland’s Dale Greig who ran 3:27, and later that year Mildred Sampson ran 3:19.
By 1928, the year of the Amsterdam Olympics, the 100 metres was the first event ever to be contested by women at the Olympics and 800 metres was the longest distance that women were allowed to compete in. However, although the 800 was a fiercely fought contest, with Germany’s Lina Radke winning in 2:16.8, five of the runners either dropped out or fell to the track at the finish. There were howls of protest at seeing women in distress, so it was decreed by the IOC that 200 metres would be the maximum distance for women in the future. It wasn’t until 1960 that the 800 metres was allowed at the Games.
The most famous marathon outside the Olympic Games was Boston which was established in 1897. Women were not allowed to take part until 1972, but that did not stop Bobbi Gibb, a 23 year old. It was 1966 and she hid in the bushes at the start and jumped into the race wearing a black nylon bathing suit. She had been inspired to run when her entry form had been returned to her saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. She finished the race untroubled in a time of 3:21. Bobbi ran again in the Boston in 1967 and 1968 as an unsanctioned runner with times of 3:27 and 3:22 respectively. Sara Mae Berman Took over as the unsanctioned winner in the following three years from 1969 to 1971. However, it was in 1966 that Kathrine Switzer managed to secure an entry to the race by entering just her initials. There was a pre-race medical examination but her coach took a health certificate to race officials and picked up her number. During the race, the Race Director saw her and tried to bundle her off the course, shouting “Get the hell out of my race and give me that number“. Kathrine was running with her coach, Arnie Briggs, who’d run Boston 15 times – he said to her “Run like hell“ – she did, and comfortably finished her Boston marathon.
After the race, she decided that she wanted to give other women the opportunity to realise and appreciate that running was really OK for them and she wanted to create opportunities for them somewhere, somehow. True to her word, she went on to establish a series of races around the world. Her 261 Fearless Movement campaign is now a global community of women who run, walk or jog and who have found strength, fearlessness and power to overcome doubt and adversity in their lives. All the publicity that Kathrine’s encounter with the Race Director made the quest for equality in road racing an enormous political issue. As Kathrine said “ It’s time to change the rules “. And slowly but surely, the rules did change. In 1971, Adrienne Beames of Australia became the first woman to run a sub 3 with 2:46 and the following year, 1972, women were officially allowed to run the Boston.
However, even by 1978, Olympic organisers were still not getting the message and it took a track star, Grete Waitz to convince them. Grete, a Norwegian, was an elite runner over middle distances. She was offered a ticket to New York as a pacer for the marathon and felt she might as well run 26.2 miles, even though her longest distance had been 13 miles. In her first marathon, she won with a world record breaking 2:32 and repeated the feat with a 2:27 in 1979 and a 2:25 in 1980. Over 10 years, Grete won the New York Marathon nine times.
The calls for a women’s marathon at the Olympic Games were now becoming deafening, and so it was that in 1981, the marathon was ratified as a women’s event.
So, on that start line at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles were the worlds top women marathoners – Allison Roe of New Zealand, winner of Boston in 1981, Grete Waitz, America’s Joan Benoit, winner of Boston in 1979 and 1983, Ingrid Kristensen, winner of Boston in 1986 and 1989 and Rosa Mota of Portugal, three times winner of Boston in the 1980s. It was anybody’s race, but the climactic image of women’s marathons must be the sight of Joan Benoit, in her silver USA vest and shorts winning and being watched by an estimated two billion viewers. That race served notice that women runners could achieve what was previously thought to be impossible. As Pierre de Coubertin had famously said that women in sport, have but one task – that of crowning the male victor with garlands. How much more wrong could he have been.
Any woman running a marathon today does so, not only in the footsteps of Switzer, Waitz, Benoit and Paula Radcliffe, but also the many, many thousands of women who have completed marathons all around the world.
How times change, eh? Thank goodness.