History of Women's Distance Running
The year is 1896. Melpomene, a young Greek woman, asks that she be allowed to participate in the Olympic marathon. Her request is denied. So she runs the course, unofficially, in 4:30.
Eighty-eight years after Melpomene's resolute challenge, women's Olympic marathon is run for the first time. Joan Benoit, a spirited runner from New England, finishes the race with a winning time of 2:24:52.
The near century that separates these two remarkable athletes is marked with repeated endeavors by women to enter the sphere of long distance racing. The story of their success is no less incredible than accounts of other historic journeys toward equality. Nor has it ended.
1896-1928: Women on their Own
Denied entry into the Modern Olympic Games, women begin holding the Women's Olympics, games sponsored by the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale (FSFI), the governing body for women in track and field around the world. In 1922, the first Olympiad for women is held in Paris, where Mademoiselle Breard wins the 1000 meters in a world-record 3 minutes, 12 seconds.
By 1928, after petitioning time and again, women are granted an experimental program of five track and field events that are to be included in the 1928 Olympic Games. All five events are completed during the Games, but because of the exhausted condition of some of the women at the end of the 800 meter final, the event is dropped until 1960.
1928-1960: Survival - but no progress
Pikes Peak in Colorado poses an irresistible, perhaps symbolic challenge to three women during this period. In 1936, two women enter the 13-mile footrace up the rugged incline. In 1959, Arlene Pieper runs the grueling 26-mile up-and-down course in 9:16.
Until the formation of the Road Runner's Club of America in 1957, women find few opportunities to run long distances competitively. But even three years later, the longest distance women are allowed to run in the 1960 Rome Olympics is the 800 meters.
1961-1972: Years of Protest
Because women aren't welcome in many races, they resort to covert action, entering races without invitation or encouragement. Merry Lepper and Lyn Carman, for example, enter the 1963 Western Hemisphere Marathon in culver City, California. Lepper finishes the race, unofficially of course, in 3:37:07.
Roberta Gibb, in the 1966 Boston Marathon, tries a different tack: after being denied entry, she hides in the bushes and jumps into the race. her time is 3:21:40, and she is the unofficial women's winner. She runs and wins unofficially in both 1967 and 1968. In 1967, though, she has company.
Running under the name K. Switzer, Katherine Switzer finishes the '67 race in 4:20 and is suspended from the AAU for competing in the race. The media, however, choose to focus on the fact that official Jock Semple attempts to throw Switzer out of the race. Sixteen days after that race, young Maureen Wilton, a thirteen-year-old Canadian, runs a World Best for the marathon of 3:15:22.8.
It is not until 1970 that the RRCA holds the first championship marathon for women. Bostonian Sara mae Berman, a pioneer in women's running, wins the race with a remarkable time of 3:07:10. Berman also wins the Boston Marathon, unofficially, in 1969, 1970, and 1971.
In a single year (1971), the Women's World Best for the marathon is lowered four times, twice by Beth Bonner, who is the first woman to run the distance in under three hours (NYC Marathon -2:55:22; Nina Kuscsik finishes second with 2:56:04). At year's end, a World Best of 2:49:40 is set by Cheryl Bridges in the Western Hemisphere Marathon.
1971 is a year of unusual progress for women distance runners. The Boston marathon is officially open to women; eight women finish the race, Kuscsik wins. Women are allowed to run in the New York City marathon, but the event, says Pat Rico of the AAU Women's Track and Field Committe, must be separate from the men's race. She suggest, too, that the women start 10 minutes before or after the men begin. women competitors protest by sitting down for the first ten minutes until the start of the men's race, starting when the gun sounds for themen. Nina Kuscsik wins, but her official time reflects a ten-minute penalty.
1973-1977: Years of Development
Between 1973 and 1975, many women marathoners are running World Bests, from Miki Gorman's 2:46:36 (1973 Western Hemisphere Marathon) to Christa Vahlensieck's 2:40:15 (1975, West German). No one, though, can seem to break the 2:40 barrier.
Until the 1975 NIKE/OTC Martahon in Eugene, Oregon. With a time of 2:38:19, Jacqueline hansen is the first women to run a marathon under 2:40.
The following year, Nina Kuscsik and Jim Fixx, at a conference for the new York Academy of Sciences on marathoning, write a proposal to include the women's marathon as an Olympic event "forthwith." It is passed unanimously by the 500 participants and attendees. A marathon, however, will not be included until 1984.
1978-1984: Women Run Faster
In what is called one of the more amazing athletic feats of this century, Grete Waitz of Norway, in her first attemptat the marathon distance, sets a new World Best of 2:32:30 in the 1978 New York City Marathon. She is 104th overall.
Waitz continues to astound the athletic world for the next two years. Winning her second NYC Marathon, she is the first woman to break the 2:30 barrier with a 2:27:33; in 1980, she wins again with another World Best of 2:25:41.
Other women are also awakening the athletic world to the importance of women's distance running. In 1979, only four months after running her first marathon, Joan Benoit wins the Boston Marathon in a new American Best of 2:35:15. In the same year, Britain's Joyce Smith wins the first IAAF sanctioned women's marathon in Tokyo in 2:37:48.
There is intense pressure put on the world athletic community at this time. The newly formed International Runner's Committee states as its top priority "parity for women distance runners." The IAAF decides that any international event that includes a marathon must also include the race for women; furthermore, they add the women's 3,0000 meters to the Olympic Games and establish the 5,0000 and 10,0000 meters as world record distances.
Another question of parity arises during this period: women press for open prize-money racing and an end to the under-the-table appearance fee system. In a display of great personal courage and integrity, three New Zealanders - Anne Audain, Allison Roe, and Lorraine Moller - and top American runner Patti Catalano risk eligibility to compete by running in the first major prize-money race, the 1981 Cascade Run Off. Public opinion overwhelmingly favors the women, who regain eligibility and see open prize-money racing become accepted.
Also in 1981, under pressure from the public, the IRC, and such pioneers as Nina Kuscsik and Jacqueline Hansen, the gerneral membership of the international olympic committee votes to reconsider the addition of the marathon for women in the 1984 Olympics. The nine-member executive board makes it official.
But when the IRC seeks the support of the IOC executive board to include a complete slate of distance events in teh '84 Games, the request is rejected. On August 11, 1983, the American Civil Liberties Union files suit in Los Angeles "on behalf of all women distance runners seeking inclusion of the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events" in the '84 Games. The judge finds that the ACLU lawsuit "has not yet proved that Olympic rules discriminate." The decision is appealed in Federal court; the judgement stands.
The words of Jacqueline Hansen best reflect the feelins of the running community at the time of this pronouncement: "I will always be angered that the integrity of the process is more important than the athletes...this means the world will miss seeing a number of very talented women in the 1984 Olympics....they didn't ask Frank Shorter to wait another four years."
Nevertheless, 1983 and 1984 prove to be landmark years for women's distance running. Joan Benoit wins the boston Marathon in 1983 with a new World Best of 2:22:43. She wins the historic Women's Olympic Trials in Olympia, Washington. And in August, 1984, the world sees her break the tape two hours, twenty-four minutes, and fifty-two seconds after the start of the first Women's Marathon to be run in the Modern Olympic Games.
In the same month, the IOC approves the provisional inclusion of the Women's 10,000 meters in the 1988 Summer Games. They do not provide that the race be included after Seoul, however.
It would seem, then, that women have made great strides in the world of distance running. The fact that the struggle for recognition and acceptance has taken almost a century (indeed, all is not yet secure) is, at the very least, disconcerting. But in no way does this overshadow the tremendous achievements of women distance runners and their supporters.
Their efforts have translated into heightened public awareness and a sense of greater purpose for all who are concerned with equity, in the world of sports and otherwise. And their dedication continues to inspire those who will determine the path women runners take in the future.