By the 1970s, the Olympic Marathon had come a long way from the dusty roads of Athens. Yet women were still not allowed to compete and the struggle to establish a women's Olympic Marathon was itself something of a long-distance race.
Before the 1980s, there were no women's distance races in the Olympics. In the Moscow Games, the longest race for women was the 1,500 meters, which had been instituted in 1972. Women had been excluded from track and field competition altogether until 1928, when the longest race was the 800 meters. Despite a world record by winner Lina Radke of Germany, many of the competitors had not properly prepared for the race and several collapsed in exhaustion. This led Olympic organizers to consider the race too strenuous for women. The president of the IOC, Count Henri Baillet-Latour, even suggested the elimination of all women's competition from the Games. Such a drastic move was not taken, but until 1960, when the 800 meters reappeared, no race over 200 meters was contested by women in the Olympics.
This is not to say there was no tradition of women's long-distance running. Women had been forbidden from participating in the ancient Olympics. A woman who was caught even as a spectator at the Games could face execution. But women in ancient Greece held their own festival to honor the goddess Hera every five years. Only one athletic event was held-a short footrace.
When the Olympics were revived in 1896, women were again excluded. But, in March of 1896, Stamatis Rovithi became the first woman to run a marathon when she covered the proposed Olympic course from Marathon to Athens. The following month, a woman named Melpomene presented herself as an entrant in the Olympic Marathon. Race organizers denied her the opportunity to compete. Undiscouraged, Melpomene warmed up for the race out of sight. When the starter's gun sounded, she began to run along the side of the course. Eventually she fell behind the men, but as she continued on, stopping at Pikermi for a glass of water, she passed runners who dropped out of the race in exhaustion. She arrived at the stadium about an hour and a half after Spiridon Louis won the race. Barred from entry into the now empty stadium, she ran her final lap around the outside of the building, finishing in approximately four and a half hours. One Greek newspaper wrote that the Olympic organizers were discourteous to disallow Melpomene's entry into the race, but nonetheless it would be nearly a century before another woman would run the Olympic Marathon.
Violet Piercy of Great Britain was the first woman to be officially timed in the marathon, when she clocked a time of 3:40:22 in a British race on October 3, 1926. Due largely to the lack of women's marathon competition, that time stood as an unofficial world record for thirty-seven years. On December 16, 1963, American Merry Lepper ran a time of 3:37:07 to improve slightly on Piercy's record. Still, no highly competitive times were recorded simply because there was not women's competition in the race.
Before 1972, women had been barred from the most famous marathon outside the Olympics-Boston. That rule did not keep women from running, though. In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon, sneaking into the field and finishing the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She was the first woman known to complete the arduous Boston course. Gibb had been inspired to run by the return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon.
"I hadn't intended to make a feminist statement," said Gibb. "I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential."
The following year, number 261 in the Boston Marathon was assigned to entrant K.V. Switzer. In lieu of the pre-race medical examination, Switzer's coach took a health certificate to race officials and picked up the number. Not until two miles into the race did officials realize that Switzer was a woman, twenty-year-old Kathrine Switzer of Syracuse University. Race director Will Cloney and official Jock Semple tried to grab Switzer and remove her from the race, or at least remove her number, but her teammates from Syracuse fended them off with body blocks. Switzer eventually finished the race after the race timers had stopped running, in 4:20. Switzer had not used her initials on the entry form to deceive the race officials. She was merely a fan of J.D. Salinger and liked the sound of her initials. While Switzer was creating a stir with her unauthorized entry, Roberta Gibb again ran the race, this time being forced off the course just steps from the finish line, where her time would have been 3:27:17.
The photographs of race officials chasing after Switzer that appeared in the national papers the next day brought the issue of women's long-distance running to the public. Race officials defended their actions, saying they were only enforcing rules that forbade men and women form competing in the same race and barred women from races of more than one and a half miles.
"I think it's time to change the rules," said Switzer. "They are archaic." Switzer's story and the surrounding publicity had made the quest for equality in road racing for women a political issue. Coming as it did in the midst of the women's liberation movement, it galvanized women in the belief that it was time, as Switzer had said, to change the rules.
Slowly, the rules did begin to change. On August 31,1971 Adrienne Beames of Australia became the first women to run a sub-three-hour marathon, smashing that barrier with a time of 2:46:30. In 1972, women were allowed to compete officially in the Boston Marathon for the first time. As running became a more popular sport during the 1970s, more women began competing in marathons.
On October 28, 1973, the first all women's marathon was held in Waldniel, West Germany. The success of that race was built on the following October when Dr. Ernst Ban Aaken, a West German and a strong supporter of women's running, sponsored the first Women's International Marathon Championship in Waldniel. Forty women from seven countries competed in the event. Two years later, when the race was held again, the forty-five finishers represented nine different countries. Still, with the 1980 Summer Olympic Games on the horizon, Olympic organizers had given no serious consideration to creating a women's marathon.
Two reasons were often given for this exclusion. First, some experts claimed that women's health would be damaged by long-distance running. This theory was proved false not only by medical studies, but also by the success of women marathoners during the 1970s. Second, the Olympic Charter stated that to be included in the Games, a women's sport must be widely practiced in at least twenty-five countries on at least two continents (for men's events the requirement was fifty countries on three continents). Women's marathoning, the Olympic organizers argued, was simply not popular enough to include.
In the late 1970s, Kathrine Switzer, retired form competitive running, led the way toward the inclusion of a women's marathon in the Olympics. In 1977, Switzer, then director of the Women's Sports Foundation, met an executive for the Avon cosmetics company who told her the company was interested in sponsoring a running event for women. Switzer wrote a seventy-five page proposal describing how Avon might sponsor a series of events, and the company liked her idea so much they hired her to plan the races.
The first Avon International Marathon was held in Atlanta, Georgia, in March of 1978, drawing women from nine countries. The 1979 Avon Marathon, held in Waldniel, attracted over 250 world class entrants from twenty-five countries. The theory that women's marathoning was not popular enough to become an Olympic sport was dramatically disproved. Still, the drive for inclusion in the Olympics was far from over.
Norwegian runner Grete Waitz won the women's division of the New York City Marathon in 1979 for the second year in a row, crossing the finish line in a time of 2:27:33. She thus became the first woman to run the distance in under 2:30. The New York Times ran an editorial pointing out that in just fifteen years the women's record had been lowered by one hour. In that same editorial, the Times called for the creation of an Olympic Marathon for women. Although Waitz herself was not active in the drive to create a women's Olympic Marathon, her successes were often cited by supporters of the race.
In 1979, marathoner Jaqueline Hansen, who had broken the 2:40 barrier in 1975, teamed with other runners form around the world to form the International Runners Committee to lobby for the inclusion of women's long-distance races in international competition. The committee received support from the Nike shoe company, which ran full-page advertisements in several running magazines calling for a women's Olympic Marathon. The marathon was not the only race being supported, however. The race that seemed to have the best chance for inclusion in the 1984 Games was the 3,000 meters. Some lobbyists felt that the addition of women's races should be made gradually, with the 3,000 meters being added first, followed by the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and then the marathon.
A central player in the drive for the inclusion of women's distance races in the Olympics was Adriaan Paulen, president of IAAF. One of the responsibilities of the IAAF is recommending new track and field events to the IOC. When the IAAF Congress met in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1979, Paulen pointed out that he had long been fighting to get the women's 3,000 meters included in the Olympics. But, he warned that fighting for the other races at the same time might weaken the case for the 3,00 meters or any distance race to be added. "Take things one step at a time" seemed to be the conventional wisdom.
Meanwhile, on the roads the case for a women's Olympic Marathon was slowly building. Not only had the Avon races brought international attention and participation to the sport, but the women's marathon was becoming legitimate in other ways as well. The race had received sanction by the American Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in 1972, and the AAU's first national marathon for women had been held in 1974. More importantly, the IAAF, an international rather than national organization, had made plans to include women's marathon competitions at future World Cup meets, beginning at the 1981 meet in Rome, and at the World Track and Field Championships beginning in 1983. The 1982 European Marathon Championships, another IAAF event, which would be run on the historic Marathon to Athens course, would also include a women's division. Though the IAAF was not ready to recommend the marathon to the IOC, it was poised to sanction the race in its own meets. Paulen hoped that the inclusion of the women's marathon in these prestigious international meets would lure runners from Eastern European countries into women's marathoning. Opposition from the Soviet Bloc had been one obstacle to Olympic sanction.
The first women's marathon officially sanctioned by the IAAF was the Tokyo International, held in November of 1979. IAAF president Adriaan Paulen traveled to Tokyo to watch the race. To the surprise of many who had lobbied Paulen before, he was so impressed by the level of competition in Tokyo that he announced he would fully support the effort to institute a women's marathon in the Olympics and that he would lobby for 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters races as well. A short time later, the IAAF officially recommended to the IOC that a women's marathon be included in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Although endorsement by the IAAF was an important step toward the establishment if a women's marathon, many obstacles had yet to be overcome. One official from the Los Angeles planning committee claimed the Games were already too big for the inclusion of more events. An official with the IOC argued that the effects of marathon running on women's health needed further study.
This second argument was rebutted by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in January of 1980 when it issued an opinion statement saying that "there exists no conclusive scientific or medical evidence that long-distance running is contraindicated for the healthy, trained female athlete. The ACSM recommends that females be allowed to compete at the national and international level in the same distances in which their male counterparts compete.
Powerful people were in favor of the new marathon, too. On the floor of the United States Senate, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas introduced a resolution calling for the Senate's support of an Olympic Marathon and other long-distance races for women. Both Adriaan Paulen and president of the IOC Lord Killanin made personal statements in support of the race to the members of the IOC when the committee met during the Moscow Games in July of 1980. The question of creating the new marathon race was deferred until the meeting of the IOC's Executive Board, however, in February of 1981.
In the meantime, the third Avon International Marathon was held in London on the final day of the Moscow Olympics. Women from twenty-seven countries competed, and for the first time in history, five women finished below the 2:40 barrier.
"Obviously, we think it's time a women's marathon was made part of the Olympics," said Kathrine Switzer, again the organizer of the race. "We're trying to prove to people that women are just as suited, or even more suitable, for marathoning as men."
Switzer traveled to Los Angeles in February of 1981 when the Executive Board of the IOC was scheduled to meet. She knew the vote on the race could be close. The Board was made up of nine countries, eight of which were represented at the meeting. The Soviet Union openly opposed the creation of the race, and Switzer feared that Panama and Romania would side with their political ally. Spain, Japan, India, and New Zealand favored the race. Belgium appeared undecided. Five votes were needed for the resolution to pass.
On the morning of February 23, Switzer went to the hotel where the meeting was being held. Unsure what she could do to further her cause, she approached the delegate from Belgium in the hall and began to tell him all about the success of women's marathoning-the number of women competing, the quality of their races, their good health. The delegate took careful notes and then disappeared into the meeting.
Unable to stand still while she waited for the result, Switzer went out for a six-mile run. At 6:30 that evening, the Executive Board of IOC announced that a women's marathon had been given its approval and would likely be included in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. The committee had even decided to ignore a rule stating that all new events had to be approved four years in advance of their inclusion in the Games. The Soviet Union was the only country to vote against the race. The struggle was almost over. All that remained was approval of the Executive Board's recommendation by the full membership of the IOC.
In September of 1981, the IOC met in Baden-Baden, Germany and made several important decisions. They elected the first women members of that body in its eighty-four year history. After a powerful speech by middle-distance runner Sebastian Coe they voted to allow the ruling federations for each Olympic sport set their own requirements for Olympic eligibility, clearing the way for marathoners and other athletes to receive prize and endorsement money while still remaining eligible for Olympic competition. In the midst of all these decisions, they voted on the recommendation of the Executive Board concerning the women's marathon race. Lost in the headlines about the end of amateurism at the Olympics and the selection of Seoul and Calgary for the 1988 Games was the fact that women had finally won the right to compete in an Olympic Marathon.