Following as it did the long battle for inclusion in Olympic competition, the race that took place on August 5, 1984 was something like a victory lap for all women marathoners. Among the favored starters were Norwegian Grete Waitz, who had never lost a marathon she had finished; Portugal's Rosa Mota, who had won the marathon in the European Championships in 1982; and American Joan Benoit, who had set the world record of 2:22:43 in the woman's record many times and had run the first sub-2:30 marathons, had never met Benoit in a marathon race.
Benoit was born in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, in 1957. Her earliest athletic passion was skiing, taught to her by her father who had been an army skier during World War II. As a high school sophomore she broke her leg on the slopes. As part of her recovery from that accident she began to run and she found that she liked running just as much as skiing.
In college she played field hockey while continuing to run. When she showed up at practice one day sore from a thirteen-mile run the day before, the coach made her sit out the rest of the season and Benoit quit the team and started running full time. In 1979 she entered the Boston Marathon, her second marathon ever, as a Bowdoin College senior and won the women's division, setting an American record in the process.
After graduation, Benoit worked as the women's track and cross-country coach at Boston University while she continued to train 100 miles a week. With the promise of the first ever women's Olympic Marathon in 1984, Benoit hoped to be in her best shape ever so she could make a run for the gold.
As she lined up for the start of the Olympic race, though, Benoit felt lucky to be in the field at all. Seventeen days before the Olympic trials she had undergone knee surgery. She recovered quickly and won the qualifying race to secure one of three spots on the American team. Benoit and the two other qualifiers, Julie Brown and Julie Isphording, each received a bronze figurine of a running woman for their success in the Olympic trials. Fittingly, the sculpture was created by none other than Roberta Gibb, who had broken the gender barrier of the Boston Marathon so many years before.
On June 17, Benoit had won the Olympic Trials Exhibition 10,000 meters race by an impressive margin. Unlike the marathon, the 10,000 meters had not yet been approved for women's competition in the Olympics, though it would be on the program four years later in Seoul.
Benoit traveled to Los Angeles several days before the Games began, but her recent appearance on television made it impossible for her to take training runs without being recognized. After the Opening Ceremonies, the private Benoit flew to Eugene, Oregon, to stay with friends and prepare for the race. Four days later she was back in Los Angeles. She had a near-sleep-less night on August 4, and then the day that women runners had been campaigning for for so long finally dawned.
The athletes marched onto the track by nation in alphabetical order, with the United States entering last as the host country. With the athletes in each delegation arranged by height, tiny Joan Benoit was the final runner to enter the Santa Monica College stadium, starting point of the marathon.
Fifty competitors from twenty-eight nations left Santa Monica College at 8:00A.M. and began to make their way through twenty-six miles of warm muggy Los Angeles. Ironically, the field was deeper than it might have been if the political struggles of women's long-distance runners had been more successful. The marathon and the 3,000 meters were still the only long-dis-tance races for women in the Olympics. A lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Runners Committee to force the inclusion of 5,000 and 10,000-meter races in the 1984 Games had been unsuccessful. So, on the morning of August 5, the greatest women's distance runners in the world took to the streets of Los Angeles. Some were 5,000-meter specialists, some preferred the 10,000 meters, and many were best at the marathon, but all made history.
Olympic marathons are usually races of many lead changes and careful tactics. Well thought out pacing and strategically calculated surges help competitors toward victory. In the first women's Olympic Marathon, how-ever, only one tactical decision affected the race for the gold medal. A mere fourteen minutes into the race, American Joan Benoit, who felt the pace was too slow, pulled ahead of the rest of the pack.
"I did not want to take the lead," said Benoit afterward, "but I promised myself I'd run my race and nobody else's and that's exactly what I did. I didn't have any second thoughts."15 Shortly after she pulled away, the runners came to the first water stop, but Benoit had no interest in getting tangled back up in the pack, so she skipped it.
To many, Benoit's move may have looked foolish. After all, a marathoner needs other competitors to push her along. How could Benoit possibly keep up a winning pace running all alone? But her lead widened over the next several miles, and none of the other runners made an attempt to go after her. They all assumed she was over-extending herself and that the heat would eventually break her, but Benoit was running comfortably and increasing her lead with every stride. The picture of the lone woman in her white painter's cap would become the indelible image of this historic race. At five miles, she had a thirteen-second lead over the other runners. By the nineteen-mile mark, that lead had grown to two minutes, and she had built that lead during the coolest part of the race. Now the runners in the second place pack, Waitz, her teammate Ingrid Kristiansen, and Rosa Mota, had to catch Benoit in the increasing heat of the day.
Though Grete Waitz would close the gap slightly, her effort would come too late. The race would finish on the track in the Los Angeles Coliseum, which was serving as Olympic stadium for the second time. With that building in sight, Benoit passed by a giant mural of her victory in the 1983 Boston Marathon. The painting, on the side of a building, had been com-missioned by Nike. Though slightly embarrassed by the painting, Benoit felt inspired too. Now, she was close to winning another, much more important marathon. Passing through the tunnel that led into the Olympic Stadium, Benoit realized that her life was about to change completely.
"Once you leave this tunnel," she told herself, "your life will be changed forever." Of course, it was too late to turn back. Benoit emerged into the roar of the coliseum and told herself to look straight ahead. "You're not finished," she thought, "Get around the track and nail this thing down."16 And she kept on going, unfazed by the 77,000 cheering fans who welcomed her entrance onto the Olympic track. With 200 yards to go, she finally cracked her grim reserve and waved her hat at the crowd, smiling broadly. She finished in 2:24:52, the third fastest women's marathon ever and a time that would have won thirteen of the twenty previous men 5 Olympic marathons. GreteWaitz finished second in 2:26:18, and Rosa Mota sur-prised everyone by finishing third, crossing the finish line thirty-nine seconds later . Mota had surged past Kristiansen at the twenty-mile mark and was able to maintain a lead over the Norwegian to win the bronze in a personal best time of 2:26:57.
Waltz remarked later that while her own performance had been good, Benoit's had been great.
Benoit later admitted that the race had been very easy for her. After appearances on all three major television networks, Benoit flew home to Maine three days after the marathon, anxious to return to her quiet life and avoid the spotlight that had fallen on her at the Olympics. But Joan Benoit (now Joan Samuelson) did find that her life was changed by winning the first women's Olympic Marathon. She became the idol of millions of American women who run. Just as Frank Shorter had touched off a running boom by his victory in 1972, which showed American men the excitement and reward of long-distance running, Joan Benoit legitimized the efforts of all those women who strove to follow in her footsteps. She became, in a single morning, the leader of the American women's running movement and a worldwide celebrity. It can be said with some confidence that Joan Benoit was to women's running in America in the 1980s what Spiridon Louis was to Greek pride in the 1890s. But to herself, she would always be a simple, private person who loved to run. Back in her native Maine, she married her college sweetheart. In 1985 in Chicago, she set another American record in the marathon, running 2:21:21.
The most dramatic finish of the race was not Benoit's impressive victory, but the finish of Swiss competitor Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, who entered the stadium fifteen minutes later suffering from heat exhaustion. The crowd gasped in horror as Andersen-Scheiss staggered onto the track, her torso twisted, her right arm straight and her left arm limp, her right knee strangely stiff. She waved away medical personnel who rushed to help her knowing that, if they touched her, she, like Dorando Pietri seventy-six years earlier, would be disqualified. For nearly six minutes Andersen-Scheiss hobbled around the track, occasionally stopping and holding her head. Doctors watched her carefully and determined she was in no immediate danger. She collapsed over the finish line in thirty-seventh place into the arms of waiting medics. Fortunately, Andersen-Scheiss recovered quickly. Her time of 2:48:45 would have won the gold medal in the first five Olympic marathons.
An embarrassing note to the women's race of 1984 concerned Leda Diaz de Cano of Honduras. In the midst of world-class competition, de Cano fell behind immediately, trailing by over six minutes just three miles into the race. By the nine-mile mark she was last by nearly a half-hour, and officials convinced her to drop out. Coubertin's credo of the importance of taking part had given way to the importance of keeping to the schedule on the track and allowing cars back on the freeways of Los Angeles.
Kathrine Switzer had not disappeared from the running scene when the women ran their historic race in Los Angeles. She was beginning a new career as a sports commentator and watched Joan Benoit's dramatic finish on a television monitor while working for ABC television.
Women marathoners had arrived at the Olympics and no one doubted their right to be there. From the remarkable solo performance of American gold-medal winner Joan Benoit to the dramatic courage of Gabriele An-dersen-Scheiss, the first women's Olympic Marathon was an event no Olympic spectator would soon forget.