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Struggle for Women in Olympic Sports

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The struggle for women’s participation in sports, particularly in Marathons was based on several ideologies that circulated during the second half of the 19th century. These ideologies led women distance runners to join together in an effort that would forever change women’s participation in marathons. By the 1970’s, 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 let Olympic organizers to consider the race too strenuous for the elimination of all women’s competition from the Games. This 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 women 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 foot race. 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 name 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 gun went off, she began to run along the side of the course. Eventually she fell behind, but she continued on. She arrived at the stadium with a time of 4 ½ hours. One Greek newspaper wrote that 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 no 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. 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. 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 to change the rules. 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. 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, most importantly was the decision that women had finally won the right to compete in an Olympic Marathon in 1984 Summer Olympic games. 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-distance 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. 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 unforgettable image of this historic race. And she kept on going, unfazed by the 77,000 cheering fans who welcomed her 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. 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. The first women’s Olympic marathon was an event no one will ever forget. It was the symbol that the struggles that women athletes endured throughout the years were slowly evaporating. American women have struggled to be taken seriously in sports for centuries. The constant obstacles they faced led them to unite to make a difference. It is not quite where it should be, but with Title IX in legislation, things are moving slowly and will continue to move forward for future generations.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Encyclopedia of women and sport in America. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1998.LOCATION: Schlesinger: Ref. 796.03 O35e
Layden, Joseph. Women in sports: the complete book on the world's greatest female athletes. Santa Monica, CA: General Pub. Group, c1997.

Samuelson, Joan Benoit. Running tide. 1st ed. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding women athletes: who they are and how they influenced sports in America. 2nd ed. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1998.

INTERNET RESOURCES

http://womenshistory.about.com/cs/sportsfitness/

www.runnersworld.com

http://www.riverdeep.net/current/200/03/front.150300.women.jhtml

www.marathonguide.com

www.coolrunning.com

www.boston.com/sports/top100/players/26.htm

www.runnertriathletenews.com

www.soyouwanna.com

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