Saturday, August 20, 2016

When Women Were Barred from the Marathon - "If that were my daughter, I would spank her"

"Get the hell out of my race!"

I remember the "You've come a long way, baby" Virginia Slims cigarette ads from when I was a kid. At the time (1969) women might have come a long way, baby, but that "long way" was short of 26.2 miles. Or at least, women were officially prohibited from running that full marathon distance.

In those days there weren't very many marathons. Boston had been going since 1897 (one year after the first modern Olympics), and perhaps outside of the Olympics, it still was the marathon. New York didn't get started until 1970. Within a few years there would be hundreds of marathons in the United States.

Women weren't initially allowed to participate in Boston (or New York in its first year). And the women's marathon wasn't added to the Olympics until 1984.

If the term "sexism" has any meaning, this policy was sexist. But the prohibition was also due to the awe and fear that people held the marathon in those days. Normal humans didn't run them. They were for highly-trained athletes. Even so, people died. You, know, like that first Greek guy. A woman running? What if she permanently injured herself? It could affect her child-bearing ability.

Kids (those under 18) also were generally prohibited. I ran two marathons at the age of 14 - Ocean State in Rhode Island in 1978 and Boston (unofficially) in 1979. As I recall, I had to get a special note from my doctor, who even so was against it (though he signed the note). It might affect my bone growth. What if I had died?

But, especially in hindsight, the prohibition on women was stupid. And it was often enforced in a nasty way. In 1966, Roberta Gibb Bingay ran Boston in 3:21:40. The organizer of Boston, Will Clooney, refused to recognize her time: "She merely covered the same route as the official race while it was in progress." Well, okay, she didn't run it officially. But whose fault was that?

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer entered the race officially but without disclosing her sex. This provided the opportunity for an iconic photo (see above). Organizers Clooney and Jock Semple became aware of her participation and physically tried to remove her from the race: "Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!" Switzer's boyfriend protected her by giving Semple a punch/body block. Within days, the American Athletic Union had terminated Switzer's membership on the grounds, among other things, that she had run farther than the allowable distance for women and had run without a chaperone (it's unclear why Switzer's boyfriend didn't count).

Yes, in some ways, the United States used to be like Saudi Arabia.

Clooney's reaction to her finish was a classic of something:
Women can't run in the Marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos. I don't make the rules, but I try to carry them out. We have no space in the Marathon for any unauthorized person, even a man. If that girl were my daughter, I would spank her.
In 1972, women were finally allowed to run the Boston Marathon. In fairness, we should note that this was at the urging of Jock Semple.

However, women still weren't allowed to start with the men. Their start was mandated to be ten minutes earlier.

When the gun went off, all the women sat down.

For guess how long.

Twelve years later, the first women's Olympic marathon was run in Los Angeles. Mainer Joan Benoit won it in an American record time of 2:24:52.

The women's world record is now 2:15:25, set by Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain in 2003.

It would have been the men's world record in 1956.

That may or may not seem cool to you. I think it is.

In a great many obvious things, we're less wise than before. But in a few ways, we've come a long way, baby.

Just be careful of those cigarettes. They seriously mess with your wind. 


  1. As a life long Massachusetts resident it amuses me when I see these things. People have this image of a great liberal state but it isn't aside from rhetoric. Google desegregation and busing and you get an image of a man stabbing another man with an american flag, in Boston in the 1970's. And there are other examples.

  2. Yeah. I hear you. I grew up in Cambridge and went to high-school in Boston.

  3. Didn't know you were a runner, but have enjoyed your distance running musings during the Olympics. I've completed 2 marathons, I won't say I ran because I did not run the whole time. The full marathon is just a completely different animal than a half or other long distance race.

    1. Thank you, Father. Yes, it was fun write about running.

      I've had some good races and some disasters. For me, the "secrets" are putting in the long runs (though you only really need one a week) and pacing.

      For my most pleasantly surprising performance, I ran a negative split and for once never hit the wall. I was undertrained and overweight and so went out easy with no expectations. That was the ticket.

      I understand that many people alternately run and then walk for a bit, but for me, once I stop running, I'm toast.

      Let me know if you plan on running another marathon. Chicago is a great course. Even though it's a lottery, you can get a guaranteed entry as a charity runner. And Sister Stephanie Baliga is always looking for Catholic runners for her Our Lady of the Angels team. Last time I ran for her there were (I think) at least two priests, three nuns and a number of postulants and seminarians on the team. Sister Stephanie is a sub three-hour runner, by the way - in a modest kerchief-habit and light skirt. Perhaps you have heard of her?

      Cheers, again!

    2. Never heard of Sister Stephanie, very impressive. I am a bit on the shelf with mid-30s hamstring. My first major injury. But Chicago is in striking distance if I go for another full. I'll remember. Peace.