There’s an extraordinary story in the latest issue of Runner’s World magazine about the battle women fought to be allowed to enter distance races in general, and the marathon in particular. John Bryant’s article celebrating the achievements of the women who changed the face of running is a revealing and at times shocking read.
The ancient Greeks banned women from even watching the Olympics on pain of death, and when the games were reborn in 1896 the organisers decreed that they were not suitable for women. A woman known only as Melpomene was refused entry to the first marathon, prompting criticism of the organisers from the newspaperAkropolis. It’s interesting that over a century ago a newspaper realised its job was to hold sporting bodies to account, rather than try not to offend them in order to maintain access. A tradition, of course, which lives on!
By 1928, women’s track events were included in the Olympics, but after the women’s 800 metres – the longest women’s race allowed – saw runners collapse on the track or drop out, there were howls of protest about “ladies in distress”. It may surprise you to know that the good old Daily Mail led the clamour, running stories which suggested that women who took part in races of 800 metres and more would “become old too soon”. House prices would no doubt have been adversely affected too.
The most shocking part of the story concerns the efforts of Katherine Switzer to run in the 1967 Boston marathon. She entered using only her initials, and ran four miles before race marshalls physically assaulted her in an attempt to remove her from the race. The article features an extraordinary set of pictures showing the race marshall lunging at Switzer with his teeth bared.
It really is worth getting hold of a copy of the November issue of Runner’s World to read the full story, which includes an interview with Joan Benoit, who won the first women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics after the ban was lifted in 1981. That’s almost 100 years after the modern games began, in a century we like to think of as progressive.