Miscellaneous Great Stuff
A Commentary on Women's Running: Images of Yesterday, Today and TomorrowKatherine Switzer
For the Washington Running Report
It's possible that many of you reading this article weren't yet running when the infamous photo of the Boston Marathon, 1967, was taken.
Every year, even to me, the photo looks like it's out of some old museum exhibit. But it feels like it happened yesterday.
I still feel every aspect of that race; envision other exultant photo-images of women's running.
Women's running did not begin with that 1967 photo. Imagine an earlier image of women who ran for English clubs in the early 1900s or of Violet Piercy, who ran the Polytechnic Harriers Marathon in England in 1926.
Remember this famous photo: The women's 800 meters in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where the first three runners broke the world record but finished in "such a distressed condition" that horrified officials pulled the women's 800 from the Olympics until 1964. This setback reinforced that it was acceptable for women to participate in sports as long as they looked pretty or it didn't appear too difficult. For years, "acceptable" women's sports were tennis, golf, or figure skating.
The sixties were a time of tremendous upheaval and women's running was a big part. The feminist movement hit full stride--Betty Freidan wrote the Feminine Mystique, women began earning their own money, and the "pill" broke the strongest chains against self-determination. Women ran marathons but were denied official status. We demanded change and we trained and lobbied hard for it.
Photos of the early 70s show Sara Mae Berman of Boston and New York's Nina Kuscsik going head-to-head in the Boston Marathon for a new women's world record and winning over media and officials with their strength and performance. Kuscsik went on to win Boston in 1972, the first official AAU sanctioned marathon for women.
Mid-seventies images show bulging fields in all races--the running "boom" was on and the women's only races emerged. A photo of this time that screamed "opportunity" is of an all-women's Avon race in Brazil that had nearly 10,000 women participants, many without shoes. It flew in the face of IOC officials who claimed only a few women from "progressive" countries were interested in or capable of running.
Later in the same decade, a Norwegian who had been a top performer in World Cross-country decided the offer of a ticket to visit New York was worth running 26.2 miles, even though she'd never run more than 13. When Grete Waitz finished her first marathon in a new world record time, her image breaking the New York Marathon finish tape became a battle cry for Olympic inclusion.
In 1980, the dominant picture was of 24-year old New Zealander Lorraine Moller winning the Avon Marathon in London. She led 27 countries and five continents of participants across the finish line, exceeding requirements for Olympic inclusion. Six months later, on February 23, 1981, after years of lobbying, education and top performances, the women's marathon was made an Olympic event.
Whether high on the euphoria of accomplishment or spurred by the brilliance of opportunity, Waitz, now joined by Joan Benoit, Allison Roe, Ingrid Kristensen and Rosa Mota, began an era as yet unparalleled in women's marathon running. Rapid- fire images of them breaking tapes in record times at Athens, New York, Boston and Helsinki flashed across the sports pages.
The climactic image of this era is that of Benoit, in her ill-fitting silver USA uniform, winning the first women's Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles in 1984. By her own admission, the victory easily could have gone to Waitz, Mota or Kristensen. They served notice to a viewing audience estimated at two billion that women could do the impossible.
There was another image of the 1984 Olympics that was equally compelling--that of Gabriella Anderson-Schiess finishing, heat-exhausted and near collapse. It was not difficult to imagine IOC officials discontinuing the marathon event "in horror at the women's distressed condition."
Instead, Anderson-Schiess's image was hailed as heroic, and maybe for women athletes, one of the most important. We now had permission to make the exhausting search for our own limits.
As it turned out, there were no limits. In 1987 out of the Hawaiian airwaves came dynamic footage of a woman with a fierce expression beating most of the men as she ran a 3:11 marathon after swimming 2.4 miles in the ocean and racing a bike for 112 miles. Erin Baker set an Ironman Triathlon record of 9:35 and rewrote the thinking about women's physical capability.
Like a Polaroid photo that takes a while to focus, a picture from the 1981 Cascade Run off didn't make its impact known until later. It was a pleasant shock when Race Director Chuck Galford and lawyer Steve Bosley instituted open prize money in running for the first significant time.
The wires used the picture of the gleeful faces of Anne Audain, Lorraine Moller and Allison Roe, the Mighty Three from New Zealand, who held their prize money checks aloft. The smiles were short-lived. The New Zealand amateur Athletic Association disqualified the medal contenders from the Olympics. Eventually, all were reinstated; Moller and Audain ran in the 1984 Olympic Marathon but Roe was injured.
The legitimization of prize money in the sport is one of the most important developments in modern running history.
There was no question that women's prize money earnings would be equal. Amazingly, what had been perceived 15 years before as a bastion of male chauvinism revealed itself for what it really was: The cutting edge of humanism in sports.
What about the images of our future, which are images that are flashing before us right now? Try these:
The Sublime (mental click): Lorraine Moller, looking alabaster and beautiful in Barcelona twilight, winning Olympic bronze at age 37.
The Beautiful (physical click): Barbara Fitutze, continuing to improve at age 47, showing us that the spectacular achievements of masters Priscilla Welch and others are more in the realm of the achievable than the unusual. Excellent competition and prize money will be standard for us as we reach out 50s, 60s and beyond.
The Unsettling (scientific click): Crestfallen faces as Wang, Junxia and Yunxia Qu obliterated the world 20,000, 3,000 and 1,500 meter records by unbelievable margins. We usually greet our record-breakers with joy and laurels; instead, we question the legitimacy of their accomplishments. What do we believe and what don't we? Soon, the magic 2:20 marathon barrier will go, too. Will we be thrilled or disappointed and suspicious?
The Joyful (social click): Thousands of Japanese women race gleefully in the 11th World Veteran's Games in Miyazaki. Ten years ago they wouldn't bare their legs. They confirm the future: As women at any level gain a sense of their own increasing strength, they will achieve the remarkable.
In many ways, we've succeeded. We've gained acceptance and have reached the next state. It is now time to get back to work.
"We have new Olympic events that we've campaigned for. But where is a women's steeplechase, a hammer throw, pole vault or decathlon? Or do we not want those things? Interestingly, women in the world Master's Games contest those events regularly.
*Where are the depths of our performances? If Ingrid Kristensen ran a 30:13 for 10,000 meters in 1986, shouldn't several women be running much closer to Wang Junxia's 29:31 now?
*Have we mostly white, middle-class women of European descent lost some of that feisty passion which is often a determiner of success? One only has to read Wild Swans to understand that if hard training is the route out of the living hell of a feudal peasantry, the Chinese women will stop at nothing to succeed.
*We've just had a peek at our future competition and there is more to come as cultural, financial and educational restraints open wider for women from Kenya, Ethiopia and South America. These women who have lived at high altitudes and ran to school every day like their male counterparts will want to make money and make up time very quickly. Don't be surprised and don't be unprepared.
*Why aren't women taking responsibility for other women? Can you name a single female coach who has coached women long distance runners to an Olympic level? If females believe that only males can do a good job, they reinforce the myth that women need men to take care of them.
*We must work together to better market and promote our sport so that all of us can thrive and provide for future runners. All of our professional running opportunities are diminishing. Nobody is going to make this situation better for us. We can achieve the remarkable; it is just time to do it once again.
Katherine Switzer sparked the women's running revolution by finishing the 1967 all-male Boston Marathon. Since then she has organized numerous races for women all over the world, creating the Avon International running circuit and played a major role in convincing the International Olympic Committee to include a women's marathon in the Olympic Games. She has worked as an ABC-TV commentator for ten New York City Marathons, the Olympic Trials, and Olympic Games.