October 3, 2001

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Prejudice clouds women's marathon history

John Mehaffey

Confusion and prejudice cloud the history of the women's marathon, primarily because women were long thought too fragile to run 42.195 kms over the roads.

The anti-feminists, who opposed any women's race over 200 metres for most of the 20th century, would have been confounded by Sunday's Berlin marathon.

Naoko Takahashi, a slight, young Japanese, reduced the world best by 57 seconds to clock two hours 19 minutes 46 seconds. Her time would been fast enough to win the men's Olympic title as recently as 1956.

Several reports have claimed a Greek woman named Melopene ran in the 1896 Athens Olympic marathon, the first Games of the modern era, finishing in about 4-1/2 hours. The first men's champion, Greek Spiridon Louis, clocked 2:58:50.

The first woman officially timed in a marathon was Briton Violet Piercy who completed the Windsor-Chiswick course on October 3 1926 in 3:40:22.

Her mark lasted for 37 years until Merry Lepper, a 20-year-old American, clocked 3:37:07 in Culver City.

In the unenlightened days when women were usually banned from marathons, Lepper and her friend Lyn Carmen hid in the bushes before illicitly joining the field.

Beames Doubt
The first sub-three hour marathon has been credited to Australia's Adrienne Beames with two hours 46 minutes 30 seconds in Werribee, Victoria, on August 31 1971. The time has been queried by some statisticians because of doubts over the length of the course.

Beames, the Victorian squash champion from 1966-8, was also, according to contemporary reports, a noted singer. She clocked 2:46:25 six years later in Phoenix, which gives credibility to her Werribee time.

These isolated achievements were recorded against a backdrop of illogical prejudice against women's running, instigated largely by the women's 800 metres final at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.

After several women collapsed at the end of an exciting race, won by German Karoline Radke, there were calls in the press to ban women from races of more than 200 metres.

Comte de Baillet-Latour, president of the International Olympic Committee, went further. As in ancient Olympia, he said, women should not take part in the Games at all.

The world governing athletics body acted swiftly. All women's races longer than 200 metres were banned for 32 years until the 800 was restored at the 1960 Rome Games.

Women's liberation movements flourished during the 1960s although the sporting authorities, as usual, lagged behind popular opinion.

In 1967 a race marshal spotted Kathy Swizer running in the Boston marathon and tried to remove her from the race. Swizer had taken the precaution of running with her hammer thrower boyfriend. The marshal failed.

The 1970s were pivotal years for women in particular and women distance runners in particular.

In 1971, organisers of the New York City marathon allowed five women entrants in a field of 164. American Beth Bonner was the first woman home in 2:55.22, followed by Nina Kuscsik.

Waitz Breakthrough
Boston relented in the following year with Kuscsik the first woman home in 3:10:26. Kuscsik had been inspired by President John Kennedy's call for Americans to get fitter during the early 1960s, taking up successively skating, walking and running.

Attitudes towards women athletes were also belatedly changing.

Women, said West German physiologist Ernst Van Aaken, were ideally suited to running marathons.

"Women have the ideal physique required to excel in long-distance running," he said.

Van Aaken said women sweated less and were subsequently less susceptible to dehydration. They also weighed less and became fatigued less quickly.

A cool, elegant Norwegian finally convinced the sceptics that women's distance running was to be taken seriously. Appropriately it happened on the streets of New York, biggest and brashest of the new mass-participation big city races.

After finishing third in the 1974 European championships 1,500 metres final, Grete Waitz was asked if she had considered moving up to the non-championship 3,000.

"No, I've raced the distance once and thought it far too long," she replied.

Yet in 1978 Waitz, who had never run further than 19 kms in training, won the New York marathon in 2:32:30, two minutes faster than the previous best.

Despite initial reluctance she turned out again in 1979, clocking 2:27:33, seven minutes faster than any other woman. The time was good enough to win every Olympic marathon prior to Emil Zatopek in 1952.

Incredibly the 1,500 was still the longest event on the Olympic programme at the 1980 Moscow Olympics but change was swift to come as the authorities belatedly redrafted their programmes.

The first championship marathon was won by Rosa Mota at the 1982 European championships in Athens. In the following year, Waitz won the inaugural world title in Helsinki.

In 1984 several women, notably Swiss Gabriele Andersen-Schweiss, collapsed in stifling heat during the Los Angeles Olympic women's marathon, won by American Joan Benoit.

But this time there were no calls for the race to be banned. Women's distance running had arrived.

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