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The Great Strides of Women

By Lorraine Moller MBE, Four-time Olympian, Boston Marathon Winner & Forerunner for Equality in Women’s Athletics

When I die, if my ideas of immortality are not completely off, I imagine I will get to sit at the cosmic coffee table with my buddies and reminisce on my life. One of my boasts will be “Earth USA, August 5th, 1984, I was there!”

My friends will gasp with envy, knowing full well that this was a poignant time in history. George Orwell predicted we would be a worker-society, our emotions stifled by the control of Big Brother, our lives colorless and fear driven. To the contrary, 1984 for me was the year of liberation and promise, not that George got it wrong, but he was not envisioning through the eyes of a woman runner.

What happened over 38 years ago that was historically so significant? The one event that signified the arrival of Woman as Athlete in every sense of the word - the inaugural women’s marathon at the 23rd Olympiad in Los Angeles. Running women had demanded that they be taken seriously and here we were, all dress rehearsals done, on the greatest of all stages, heralding in a New World Order where women equally shared opportunities and rewards of the sports arena with their male counterparts. I was 29 years old and enthralled to be a part of history-in-the-making.

Females Excluded

When I was born (in the mid-fifties) the codes of physical expression for men and women were well defined: men were warriors with exteriors hardened by the two great wars, while women tended the home fires and raised children.

As I grew up, I accepted that competitive sport was a man’s domain. Women’s sports remained more on the delicate side of things - not too strenuous or rambunctious. Any running distance that took a woman out of sight was medically suspicious, and as the ruling elite once stated (all men), boring to wait around for the finish. The furthest distance women were allowed to compete in at that time was the 440 yards - because the female body supposedly could not withstand the strain of anything further.

As a case in point, newspaper reports of the controversially newly added women’s 880 yards to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam showed photos of collapsed women at the finish. As a result, the event was struck from the program for the next 32 years, for medical reasons. Later reports revealed that the photos were in fact from the 100 yards finish and not the 880. But coupled with newspaper headlines of horrendous finish line distress, the media damage had been done and the myth of the unsuitability of women’s bodies to endurance events was perpetuated for another whole generation. It was not until 1960 that the 880 meters was finally reinstated, offering an Olympic event longer than the 220 yards.

It was 1968, I discovered that I possessed an athletic talent suited more for distance than speed. I gravitated to the longest events that were available to me: first the 440 yards as a thirteen-year-old, then the 880 yards a few years later, and once it had been added to the 1972 Olympic program, the 1500 meters. Our track menu in New Zealand, as it did in most countries affiliated with the IOC (International Olympic Committee), faithfully followed the Olympic program. During the off-seasons I ran cross-country in the winter over one or two miles at most, and some unofficial road races, because there were no official ones for women. I was desperately ambitious for the Olympics, but failed to make the team in 1976 because my qualifying time over 1500m had been run in a time trial with men and was discounted.

While I loved to run, even felt compelled to run, I did not pause to consider the constant disparity in events, opportunity, coverage and prizes between the men and the women. They were all extraneous to the real prize: the thrill of competition. I readily accepted that women’s physiology made her athletically inferior to men in speed, strength and endurance and thus could not be afforded the same athletic status as men. The reason had to do with our reproductive organs.

From the beginning I was warned that my running would give me muscle-bound hairy calf muscles, that sit–ups would make my stomach muscles too tight for giving birth, that beating boys would make them insecure and reject me, and that the pounding of running would detach my womanly innards from their proper placement. It seemed reasonable enough to me that protecting vital bits from falling out be a priority for a perpetuating species, as did the idea that sport, proven to be a testosterone-enhancing activity, was dangerous to femininity and thus the fulfillment of a woman’s biological destiny. But such warnings came too late for me: they had failed to consider that endorphins are not gender-discriminating and once I had partaken a few times there was no going back. I was willing to take the risk of uncertain consequences to keep on running.

My experiences were typical of my era, unfair but always improving, thanks to the constant agitation of the running suffragettes.

Acts of Genius

Although the word ‘suffragette’ evokes connotations of ‘suffering’ these were not suffering women, but rather passionate ones who were willing to flout established rules that governed the tidy but confining gender box that contained them.

Let’s start with the one woman who decided to run the marathon at the first Olympics in 1896. We all laud the brainchild of Pierre de Coubertin in forming the modern Olympics, but it was, after all, a resurrection of an ancient Greek men’s-only club. Dubbed Melpomene after the Greek muse of tragedy, (because no one bothered to find out her real name at the time) she finished the race outside the stadium. Shutting the gates on her, while rude, was certainly an improvement on the death penalty offered up by the Greek establishment of old. One must wonder, in the face of no recognition for her efforts and probably a good deal of scorn on the way, why a woman, probably relatively untrained, would subject herself to a twenty-mile run. I bet, like most marathoners, she simply wanted to see if she could do it. I can imagine her limping home with her tight calves and a satisfied smile on her face having won a dare from her brother. What more does a runner need?

All the running suffragettes I knew came from that mold. Their passion was for running. The cause of social change was not a primary motivation, but rather springing out of their longing to do what they loved to do. Genius comes from passion, not reason, and genius is the lightning bolt that has the capacity to break down outdated structures.

I am thinking here of passionate women such as Melpomene, the all-round natural American Babe Didrickson, the ”flying housewife” Fanny Blankers-Koen from Holland, Wilma Rudolph, who rose from childhood leg braces to double Olympic champion, and in my time, and the renegade and inspirational Boston marathoner, Kathrine Switzer (who became a mentor to me). In my country of New Zealand, we had our own running suffragettes: Millie Sampson, Val Robinson, Sue Haden and Pam Kenny whose leads I followed as an impressionable teen. Flying in the face of convention their acts of genius created history in their wake. Some of these pioneers argued the point after the act. ‘I did it, I hurt no-one. I would do it again’. Maybe they said ‘sorry’ rather than be banned from competing for breaking a set of stodgy sexist rules still on the books, but I’m sure they never really meant it. They were, after all, claiming running as their right and not their privilege.

And they could not be stopped. For behind every limiting belief about women was a suffragette with the outrageous notion that they could do what the men were doing. Boosted by the availability of the pill in the sixties, women bodies were finally unshackled from their reproductive destinies and a new menu of activities beckoned young women.

Rapid Evolution

When the marathon was added to the 1984 Olympic program a quantum leap was achieved, and the world blossomed for women like me. This pivotal point signified a final admission from the patriarchy of sport that women’s bodies no longer needed their protective oversight. We were free to express ourselves as athletes should we choose, even if it meant encroaching on the men’s domain, which we did, big time. I cannot recall how many times in the late seventies I heard a man declare, “The day a woman beats me is the day I hang up my shoes.” I never heard it again after 1984.

While women made great strides ahead, kicking down all the old hurdles of ignorance as they went, the men revised, many cheered, and most joined forces with us and offered up their knowledge and support. New women suffragettes took the batons from their predecessors to lead the way, and the masses followed: African women, Asian women, South American women, old women, chubby women, mothers and grandmothers, sisters and wives. They traded their high-heels for sneakers, bracelets for chronographs, parasols for killer-loops - and hit the streets.

Since 1984 there have been many significant milestones. Here are some of them:

  • The gaps in Olympic event parity are filled. (Women’s 5000 and 10,000 meters added in 1988, pole-vault in 2000 and steeplechase in 2008.)

  • 1987 New York City Marathon: Brit Priscilla Welch wins the women’s open division at age 42, six years after giving up smoking and embarking on a jogging program.

  • 1989 USA 24-hour Championship; Ann Trason becomes the first woman to win a USA National Championship outright, beating the next man by over 4 miles.

  • 1992 Olympics in Barcelona: Yuko Arimori becomes the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic T&F medal for Japan in 64 years with her silver medal behind the Russian, Valentina Yegerova. She becomes one of Japan’s most popular celebrities. Her feats herald a period of domination on the world marathon scene by Japanese women.

  • 1992 Olympics Barcelona: Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria angers Muslim fundamentalists for competing. Wearing typical running attire, she is accused of displaying her naked body and threatened with stoning. Undeterred she becomes the first Algerian woman to win a gold medal (1500 m).

  • 1994: Publicly struggling with her weight and fitness for years popular show host and trend-setter, Oprah, trains for and runs a marathon.

  • 1996 Atlanta Olympics: Fatuma Roba, an Ethiopian woman, becomes the first African woman to win the Olympic marathon, just weeks after an appendectomy, emulating the feats of her most famous countryman, Abebe Bikile. She goes on to win the Boston Marathon in the next three successive years.

  • 2001 Berlin Marathon: Naoko Takahashi of Japan, Gold medalist of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, runs 2:19:46 to become the first woman to break 2.20 for the marathon. Other women quickly follow suit.

  • 2003 London Marathon: Brit Paula Radcliffe breaks her own world record with 2:15:25. Since 1955 the women’s marathon world record has improved by over 60%, while the men’s has improved by just 18%.

  • 2008 Olympics in Beijing: A 38-year-old woman, Constantina Dita-Tomescu from Romania, becomes the oldest competitor, man or woman, to win an Olympic gold medal in distance running.

  • Women’s marathon participation in the USA goes from 10.5% of the field in 1980 to 40% in 2006. (Running USA.)

  • By 2018, 50.24% of runners worldwide are female, the first time in history that the number of female runners surpasses males. (International Institute for Race Medicine.)

L to R: Ann Trason, Hassiba Boulmerka, Constantina Tomescu Dita, Yuko Arimori, Priscilla Welch, Fatuma Roba, Naoko Takahashi, Paula Radcliffe.

I can remember how proud I was that day in 1984 as I lined up on the track at Santa Monica College, next to the likes of Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit, Rosa Mota, Priscilla Welch, Jacqueline Gareau, Anne Audain and Julie Brown. I was proud to be an Olympian, but it was much more than that: I was a marathon runner and the women I stood beside on the start line were not just my competitors but my comrades who had played their part in getting us here. We were not just representing ourselves or our respective countries but all women, those brave ones who had gone before us, and the many who would follow. We were making history and we knew it.

For the first time ever, eighty-eight years after Melpomene’s unwelcome Olympic run, about fifty women strode, uteri intacti, through the open gates to finish a marathon inside the Olympic Stadium, their efforts celebrated, their names officially recorded. Woman, as distance runner, had long ago arrived ahead of her time - now the world had finally caught up with her.

Yes, I am proud to boast: August 5th 1984, Los Angeles - I was there!

Photos sourced by Wikimedia



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