Marathons and Gender Equality

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Marathons are 42.195 kilometers running races, named after the fabled run of the Greek soldier, heidippides, a messenger
from the Battle of Marathon who allegedly ran this distance to Athens. The marathon was one of the original modern Olympic events in 1896, though the distance did not become standardized until 1921. More than 800 marathons are contested throughout the world each year, with the vast majority of competitors being recreational athletes. However, women have only been allowed to contest marathon races in the second half of the twentieth century.

Marathons, running and women

Like many other competitive sports, running was not considered an appropriate sport for women. Although some women did run or attempted to run in marathon races, they either had to do this 'unofficially' or faced expulsion at the starting line. For example, Nina Kuscsik, the first woman to run in the New York Marathon and the first woman to win the Boston Marathon, in 1972, was stopped by the police when training: “If I went out to run and it rained, the police would stop me,” she said. “They thought I was running away from something.” As the New York Times reported, she had to run the Boston Marathon in 1969 as an unofficial entrant since women were not allowed to run until 1972. When Ms. Kuscsik crossed the finish line, she glanced at the number of the man next to her so she could use his time to guess at hers. But a female official at the end of the race did Ms. Kuscsik a favor and gave her her actual time — 3 hours 46 minutes.

Another example is Roberta Gibb, the first woman known to have raced the Boston Marathon, in 1966. Gibb had been inspired to run by the return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. In 1967, Kathrine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon using her initials, and while race authorities tried to physically remove her, her running mates blocked their attempts. Photos of the incident brought the issue of women's running to a broader public and under the media spotlight. 

On August 31,1971 Adrienne Beames of Australia became the first women to run a sub-three-hour marathon, smashing that barrier with a time of 2:46:30. In 1972, women were allowed to compete officially in the Boston Marathon for the first time. On October 28, 1973, the first all women's marathon was held in Waldniel, West Germany. The success of that race was built on the following October when Dr. Ernst Ban Aaken, a West German and a strong supporter of women's running, sponsored the first Women's International Marathon Championship in Waldniel. Fourty women from seven countries competed in the event. Two years later, when the race was held again, the forty-five finishers represented nine different countries.


Violet Piercy of Great Britain was the first woman to be officially timed in the marathon, when she clocked a time of 3:40:22 in a British race on October 3, 1926. Due largely to the lack of women's marathon competition, that time stood as an unofficial world record for thirty-seven years. On December 16, 1963, American Merry Lepper ran a time of 3:37:07 to improve slightly on Piercy's record. Still, no highly competitive times were recorded prior to the 1970s because there was not women's competition in the race.

History of women's participation in Olympic marathons

When the Olympics were revived in 1896, no women's marathon were included. A female contestant, Melpomene, presented herself as an entrant in the Olympic Marathon but was denied the chance to compete. She decided to enter anyway, warming up in secret and finished the race an hour and a half after the winner. Barred from entry into the now empty stadium, she ran her final lap around the outside of the building, finishing in approximately four and a half hours.

The longest women's distance race in the Olympics prior to the 1980s was the 1, 500 metres at the Moscow Games, which had been instituted in 1972. Women had been excluded from track and field competition altogether until 1928, when the longest race was the 800 meters. Despite a world record by winner Lina Radke of Germany, many of the competitors had not properly prepared for the race and several collapsed in exhaustion. This led Olympic organizers to consider the race too strenuous for women. The president of the IOC, Count Henri Baillet-Latour, even suggested the elimination of all women's competition from the Games. No race over 200 metres for women existed before 1960.

Two reasons were often given for this. First, some experts claimed that women's health would be damaged by long-distance running. Second, the Olympic Charter stated that to be included in the Games, a women's sport must be widely practiced in at least twenty-five countries on at least two continents. These objections were only overturned in 1981 after the IOC accepted the popularity of the sport (with high profile women's marathons being organised across the world) and the scientific advice showing that there was no evidence to suggest any negative impact of running on women's health. The first women's marathon ocured at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and was won by Joan Benoit of the United States with a time of 2 hours 24 minutes and 52 seconds.

See Also

Women in Sports


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