When one talks about the history of the Summer Olympic Games, the first athletic event that comes to mind is the marathon. In the first ever modern Games in 1896, the race was run from the Greek city of Marathon (see the connection?) to Athens. It was a running event to commemorate the legend that a Greek messenger ran from Marathon to the country’s capital to announce the Battle of Marathon was won. From then, till date, the marathon has become one of the most popular running events around the world, taking many shapes and forms.
But, did you know that there was no women’s marathon at the Olympics till 1984? It took *88 years after the first Olympic marathon was run for women to complete for their own medals.
And, the precedent for that was set at one of the most popular and prestigious non-Olympic marathon events – the Boston Marathon, which started only a year after the first Olympic Games in 1896.
It all changed on one famous (or infamous) day in 1967.
Kathrine Switzer, a 20-year-old Syracuse college student, changed the course of athletics when she registered as KV Switzer to run the Boston Marathon. Women were barred from competing but Swtizer did not have it. She was going to finish the marathon and show the world women can. And in the process, she had become a hero of the women’s rights movement.
As the The Guardian noted: “Having registered under the name KV Switzer, her gender went unnoticed by officials at the start line, but a few miles in she was attacked by an angry official who tried to pull her off the course – creating an enduring image of women’s rights history. With the help of a bodyblock from her boyfriend, Switzer evaded the official and finished the race in four hours 20 minutes.”
She did not enter the race to break barriers but that was only till that official’s ill-judged intervention. “It wasn’t until a race official attacked me during the run did I become determined to finish and speak out on behalf of all women,” she told later.
Since then, Switzer – the first registered woman to finish the Boston Marathon, with the number 261 plastered across her chest – went on to become a pioneer for women’s distance running. She ran the Boston Marathon in 1972 after successfully campaigning for women to be a part of it for the first time. She won the New York City Marathon in 1974 and has completed at least 40 marathons in her career.
About that now-iconic moment in 1967, Switzer wrote in her memoir titled Marathon Woman:
“I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming: ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!’
“I knew if I dropped out no one would believe women could run distances and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon. They would just think that I was a clown, and that women were barging into events where they had no ability.”— via The Guardian
Indeed, Switzer also had a major role to play with marathon being included for the first time at the Olympic Games. She created the Avon International Running Circuit in 1978 and the organisation of marathons for women led to the eventual convincing of International Olympic Committee to sanction a women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
And famously, in 2017, 50 years after being heckled during the race, she ran the Boston Marathon again and the number 261 was retired by organisers in her honour. More recently, she also founded a running community called 261 Fearless.
Indeed, the irony should not be lost on anyone that an incident that is inherently distasteful led to one of the most inspiring tales of modern athletics.
As Switzer told Runners World in 2013: “From that very negative incident, probably the worst thing in my life, came a huge inspiration to change the situation. It led to everything significant in my life: my career, travel, husband, sense of self. So people might find it surprising that probably a day does not pass that I don’t thank Jock Semple for attacking me. He made one of the worst things in my life into one of the best things in all our lives.”
The soaring popularity of marathon as a discipline where women’s athletes compete around the world can be gauged from this: In 1972’s Boston Marathon, there were nine women entrants among a total of 1219 (0.73%). In 2019, there were 13,684 women entrants in the field of 30,234 runners (45.26%). And it can all be traced back to KV Switzer’s determination to compete.
Correction: The article originally stated 98 years between first Olympic Games marathon and first women’s marathon at the event. It has been corrected to 88.