Stand on the start line of your local race and you’ll see just as many women as men waiting for the gun. But turn the clock back 50 years and you’d see a different picture (writes Christine Appel). Half a century after race officials tried to bundle Kathrine Switzer off the course at Boston Marathon and she gets ready for London Marathon 2018, we look at the milestones that liberated women to run...
Part Victorian values...
The early history of women’s running is fairly easy to summarise: there isn’t a lot of it. Some evidence exists for women taking part in the first Olympic Marathon in 1896, but it goes without saying that their efforts were neither appreciated nor well recorded.
Five athletic events for women were included at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Progress was short lived, however, as the women’s 800m race was promptly withdrawn after some of the finalists collapsed. Those who felt the ‘excitement and strain’ of competition was simply too much for women seemed to have been proved right.
... meet the age of social change
Some credit the reintroduction of the 800m race at the 1960 Rome Games for the rebirth in interest in women’s long-distance running. Not that the official bodies made it easy. In 1961, the US Amateur Athletic Union banned women from competing in road races– but that didn’t stop the determined few.
Boston Strong, then as now
The turning point for women’s participation in mass running events came with the 1967 Boston Marathon. Kathrine Switzer wasn’t the first woman to run the all-male route – that was Roberta Gibb, who jumped in at the start the year before – but Switzer was the first to enter, under her usual name – K.V. Switzer. Wearing lipstick as she always did, Switzer made no attempt to hide her gender.
Looking back on 1967, Switzer recalls only support from male runners at the start – but that changed after mile four. “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!’”
Unfortunately for race official Jock Semple, Kathrine’s 16-stone boyfriend Tom was also running the race, and knocked him to the ground. Kathrine, her coach Arnie and Tom carried on. Photographs of the scuffle spread round the world – and the rest as they say, is history.
“To the guys it was a one-off event,” Switzer recalls. “But I knew it was a lot more than that. A lot more.” She was right. Four years later, female athletes were allowed to race Boston by invitation, but there was a catch: they had to run in a different race, 10 minutes before the men. After a sit-down protest by female runners at the New York City Marathon, and the passing of US anti-discrimination legislation, the BAA got the message. In 1972, women and men were allowed to compete in the same race.
The birth of the sports bra
Women haven’t only had to battle the authorities to be able to run; they’ve also had to battle their own bodies. That fight got easier in 1977 with the invention of the sports bra. Created out of two jockstraps, the ‘jockbra’ minimised bounce. Taken for granted now but revolutionary in its day, the rechristened ‘jogbra’ enabled women – especially those who were older or fuller figured – to run without discomfort or pain. Perhaps sensing a trend, Nike launched the first women’s running shoes in 1978.
Baby makes two ...
Like the sports bra, the invention of the baby jogger meant even more women could fit running into their lives. Invented (by a man) in 1984, the three wheeled, single handlebar design
allowed active mums to up the pace, and take on terrain they’d never be able to tackle with traditional prams and pushchairs.
... and two runners make a race
The fact that more women were running recreationally in the 1980s and 1990s wasn’t lost on race organisers and charities. In 1994, the Race for Life series of women-only events was launched, creating a female-focused running and fundraising goal for thousands. Other female-friendly events – like the Great Women’s Run and the Women’s Running series – are now staple fixtures.
Join the club
Women who want to run can often find themselves in a bind. Traditional running clubs can sometimes be very male and very competitive. But running on one’s own – especially at night –
can be dangerous. Projects like RunTogether, RunMummyRun and jogscotland have gone from strength to strength, supporting women of all ages and abilities to run in a safe and encouraging environment.
Thankfully, the bad old days are behind us. Women wanting to take part in major events don’t have to hide in the bushes and wait for the pack to pass. No one seriously believes sport causes a woman’s uterus to atrophy as ‘experts’ once did, either. Women running now have the support of other women – and men – in clubs, in blogs, in communities, on the news stands and in retail, where women’s kit takes up just as much space as the men’s. Equality, as least as far as our credit card bills are concerned, can have its downside.