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Equality in Women's Distance Running: What History Can Teach Us

Olympic Women’s 800 meter race in the 1928 Olympic Games. (Underwood Archives)

For centuries women have suffered unequal treatment in the sporting world. Women were told marathon running could harm their reproductive capabilities; that they were too weak and fragile to run.

Women ran anyways. Even if it meant entering races with their initials so they wouldn’t be identified as female. Even if it meant hiding at the start line and jumping in after the gun went off. Even if it meant sitting at the start line in protest.

These women paved our way. And yet, we still have work to do. Many of us are still not free to run because of the way we look or where we live.

Many young girls still look around them and see a world with men in charge. A world where male athletes are paid more, on TV more, on just about everything more. Yet we tell our daughters that they are just as good as the boys; that they can do anything. This doesn’t add up and they know it.

Let’s tell our daughters the real story - let’s explain our history and the giant head start men have had. And then let’s pass them the baton, to continue running toward equality, to make this world better - as only they can.


Distance Running Timeline


In 1896, a Greek woman named Stamata Revithi ran the marathon course at the first modern Olympic Games. She ran the day after the men’s race was held (not being allowed to run with the men) and though she had witnesses, her accomplishment was not officially recognized and she was not allowed to enter the Olympic stadium at the end of her race.


The Olympic Games opens five track and field events to women. However, following false reports of women collapsing after the 800m, the IOC bans women from running more than 200m or half way around the track. This ban lasts 32 years.


Kathrine Switzer is the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, though the race director attempted to forcibly remove her from the race once he realized she was a woman. Kathrine completed the race, but her time was not officially counted. (photo: Boston Herald)


Six women are allowed to run the New York City marathon on the condition they start 10 minutes before the men. At the gun, they sit down in protest of this unequal treatment.

Shortly thereafter, woman are officially allowed to enter a marathon and run the same course as the men and start at the same time. (photo: Patrick Burns)


The first Olympic women’s marathon is held at the Los Angeles Games, 88 years after the first men’s race. Joan Benoit won in 2:24.