And at the starting line . . .


Given the prominence of women in international distance running these days, it pretty much beggars belief that the longest distance race in the Olympics was just 1,500 metres prior to the Los Angeles games in 1984.

According to Charlie Lovett in his history of the Olympic Marathon, the failure of a couple of competitors to complete the 800 metres back in 1928 had prompted Count Henri Baillet-Latour to suggest that perhaps women's events should be dropped from the Games altogether and while he was talked out of implementing that particular act of lunacy, women did have to content themselves with the sprint events until 1960.

The involvement (albeit somewhat subversive) of women in the marathon, though, dates back to the start of the race itself in 1896 when the most common version of the story goes that one woman, Stamata Revithi, nicknamed Melpomene after the Greek muse of tragedy, submitted an entry to run the race in the very first modern Games but was rejected.

It seems that she ran the course anyway to prove a point (though whether she did so on the same or the following day is a point of some contention) and apparently finished in about five and a half hours, some 90 minutes longer than it took Spiridon Louis to bag the gold.

So rarely were women able to compete officially over the distance that after Britain's Violet Percy set a new world record of 3:40:22 in October 1926, the time remained unbeaten for the next 37 years.

Even more remarkable is the fact that it took until the early 1970s for the participation of women over the distance to be generally accepted. In 1966 Roberta Gibb leapt out from behind a bush near the start line for the Boston marathon to run the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:21 and the following year Kathrine Switzer gained entry when she submitted forms with her initials rather than first name as well as a vague testimonial from her coach at Syracuse University in lieu of a medical certificate.

She was two miles into the race when she was spotted by a group of journalists who were riding around the course on a bus with the legendary race director, Jock Semple, who was so outraged by the participation of a "girl" in his beloved race that he jumped off the bus and physically accosted her.

The scene was captured by the press photographers present as was the sight of Switzer's boyfriend, who was running beside her, body checking the veteran Scot American football style while other participants looked on aghast.

Switzer went on to become the head of the Women's Sports Foundation and played an important role in getting the event admitted into the Olympics by persuading Avon (as in the cosmetics people) to sponsor a series of international women's marathons so as to prove that the race was sufficiently popular in different countries to merit inclusion.

Lord Killanin spoke in favour of the event's introduction at the Olympic Congress held during the Moscow Games, but the prospects of the campaign to get it in was not helped by the fact that the international governing body of athletics, the IAAF, was preoccupied with winning approval for the 3,000 in the belief that it had a better chance of working up to the longer distances gradually.

A growing body of medical evidence that women could indeed cope perfectly well with the strain, the wilting of opposition from all but the Soviets (what were they thinking?) and the steadily improving times achieved by women over the distance around the world finally prompted a change of heart, however, and America's Joan Benoit won the gold in 1984 with Ireland's Regina Joyce among the race's competitors.