Some of the bravest women, in the last 100 years, have been fighting for equality. This struggle did not bypass athletes, including those who became the symbol of women’s marathon race.
International Women’s Day, 8th of March, is celebrated worldwide. At the beginning of the 20th century women, led by Claret Zetkin, started fighting for their rights, both at work and in the community.
This fight has cleared a path for many women to raise their voice against discrimination and fulfill their dreams. Among them were also those who were the bravest and have, despite protests, ran their first marathon.
Mid previous century women were not allowed to compete in marathon races. In spite of sending applications, they have always been denied participation. Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb decided to end the “agony” and entered history as the first woman to run a marathon. Regardless of the fact that her application was rejected, she “sneaked in” in the race and, in 1966, ran the Boston Marathon.
Next year, Kathrine Switzer followed her example. Although she was not given the right to run the marathon she did it anyway using her initials, so no one noticed a woman signed up for the race.
Just after the first four kilometers, Jock Semple, one of the organizers, noticed that a woman was running shoulder to shoulder with men and tried to stop her in the intent. However, her boyfriend, at the time, defended her and Kathrine Switzer reached the finish line becoming the symbol of women’s marathon.
“AT THE TIME, LONG DISTANCE RUNNING FOR WOMEN WAS VERY CONTRAVERSIAL. EVERYONE TOUGHT THAT WOMEN WOULD HAVE HUGE LEGS AFTER INTENSE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, GROW A MUSTACHE OR CHEST HAIR AND THAT THEIR UTERUS WOULD FALL OUT…”
Remembering those days, Kathrine says women were not actually forbidden to run marathons, but it was a common belief that women were not strong enough to endure running 42 kilometers.
Jock Semple remained well known to the public as the “madman” who tried to take off her contestant number as the Amateur Athletic Union did not allow women to compete.
However, many believe that without the passion and energy that Jock Semple had, Boston Marathon would probably not have survived in the critical years after the Second World War.
Kathrine Switzer herself said:
“When I arrived at the Heartbreak Hill, I realized that Jock Semple was just an exhausted executive of the race who has been protecting the event from people he thought did not take running seriously. Of course he was not a popular guy due to his temper. And of course he was “the product of his time” and was of the opinion that women have no need to run a marathon. But I wanted to convince him otherwise. Despite all of this, Jock inspired me to dedicate myself to providing women with new opportunities for running. Almost every day of my life I thank him for this bout because that was my motivation. In addition, he has given the world one of the most powerful photographs that is now being used for promoting women’s rights. Sometimes the most unpleasant things in life turn out to be the best ones. “
Kathrine Switzer wore No. 261 again in 2017, at the Boston Marathon, same as 50 years ago.
She finished the race with a time of 4 hours and 44 minutes, fully equipped, even with her eyeliner and lipstick on. This time she was not the only woman at the start line, over 12,000 women ran the Boston Marathon.