Despite duelling legacies, history has room for more than a few female running pioneers

As the Boston Marathon prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first woman entrant in the race, the truth is complicated

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 1:17pm

Pioneers are rarely born. They are manufactured, some unwittingly while others knowingly complicit. However, virtually every pioneer shares a common trait; they are hewn by ignorance and injustice, hence there is no shortage of courageous and undaunted women toiling tirelessly for gender equality.

There are, however, a few iconic and galvanising images that capture the struggle and none in sports was more powerful than the picture of 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer running in the 1967 Boston Marathon.

Fifty years ago the Boston Marathon was a seminal event unto itself. The most prestigious annual running race in the world, the only award more cherished than the winner’s wreath was an Olympic marathon gold medal.

Well, for a man at least because in 1967 there was no women’s Olympic marathon. In fact, there were no women in the Boston Marathon, either.

One year earlier, 23-year-old Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb had applied to enter the 1966 Boston Marathon only to receive a letter from race director Will Cloney.

“This is an AAU men’s division race only,” he wrote. “Women aren’t allowed, and furthermore are not physiologically able.”

This kind of attitude now seems like something from the stone age. Of the 27,488 runners who started the 2016 Boston Marathon, 12,166 were women and 96.5 per cent of them finished the race.

But considering the first female Olympic marathon medal was only awarded in 1984 in Los Angeles, competitive distance running for women is still relatively embryonic.

Switzer was a student at Syracuse University who was training with the men’s cross country team because there was no women’s team. An older training partner regaled her with tales from the famed Boston race. When she proved to him that she could actually finish the entire 26.2 miles (42.19 kilometres), and after finding no gender specific restrictions in either the rule book or the entry form, the journalism student used her new writing pseudonym KD Switzer in the application and was accorded bib number 261.

With a massive throng at the start of the race and a hood over her head, officials quickly shooed her into place and away she went with the pack. Two miles into the race Switzer and her running companions were passed by a truck carrying the media and press officials.

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No longer wearing a hood, the writers were alarmed to see a woman running in the Boston Marathon and officials quickly stopped to chase after her.

Switzer recalls hearing the sound of leather shoes approaching her and turned around aghast. Behind her was race official Jock Semple, who lunged at her back and yelled: “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”

Without missing a step, Switzer’s boyfriend delivered a crushing shoulder block splattering Semple to the side of the road. And all of this in front a flatbed truck full of photographers. Hollywood could not have framed it any better.

Switzer finished the race in four hours and 20 minutes and parlayed her fame into a very prominent role in shaping women’s running events culminating in the inclusion of the women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics.

Articulate and camera friendly, she became a renowned author and broadcaster as well as a face for women’s sports and this month she will celebrate, amidst much fanfare, the 50th anniversary of her historic race by running in the 2017 Boston Marathon.

But while historical themes can be simplified, history itself is not nearly as tidy.

In 1967, Gibb finished the race a full hour before Switzer in virtually the same time she ran in 1966. Both times Gibb had hidden in the bushes at the start of the circuit and ran without a number. She also garnered some notoriety at the time, but the avalanche of PR that was directed towards Switzer, the first official woman to run the race, began to obscure Gibb.

“If you asked Switzer directly,” claimed Gibb, “she’d say, ‘Oh no, Bobbi ran the year before me.’ But then she’d go on TV and be introduced as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.”

For her part, Gibb was also recognised last year in Boston at the 50th anniversary of her first run. But while Switzer continued to run competitively, Gibb pursued other interests.

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According to a former director of the Boston Marathon, “Gibb doesn’t have a commercial bone in her body”.

However, Switzer certainly does and more power to her for that. And while, technically at least, it may seem incorrect having two women claim to be the first to run the Boston Marathon. There is no limit nor quotas on pioneers. The more the merrier.