Before the 1980s, there were no women's distance races in the Olympics. In the Moscow Games, the longest race for women was the 1,500 meters, which had been instituted in 1972. Women had been excluded from track and field competition altogether until 1928, when the longest race was the 800 meters. Despite a world record by winner Lina Radke of Germany, many of the competitors had not properly prepared for the race and several collapsed in exhaustion. This led Olympic organizers to consider the race too strenuous for women.
This is not to say there was no tradition of women's long-distance
running. Women had been forbidden from participating in the ancient
Olympics. A woman who was caught even as a spectator at the Games could
face execution. But women in ancient Greece held their own festival to
honor the goddess Hera every five years. Only one athletic event was
held-a short footrace.
When the Olympics were revived in 1896, women were again excluded. But,
in April of 1896, a woman named Melpomene presented herself
as an entrant in the Olympic Marathon. Race organizers denied her the
opportunity to compete. Undeterred, Melpomene warmed up for the race
out of sight. When the starter's gun sounded, she began to run along
the side of the course. Eventually she fell behind the men, but as she
continued on, stopping at Pikermi for a glass of water, she passed
runners who dropped out of the race in exhaustion. She arrived at the
stadium about an hour and a half after Spiridon Louis won the race.
Barred from entry into the now empty stadium, she ran her final lap
around the outside of the building, finishing in approximately four and a
The first Boston marathon was run on April 14, 1897 by 15 people - a distance then of 24.5 miles. In 1927 the distance was lengthened to 26 miles, 385 yards - to match the Olympic marathon distance.
In 1966 Roberta Gibb was the first woman to run the Boston marathon. She hid in the bushes at the start line because she knew she wouldn't be accepted, simply because she was a woman. She did that for three years.
In 1967 Katherine Switzer was the first woman to be issued a bib, simply because the entrance application didn't specifically ask for gender, so she didn't provide them with one. At that time, the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) hadn't yet "accepted" participation of women in long-distance running.
In 1971 the AAU allowed its sanctioned marathons (including Boston) to allow women entry, and in the 1972 Boston Marathon, Nina Kuscsick won the women's division. Eight women entered, and all eight finished the race.
Not good enough? Not strong enough? Thank you to every woman who has ever determined to prove an oppressive man wrong. I don't say that because I'm some sort of femi-Nazi man-hater. No, I say it because I am a woman. I can't pee standing up, but I can do math, I can balance my checkbook, I know about biology, and yes, I run. I do those things because I can, because I want to, because I am a woman.
Katherine Switzer, 1967 Boston Marathon. Once men figured out a WOMAN was running the race, they tried to physically escort her off the course. The man right behind her with the dark hair was her running buddy, Thomas Miller, who was actually protecting her from the older man directly behind her. Miller threw a shoulder into the older man to protect Katherine from him. Who was the person trying to throw her out of the race? Jock Sample, one of the race's organizers. "Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers," she says he told her.