Its 776 BC, year of the first Greek Olympics. Crowds cheering, an array of sportsmen testing their prowess at various games, picking up trophies and achieving greatness in their chosen sport. Athens is dipped in an atmosphere of cheer, ambition, rivalry, pride and just sheer joy. But wait; where are the women? Not on the sporting grounds, for sure!
If you are a woman in ancient Greece, you have a few options. If a prostitute or a virgin, you are allowed to spectate. If married, you could train horses and let them race but you need to stay out or get the death penalty no less. Although you could be a prize for the male winners of chariot races. The Olympic Games that were organized every 4 years for more than 600 years built a tradition, immortalized many and didn’t change that one thing – keep women out.
1503 years after the last organized games in 393 AD, Baron Pierre de Coubertin brought back Olympics in style organizing the first one in Athens, Greece in honor of the original Olympic Games. About the Games he said in a famous recorded speech announced in Berlin in 1936, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. Just as in life, the aim is not to conquer but to struggle well.”
He also had a strong stand on women participating in the Olympic movement. He opposed it!
1896; year of the first modern Olympic Games, again a ‘men-only’ event in Athens. Coubertin saw the true Olympic hero as an adult male. In his view, women could not physically rival men, therefore they could not push sports “citius, altius, forties” (faster, higher, stronger), the core precept of the Olympics. He always said that a, “female Olympiad would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.” In this sentiment, he received the full support from Pope Pius XI. Needless to say that there were no female participants in 1896.
Then came about Stamata Revithi, a poor Greek woman who walked from Piraeus to Athens with her 17 month child in search of a better fortune. An athlete she met on the way gave her some cash and an advice to ‘run in the marathon’. She decided to register for the 40 kilometer race from Marathon to Athens. On the eve of the Marathon run (Thursday 28 March), she was welcomed by the mayor, Mr. Koutsogiannopoulos in the small village of Marathon. Press reporters came to meet the woman who wished to run the Marathon. The next morning (Friday, 29 March) the old priest of Marathon refused to give her blessings saying that he “only gave blessings to the officially recognized athletes.” Later in the day, she was refused entry by the race committee. However, on Saturday, 30 March at 8am, Stamata ran the Marathon course on her own. Before she started she asked the teacher, the mayor and the magistrate to witness the time she started and sign a hand-written report of the race. Reports make it quite clear that Stamata Revithi completed the Marathon officially at the time of the First Olympic Games. When asked why she ran the difficult course, she replied, “So that the King would give my child a position in the future.”
Here as Athanaios Tarasouleas says in his report; the trail of the first Greek woman to run the Marathon is lost in the dust of history.
Taking from the pages of the Olympic Marathon, by Charlie Lovett; the journey further to a fully accepted women’s marathon was still almost a century ahead. As Lovett writes; by the 1970’s, the Olympic Marathon had come a long way from the dusty roads of Athens yet women were still not allowed to compete. From the 1900’s, women participation increased in the games but was restricted to select sports. Before the 1980’s, there were no women’s distance races in the Olympics.
Women kept running!
De Coubertin said in the 1928 IOC report, “As to the admission of women to the Games, I remain strongly against it. It was against my will that they were admitted to a growing number of competitions.” For him, the Games were “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism…with the applause of women as reward”.
But no rules or opinions kept women from running! And ran they did!
In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon, sneaking into the field and finishing the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She was the first woman known to complete the arduous Boston course. Gibb had been inspired to run by the return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. (Ref 1)
The following year, number 261 in the Boston Marathon was assigned to entrant K.V. Switzer. Not until two miles into the race did officials realize that Switzer was a woman, twenty-year-old Kathrine Switzer of Syracuse University. Race director Will Cloney and official Jock Semple tried to grab Switzer and remove her from the race, or at least remove her number, but her teammates from Syracuse fended them off with body blocks. Switzer eventually finished the race after the race timers had stopped running, in 4:20. (Ref 1)
And women continued running pushing more and more races to include women!
Brands like Avon joined hands and organized international women Marathons. Women were setting new records and breaking them. Years went by!
“I think it’s time to change the rules,” said Switzer. “They are archaic.” (Ref 1)
It was time for Olympics to include the women’s marathon. The Executive Board of IOC met in Los Angeles in February of 1981. Five votes were needed for the resolution to pass. Unable to stand still while she waited for the result, Switzer went out for a six-mile run. At 6:30 that evening, the Executive Board of IOC announced that a women’s marathon had been given its approval and would likely be included in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. The Soviet Union was the only country to vote against the race. The struggle was almost over. (Ref 1)
In the 1981 IOC meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany many important decisions were made and there hidden in the press coverage of Olympics news in all newspapers was the fact that women had finally won the right to compete in an Olympic Marathon!
The much awaited announcement came after an 88 year run (first women’s Olympics Marathon was officially included in the 1984 Games) or should I say some dreams buried in the sands of ancient Athens finally came true!
Coubertin once said, “The role of the woman remains what it has always been: she is above all man’s companion, the future mother; and must be educated with that unchanging future in mind.”
The story of women’s Olympic Marathon has reflections in all of our lives. How many times have women been told that something is not for them to do and they are best suited to play a specific role? How many times have women been told to grow up, be practical and see that certain dreams are just not for them? Many more times women have been ridiculed for simply endeavoring a new venture and many have tried to reinforce that home is where her place is. And how many times have women themselves believed in their restricted being?
As Roberta Gibb said in 1972, “I hadn’t intended to make a feminist statement. I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential.”
Freedom is knowing and deciding what you are capable of or meant to do then walk the path one step at a time. Who are we to decide what the other cannot do?
Let’s believe we CAN and in the words of Abraham Lincoln ‘Whatever you are, be a good one’!