CHAMPION FOR JUSTICE: Judge Harry Pregerson
Thirty-one years ago in 1984, women runners had reason to celebrate our first-ever Olympic Marathon and, not to forget, a 3,000-meter race too. Up until this point, our longest allowable distance to run in the Olympic Games was merely 1500 meters, the metric mile, an event we only gained in 1972 at the Munich Olympics.
It was a bittersweet moment in ‘84, knowing full well that as thrilling as it was to witness our first Olympic Marathon women’s champion, Joan Benoit-Samuelson winning the first gold medal right here in LA, we knew we still had not obtained equality. Once the marathon was successfully lobbied into the Games, the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races were orphaned.
The International Runners Committee (IRC) was the group lobbying for all women’s distance events to go on the Olympic program. It was on their behalf that I personally met with the president and secretary of our governing federation, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) imploring them to add the two events, only to be told (in short) that the two events were of no value to them, they were boring events that would not sell tickets at the gate, end of story as far as they were concerned.
There was an ensuing battle in the courts. The IRC brought an international class action lawsuit on behalf of over 70 women from nearly 30 countries, representing the best 5,000 and 10,000-meter runners in the world. We went through the courts, ending in appellate court, where an empathetic judge wrote these eloquent words as time ran out to resolve the matter of equity before the Olympic flame was lit in Los Angeles. Remember the Olympic torch was carried in 1984 by our own Southern California decathlete, Rafer Johnson. Harry Pregerson named Rafer in particular as his friend.
Here are the words proclaimed by Judge Harry Pregerson in 1984:
“The International Olympic Committee made concessions to the widespread popularity of women’s track and field by adding two distance races this year. The IOC refused however, to grant women athletics equal status by including all events in which women compete internationally. In so doing, the IOC postpones indefinitely the equality of athletic opportunity that it could easily achieve this year in Los Angeles.
When the Olympics move to other countries, some without America’s commitment to human rights, the opportunity to tip the scales of justice in favor of equality may slip away. Meanwhile the Olympic flame — which should be a symbol of harmony, equality and justice – will burn less brightly over the Los Angeles Olympic Games.”
I have written extensively on this matter, including my own memoir, “A Long Time Coming: Running through the women’s marathon revolution.” I specifically addressed this case in chapter 20, “Pressing our Case.”
Don’t ask me what has taken so long to interview the judge and write this story, but I have just spoken for the first time with the man who wrote those words in an eloquent dissent to the ruling that ended our appeal for equality in the Games in 1984. Judge Harry Pregerson will be 93-years of age next month and he is still active on the bench. What an extraordinary man, a true champion for justice.
I was pleased to report to him that although we may have lost that battle, we certainly won the war. I have no doubt in my mind that our actions resulted in adding the 10,000m and 5,000m races in subsequent Olympics. Not only that, our lawsuit served as a model for the women ski-jumpers, who brought a lawsuit of their own in 2010 (Vancouver Winter Games), resulting much the same way the women runners’ suit concluded, and their event was included in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Harry Pregerson was appointed to the “Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals” in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. He had been practicing law since the 1950s and then served as a judge in public courts since 1965. He remains active today and I remain astonished at that fact.
Here stands a former Marine First Lieutenant, veteran of World War II, wounded in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The reason this even came up in our conversation – because he explained more than once why he continues to workout at the gym to keep his legs strong. His quadriceps muscles, in both legs, were severely damaged from gunshot wounds. It also explains his deep compassion for veterans’ rights and his support for the non-profit organization “US Vets.”
We talked at length about the LA Athletic Club (LAAC) where at one time he would workout daily, running a mile in the morning on their short indoor track and swim in their pool. However, all the time he was concerned about whether or not they practiced a policy of discrimination. He looked into it, and it bothered him that women and minorities did not have the same privileges or access to the facilities that other members did. Instead of quitting the gym, however, he told me he had a conversation with the owners. Eventually, policies were changed. This was not uncommon among private clubs across the nation.
In California, the Unruh Civil Rights Act originated in 1959, which guaranteed “all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal; and no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin, are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever.” Any organization in the State is within the Unruh Act unless it is “truly private.”
The LAAC boasts in their background profile that women have been admitted to the Club since the 1920s. However they might have been allowed access, even to train there, they were not allowed membership before the 1960s. Even so, it was discovered when complaints were made in 1975 that the club admitted women and minorities in a slower and more regulated process, but at least the Club responded with positive action promptly.
The LAAC is credited for being the first club in LA not to discriminate long before required by law to do so. Other clubs weren’t so quick to change policies. As late as 1987, Mayor Tom Bradley signed a bill to ban discrimination at most of the city’s large private clubs. In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that cities are allowed to force large private clubs to admit minorities and women.
Judge Pregerson explained to me his reason for the lengthy story of his experiences at LAAC. The owners, the Hathaway family, honored him at their annual awards ceremony one year, along with Peter Ueberroth and Buster Crab as his classmates. The Hathaways publicly acknowledged and thanked the Judge for “showing them the right way.”
Perhaps the Judge wisely anticipated my questions regarding our own lawsuit. Yes, we based ours on the Unruh Act. Yes, we drew the judge that indeed understood this civil rights act better than anyone. Yes, we drew a compassionate and empathetic audience – he was a champion for justice.
Our conversation began with Pregerson stating that while he might hear 300 to 400 cases a year, the Olympic case of 1984 is one you do not forget. He proceeded to explain jurisprudence to me, and why judges often act very cautiously, hesitant to “upset the apple cart.” This was evident in our case. I understood even at the time — who wanted to interfere with the Olympic Committee? He confided in me that another judge “liked what he did” but still “went with the IOC.”
I had so many questions for him, all these thirty-plus years later. As I reflect on our conversation and review court documents with our IRC newsletters (the International Runners Committee), I can read between the lines to see that he was providing me answers, indeed anticipating my questions.
The very Unruh Act he spoke of was the basis of our court case. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the US Olympic Committee (USOC) are not private clubs; they are business establishments, so the Unruh Act did apply to them. As Judge Pregerson wrote in his dissent in our case:
“I do not believe the California legislature intended an athletic contest such as the Olympics, which is a major public event, should be free under California law to discriminate openly against a class of participants on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin.”
Number one, I was perplexed at the majority opinion against our appeal, two-to-three, that first, the Olympic Committee could do what they wanted as a private club, and second, that the Unruh Civil Rights Act was deemed not applicable because it addressed “integration” not “segregation” that we women runners were accused of requesting. They used the word “apartheid-like.” I felt like Alice in Wonderland. As you read this, you are probably thinking the same thing I did. I agree with Pregerson’s response. He stated that the Olympic Committee deemed the events would be run as “separate but equal” (men’s and women’s); and it was not our idea.
The International Runners Committee published newsletters (thanks to writer-editors Joe Henderson and Janet Heinonen) documenting the years of lobbying efforts and the resulting court case. The papers have provided research for many scholars and reporters over the decades since. One woman in particular, Cecile Houry, wrote her dissertation resourcing our history, and mentioned: “the difficulties encountered to add these women’s distance events into the Olympic program, including having to form an organization to lobby the IOC and IAAF, having to prove that women could physically compete in such events and having to go to court, highlight the rough situation sportswomen still faced as late as the 1980s.”
The IRC lawyer, Susan McGrievy from the ACLU, stated that this was true, “. . . until one generation of women said ‘enough, we deserve to be in the Olympics’.”
From some of the women plaintiffs –
Julie Brown said, “I’m obviously disappointed. I think that it’s something that was greatly needed. The decision is an injustice and needs to be changed.”
Kathy Hayes stated among other things . . . “It’s also ridiculous to say that track events have been added for women while none have been added for men. That’s because all the events are already being offered for men.”
Added Hayes, “It’s also obvious that the Olympic Committee uses its rules when it suits them and goes around them when they want. They win either way.”
I stated at the time: “I will always be angered that the integrity of the process was more important than the athletes. This means the world will miss seeing a number of very talented women in the ’84 Olympics. They didn’t ask Frank Shorter to wait another four years.”
The marathon was a long time coming, like I titled my book. Fortunately, the wait for the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races wasn’t as long, as I explained here earlier. The fact that we lost a battle, won the war, and served as a model for the women ski-jumpers, well, their wait was not as long either, as their event went in at 2014. All the waiting and the battling were worth it in the end.
Waiting to speak with the Judge was worthwhile too. At least he has remained active and easy to find, so I could tell him of the effects and consequences of our actions, all these years later, and thank him for his role. Our true champion for justice.
Additional notes: Ironically, I ended up working for the Amateur Athletic Foundation, which grew out of the 1984 LA Olympic Games, and is now called LA84 Foundation. Rafer Johnson is a highly active Board member there. Rafer and I happened to be honored at the same awards ceremony by the ACLU in the summer of 1984. Rafer is also the founder of the Southern California Special Olympics, where we intersected at this year’s Special Olympics 2015 World Games here in LA, and where he symbolically and appropriately enough lit the Olympic Torch once again.
Great news! You can announce your title as Half Marathon Sports Commissioner for the World Games.”
Thus began a new chapter, another adventure, one which involved the Special Olympics for my first time. A lot of my friends cheered me with congratulations bringing promise of a rewarding experience to come. Oh my goodness, what an inspirational and fulfilling experience it has been working with Special Olympians.
In what became the largest event in town since the LA 1984 Olympic Games, the Special Olympics of 2015 spanned nine days, hosting 177 countries, consisting of 7,000 athletes and 3,000 coaches in 25 sports. Athletes were housed in 100 “host towns” across the Southland. It took 30,000 volunteers to cover events at 27 different venues with 500,000 spectators cheering the athletes on. At the site of both the 1932 and 1984 Olympic Games in the LA Coliseum, the opening ceremonies lit up the skies. LA Times writer Bill Plaschke described it as “Out of this World,” and indeed it was a magical night! Or, as one young athlete Plaschke quoted stated it, “This is the most amazing place, a place we don’t always find in the rest of our world. This is a place where we are all equal.” (I am tearing up. Again.)
In the hours preceding the ceremonies, before being seated in the Coliseum, my friends and I busied ourselves at a reception reuniting with friends and colleagues in our familiar world of coaching and sports foundations, as well as making new acquaintances including more than a few celebrities.
Once seated inside, awaiting ceremonies, I could hardly contain myself before joining the team I was assigned to — which turned out to be Germany. What a great group of athletes! They were so full of cheer and excitement, and befriended me instantly. However, I admit I was a little worried about the language barrier until one bilingual and willing athlete volunteered to translate for us. For an instant, I was flashing back to the days when my first international running competition took me to Waldniel, Germany. I remembered Christa Vahlensieck, who became my friend and strongest competition in those years, as we traded records back and forth. We communicated as if in a game of Charades. I was grateful to be marching this night with an interpreter. We were snapping scores of pictures of each other (I had one giggle moment when I saw the selfie-sticks came out . . . )
Marching into the stadium, among a sea of red uniforms, I was a speck of all-white-uniform on the floor of the Coliseum which made it easy to spot me for my friends, Jeaney Garcia and Bill Leung, after all. Jeaney, a natural born cheerleader, was also easy to spot doing jumping jacks in the grandstands. The German team – and I – were singing and cheering at the top of our lungs all the way into the tunnels of the stadium where the sound reverberated. Once every team was seated, the star-studded performances followed one another all night long. Inspirational speeches were delivered by celebrities, sponsors, SO Officials and from the keepers-of -the-flame since Eunice Kennedy Shriver originally founded the Games.
Finally, President Obama greeted the athletes via the “big screen,” and Michelle Obama herself greeted the athletes with motivational words, and declared “Let the Games begin!”
At the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, the skies were ablaze with fireworks.
What a fitting moment, when stepping on stage for the lighting of the cauldron, the torchbearer was revealed to be none other than Rafer Johnson, who took this role, in this very place, 31 years ago at the 1984 Olympic Games. This 1960 Olympic gold medalist decathlete, the one who founded the Southern California Special Olympics. How great to see his presence at this World Games, on his doorstep. It certainly was a night “Out of this World.”
And so the Games began.
During the week, when attending Track and Field events at USC, I learned one little-known fact of great interest to me. A program called “Healthy Athletes” provided volunteer healthcare from professionals, at seven venue sites to the Special Olympians. Athletes could receive such things as prescription eyewear, hearing aids, exams, referrals for follow-up care, dental care and such. What an extraordinary program benefitting the athletes with valuable resources.
Just one week later, the starting gun went off for the Half-Marathon at the Long Beach Alamitos Beach venue. I was fortunate to reunite with Rafer one more time, with the honor of presenting athletes with awards, and to share their excitement and their pride. Yes, as the athlete said at the opening, it was an amazing place, a place where “we are all equal.” Yes indeed.
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