Essay submitted to NPR in 2009 for the program, “This I Believe”:
I believe in justice. And I believe in women’s rights. I believe women should enjoy the same freedoms men have, such as sports.
When growing up, I was fortunate to have a high school coach who asked why girls weren’t allowed to run track like the boys. She initiated the first track and field team for girls at my school. I was a happy participant of the team. Little did I know how that coach’s actions would shape my life.
We runners were limited as to how many events and how far we could run. I now know that for decades before me, women all over the world had been deprived the simple freedom to run. In the 1928 Olympic Games at Amsterdam, women gained five track and field events for the first time. The longest run was only 800 meters and the three medalists finished faster than the existing world record. Some reporters misrepresented the event to report five women collapsed and five did not even finish. The fact was that nine women finished, running hard – like the men, with only signs of normal fatigue and defeat. Athletic administrators used the idea of women looking “unwomanly” because of their exertion to stymie their participation in distance races for decades. The 800-meter race was eliminated from the Olympic program until 1960. Longer races were added at a rate likened to “glacial movement.” It took until 1972 to add 1500-meters–the “metric mile”–to the Games. It would take until 1984 to add the 3000 meters.
In between those years, women’s running gained immense popularity around the world. From cross-country distance races of two miles to 10 kilometers, women of all ages were competing in schools, universities and clubs and on their own. They were running road races, from five kilometers to marathons, by the thousands.
However, they were not running in the Olympic Games. There were a few women who questioned that blatant omission. Like my high school coach who asked why we girls were not allowed to run, I am proud to have been among those who questioned why, or more importantly, “why not?!” The turbulent ’60s were known for questioning authority.
Becoming an activist during the ’70s feminist movement was a natural transition for me. In 1977, I attended a national women’s conference to seek support for my new-found cause to put women’s running on the international scene. Humbled by all women’s causes that seemed so much more important, I felt there were more life-and-death issues than running. But pushing through those misgivings with the determination of the marathoner I was, I moved forward with efforts to push the boundaries and open the way for women distance runners to compete in the Olympic Games and other international competitions. My colleagues and I formed an international lobbying group known as the International Runners’ Committee and the fight was on.
In the end, a women’s marathon was successfully lobbied into the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, through the efforts of not only our organization, but those of many individuals worldwide. Other distance events, the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters followed in subsequent Games, but not without an international class-action lawsuit we brought against the governing powers-that-be. Joan Benoit ran victorious into the LA Coliseum and into the history books as the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon champion. She was an inspiration to young women all over the world. She led the way and left no doubt that the answer was “yes” to the question whether or not women could endure the distance. Young women all over the world watched her, knowing they too could run after their Olympic dreams.