The International Runners’ Committee
At the end of each year in 1974, 1975, and 1976, although my name was at the top of the world leaders’ list of women’s marathon times, the 1976 Olympic Games came and went in Montreal, with no distance events offered to women beyond the 1500-meter. I am not saying I would, should or could have won an Olympic medal. I feel, however, I ought to have had the opportunity to try. Not so many years ago, I felt compelled to contribute one of those essays solicited by NPR radio for the re-make of the “This I Believe” program; and mine is titled “I Believe in Justice” …for women in sports (posted previously on this site). I struggle to remember exactly what emotions I felt. Was it outrage, sadness, depression, anger, all of the above, what? I do know that from the time of the first record I broke in 1974, I realized the inequity of women and men’s running events in the Games. I was, at the time, naive enough to believe that a petition-signing drive or a letter-writing campaign to the Olympic Committee would make everything right with the world. Little did I realize how much of a battle it would become and how long the battle would take — approximately a decade!
In a previous posting, 1975 was already a highly successful year, with the first-ever sub-2:40 performance in October at Eugene, Oregon, followed by a win at the Honolulu Marathon in December. However, there were a few other stepping stone performances in the quest for more women’s events around the world:
June 1975: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Browsing my journals from those years, I kept a close record of workouts, races and travel. One entry came in June 1975, when I was traveling from San Juan, Puerto Rico where I’d won a 30km road race. My traveling partners included Bill Rodgers and Tom Fleming. Bill and I were the men’s and women’s victors, only he had a rougher time of it than I did. We shared the same support crew who promised to be at every 5K mark with our replacement drinks. This was crucial in the stifling heat and humidity. I doubted that I’d ever see them, because Bill would be so far ahead, they’d never wait for me. At the first 5K mark, there they were, on their motorcycle with my water bottle – and I never saw them again. When I started to go under and fade, I at least had such a big lead, I could shut the engines down and coast in. Bill never saw them again either, but he had to battle to the finish to win, and landed in the hospital to recover.
I recall meeting a Brazilian man, Getulio, who was extending invitations to his race in Sao Paulo, the Sao Silvestre midnight run on New Year’s Eve. He was asking the elite field in general who would be interested in racing. Naturally, I said yes. He was quite embarrassed to inform me that in its history, it had always been a men’s-only race. Naturally, I asked why.
Going back to that day I departed San Juan, I recall Tom Fleming, Bill Rodgers and I flew back to the States where I was entered to run the 3000m in the US track and field national championships in four days, in Tom’s hometown in New Jersey. We arrived at the airport gate with a trophy more than half my height. It brought a lot of attention and questions, all admiringly except for the stewardess who saw it as a dangerous projectile in the cabin of the plane. As my trophy sat buckled in a first class seat, I was back in a fully occupied coach section complete with screaming, helpless infants driving everyone crazy, their parents included. I also noted in my journal that I was reading Women Sports magazine, and chatting with so many people about the women’s dilemma in the Olympics, that I felt moved to the point of radical action. Inevitably, the conversation would end up with the assumption that anyone who held a world record must be going to the Olympic Games………and why not? I concluded that’s a very good question. My journal notes caught my thoughts and brainstorming, which included “I wonder if anyone’s asked the IOC?” and “If not, I want to . . . . but how?” And I laid out my case as I saw it. It even included, “. . . after all alternatives are exhausted, how about a ‘run-in’ at Montreal?”
June 1975: US Track & Field Championships, Bloomfield, New Jersey
Landing in New Jersey, I did run that 3000m, but the 30K race, the heat and humidity of San Juan left my running-self too exhausted for the short, fast-paced race. I took eighth. Nonetheless, the trip was an unexpected stepping stone to advance opportunities for me –and ultimately a lot more women– to run another day.
December 1975: Sao Silvestre New Year’s Eve Run, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Long story short, Getulio and I kept in touch and he succeeded in convincing the race committee in Brazil to open a women’s division. I helped him build the field with the best women runners in the world. I included Christa Vahlensiek (outdoing myself); and while I took second in that race, she was their inaugural female winner.