Reflections on Women in Athletics


In his blog entry today (
), Pat Butcher reflects on women runners and how they have changed our sport. Specifically, he discussess Paula Radcliffe and the Kenyan women runners. It is a good read....

It also gave me a chance to consider how women runner's have changed our sport...

Most have heard the story about the 1928 Olympics and that the women in the 800 meters, the longest race for women at the time, several of whom broke the then existing world record, collapsed at the finish. The powers that be, mirroring much of society at the time, thought this was too harsh for the delicate bodies of women, so they banned the 800 meters and did not resurrect the women's 800 meters until 1968.

When I began running in 1972, as a freshman in high school, the majority of high schools did not offer girls cross country. But many were running xc anyway, and girls track had been around for along time.

Doctors still warned women from running, suggesting that marathoning could develop a prolapsed uterus, among other things. I remember speaking to Dr. Joan Ulyott, one of the foremost experts on women running, herself a runner. She use to just laugh over that one!

Percy Cerutty, the eccentric and brilliant Australian coach once noted, in Runner's World of all places that a women who could lift her body weight or run a sub five minute mile was not truly a woman. By the time of his comments, women had run 2;46 for the marathon.

I remember working out at West Valley College in Saratoga, California in the late seventies with my teammates and drooling over the women distance runners. Not only were they top athletes, but many of them were running faster times than we ran! Women
were real athletes, I noted with my addled seventeen year old mind.

During most of my marathon years, I remember Nanci Ditz, Sue Monday, Sharon Barbano, among others. We also noticed how the numbers of women grew in various events, from track and field to road running.

Some women to consider:

Doris Brown Heritage-winner of six International Cross Country Union championships, plus raced from 880 to the marathon. A superb coach and runs a running camp at Seattle Pacific.

Francie Larrieu Smith-watched Francie run from 1000 yards indoor to the marathon. She was a Cindergal, and she ran the pro circuit and took on all challengers.

Nina Kusick-one of the first women marathoners, still a key player in our sport, quite modest.

Charlotte Richardson (formerly Lettis)-film producer, top runner in the seventies, she made a seminal film on womens running, Run Like a Girl, very cool.

Carl Lewis's Mom-one of the most amazing interviews I have ever done. Carl introduced me at an indoor meet and Mr. Lewis sat down and told me stories about being a young black women athlete in the 50s and the hotels they had to stay in, her coach, the Colonel, who a member of a famous all African American fighter wing in WW2 who
flew P-51s over Germany. The stories were full of life, but also full of history, and much of it embarrassed me that any women, much less Mrs. Lewis had endured such treatment.

Kate Schmidt-the queen of the javelin, one of the few American field eventers who could take on the best of Europe in the seventies.

Maren Seidler-the queen of the shot put, from the sixties to the 80s, she was always fun to watch compete.

Stacy Dragila-former world record holder in the pole vault, former Olympic gold medalist, who is showing that a decade of pole vaulting has not dampened her toughest challenge ever-trying to make her third Olympic team in 2008! One of the classiest athletes in our sport.

Lauryn Williams-one of my favorite athletes. This women has made World champs and Olympic teams when no one had her in their team plans. Watch her this year in Eugene, as she fights to make the team at 100 meters.

In 2007, there were 450,000 prep cross country runners across the US, according to the National Federation of High School Associations, with 170,000 being young women. In the 2007 track and field season, with just above 901,000 in outdoor and indoor track & field, again, thanks to the National Federation, just under 500,000 were young men and a tad over 401,000 were young women.

In road running, 60 percent of the new runners are women, so this running thing has caught on and we are not hearing much about the damage to women from running-more often than not, it is the change in body shape, self esteem and overall health that women get from athletics.

But different cultures adapt at their own curious levels. Kenyan women athletes are just coming into their own. Witness Pamela Jelimo, the young women who stormed the track at Hengelo last weekend, and ran a new world junior record at 800 meters!

Athletic women in Morocco, Turkey, Syria have championed their sports, and are standing as role models to their nations for women.

Paula Radcliffe has taken women's marathoning to new levels. Her guts, her training discipline, her focus have shown what the human spirit can do. She is to women's marathoning what Sir Roger Bannister was to the classic mile distance.

The sport has changed much in the past forty years. More opportunities for women in world sports and local sports.

My experience and understanding of womens sports goes back to my grandmother, Violet Robertson. I have her race number from 1926, when at the age of 13, she competed in ten different events in her gymnasium in St. Louis. Grandma told me about
this day, and recalled it over sixty years later as if it were yesterday. Her sporting background stayed with her for the next sixty-seven years. Violet drove a motorcycle, and could set land speed records, driving quite fast, and accurately until her early nineties. Her favorite event was the relay, which she ran with her friends.

But the most impressive athletic feet I have ever seen? Speeding down a small alley, with me holding on to the door, I experienced a women of ninety make an intricate turn into a very tight garage without her car ever getting a scratch. As Violet would remind me, after the age of 80, you should really be able to do whatever you want.

I think of women in my grandmother's lifespan, and note how much those sport experiences affected her seven decades later.

Sport adds to life, and women have embraced athletics around the world. The sport has been changed, and for the better.

Leave a comment

Wake up to RunBlogRun's news in your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter and we'll keep you informed about the Sport you love.

Subscribe to RunBlogRun's Global News Feed

* indicates required