Women and exclusion from long distance running

Flashback Friday, in honor of Kathrine Switzer running the Boston marathon 50 years after she was physically removed from the race because it was Men Only.

The first Olympic marathon was held in 1896. It was open to men only and was won by a Greek named Spyridon Louis. A woman named Melpomene snuck onto the marathon route. She finished an hour and a half behind Louis, but beat plenty of men who ran slower or dropped out.

Women snuck onto marathon courses from that point forward. Resistance to their participation was strong and, I believe, reflects men’s often unconscious fear that women might in fact be their equals. Why else would they so vociferously object to women’s participation? If women are, indeed, so weak and inferior, what’s to fear from their running alongside men?

Illustrating what seems to be a degree of panic above and beyond an imperative to follow the rules, the two photos  below show the response to Syracuse University Katherine Switzer’s running the man-only Boston marathon in 1967 (Switzer registered for the marathon using her initials). After two miles, race officials realized one of their runners was a girl. Their response? To physically remove her from the race. Luckily, some of her male Syracuse teammates body blocked their grab:

Why not let her run? The race was man-only, so her stats, whatever they may be, were invalid. Why take her out of the race by force? For the same reason that women were excluded to begin with: their actual potential is not obviously inferior to men’s. If it were, there’d be no risk in letting her run. The only sex that is threatened by co-ed sports is the sex whose superiority is assumed.

Women were allowed to begin competing in marathons starting in 1972 — not so very long ago — and, just like Melponeme, while they’ve been slower on average, individual women have been beating individual men ever since. In fact, women have been getting faster and faster, shrinking the gender gap in completion times, because achievement and opportunity go hand in hand.

Thanks Kathrine Switzer, and congratulations.

Originally posted in 2012.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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