Following Tiki Gelena's record-breaking win for Ethiopia in the women's marathon on Sunday, it's easy to forget that women's distance running has a relatively short history in the Olympics.
Ethiopia's Tiki Gelana crosses the finish line. Image: EPA
Well, sort of. The first woman on record as running the Olympic marathon is Stamata Revithi, in 1896—the first year of the modern Olympics. Forbidden to run with the men, she ran the course the next day in five hours 30 minutes but the Olympic committee refused to recognize her achievement. The theory that long distance running was dangerous to women's health lingered well into the 20th century, despite medical studies; similar theories in the previous century had said the same about too much reading. Women didn't have the stamina, they were told, they weren't physically capable. Tiki Gelena—who finished in two hours 23 minutes seven seconds—would disagree.
The history of women's distance running is also a history of women's dissent. Female runners would attend the marathon as spectators, but then join in the race, wearing their own numbers in the hopes that their time would be recorded. In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon, sneaking into the field and finishing the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25, and Kathrine Switzer entered under her initials so that nobody would know she was a woman.
It wasn't until 1984 that prejudices were finally (officially) dispelled and the women's marathon became an Olympic sport. America's Joan Benoit took the gold, despite having undergone arthroscopic knee surgery less than a month before. Talking about her sport, she later said that, "Running is about more than just putting one foot in front of the other; it is about our lifestyle and who we are."
It's fitting, if frustrating, that distance running was one of the last sports to open to female athletes. It requires stamina and endurance, words that even now we're not encouraged to associate with women. Fashion tells us to make ourselves look emaciated and to wear shoes we can't walk in, much less run. We're told that rushing anywhere, whether it's into a relationship or up the career ladder, is unseemly or just not part of our nature. And just when we've hit our stride, some of us drop out of the race altogether. Societal pressure and lack of affordable childcare mean working mothers have to choose between success and family in a way that working men never do, and even if you just stop for a short rest it can be hard work catching up with the men who've raced ahead of you, unhindered by society's expectations.
Galena and her fellow runners have proved the critics wrong, racing through rainy London to smash Olympic records and achieving success that would have left pre-1980s commentators gobsmacked. London 2012 sees the first Olympic women boxers—in 30 years time, what records will they be beating?
Previously: The London 2012 Olympics: So Far, So Feminist?