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ARRS - Association of Road Racing Statisticians

Equality for women?

The development of women's distance running has often been warped and restricted by the largely male athletics establishment. Unfortunately women accepted, and even on occasion, colluded and embraced these restrictions. As a result generations of women were denied their chance of greatness, their potential remaining under-developed and unknown.

In the First World War women had been required to undertake much of the work which had previously been the province of men. Having been allowed to escape from the previous restrictions of female life, women now wanted to take part in other areas of life which had formerly been a male preserve. Thus it was that women's amateur athletics began to develop in Europe. In 1919, the Federation Feminine Sportive de France asked the International Olympic Committee to include women's events in the Olympic Games but the idea was rejected. This spurred the women's movement to create their own Women's Games.

The first true international meeting for women was conducted at Monte Carlo in 1921. Five countries were represented in eleven events and it was such a success that the Games were repeated the following year with an increase in the number of athletes, teams and events.

By this stage the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale (FSFI) had been formed by women from six countries and had developed regulations for the conduct of women's events. The first Women's Olympic Games was held in Paris and five countries fielded teams. Eighteen world records were broken during the Games and it was decided to hold the next Olympiad for women in 1926.

By the time the second women's games were held the International Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) had forced a name change. However the Women's World Games in Gothenburg were even more successful than the first.

Realising that they could not ignore women any longer, and wishing to have control of this new, highly successful movement, the IAAF had voted to include women's events in the 1928 Olympic Games. The vote was passed 12-5.

A priority list of events to include was drawn up by the FSFI in the following order: 100m, 4x100m relay, High Jump, Discus, Javelin, 800m, Long Jump, Hurdles, Shot Putt and 200m. Only the first four events and the 800m were approved for competition at the Amsterdam Games in 1928. The 800 metres was to be the crucial event. The final saw Lina Radke of Germany set a world's record, but most of the under-trained runners found the race very hard. Six out of the nine runners collapsed with exhaustion, and several had to be carried from the track. It should be noted that the humidity was recorded as being at 93% during at least part of the Games. Moreover it should be also be recorded that the great Paavo Nurmi, who won the 5000 metres at the same Olympics, was also exhausted when he finished his race and "and lay down on the grass for several minutes". However it was thought inappropriate and offensive for the fairer sex to be exhausted! The IAAF decided six days after the race to keep women's events in the Olympic Games, but to restrict the number of events drastically. The 200 metres and 800 metres, long jump and shot put were rejected. Only six women's events were to be included in the 1932 Olympics, as compared to 24 men's events.

In one fell swoop the IAAF had taken over women's athletics and reduced it to a token handful of events. They "set women's distance running back 40 years at least".

Interestingly in Britain the 880 yards for women continued to be included in every WAAA Championships from that date onwards and the 800 metres in the fourth women's World Games in 1934 which were held in Britain. In 1936 the English Women Amateur Athletics Association instituted a mile championships for women, won by Gladys Lunn ran 5:23.0. Thus the presumption must be that for some authorities, the IAAF/IOC's decision was seen as an over-reaction.

In 1936 the FSFI merged with (or perhaps `was subsumed by' would be more accurate) the IAAF. It was to be many years before the ten events proposed by the FSFI were to be incorporated in the Olympics. It was not until 1948 that women were even allowed to contest the 200 metres in the Olympics. The highly controversial 800 metres had to wait thirty-two years until it was reinstated, and the 400 metres thirty-six years.

But distance running took even longer overcome the false perception of female frailty. Despite women setting six-day and one thousand mile marks in the 1870s, and more recently breaking five minutes for the mile, running marathons and even completing the 100km and 24 hours, it was not until 1972 that the 1500 metres was included.

It was to take a series of women-only marathons in Atlanta (1978), Waldniel (1979), London (1980), Ottawa (1981), San Francisco (1982), Osaka (1982) and Los Angeles (1983), which greatly increased the number and quality of runners and national participation, allied to national championships being established some ten years earlier (Germany 1973; USA 1974) and the European Championships marathon (1982), to persuade the IOC in 1982 to permit an Olympic Marathon. (Perhaps even more important may have been the fact that many of these all-women events had the support of a major sponsor!) The 3000 metres was also included as a timid step towards distance running - it had been held in the European Championships ten years earlier!

However the IOC was still set against the full development of women's endurance events in the Olympics, despite the fact women had been running 10,000 metres on the track for some ten years.

Prior to the 1984 Olympics, legal efforts were made by the "International Runners Committee" to get the 5000 metres and 10,000 metres added to the Los Angeles programme. The case was fought on the grounds of discrimination against women but failed to get through the US courts. However the impact of the case on the IAAF and IOC was significant. Within the next four years the 10,000 metres was added to the programme of major games, women's walking races were added as Olympic demonstration events and the IAAF recognised women's world running track records at 5,000 metres, the Hour, 20km, 25km and 30km. In 1988 came IAAF recognition of the 100km championships, which also included a race for women.

Interestingly when the IAAF selected the 5000 and 10,000 metres marks to be the recognised IAAF world records, they selected those made by Paula Fudge (Britain) 15:41.51 and Yelena Sipatova (USSR) 32:17.19. These marks had been made in women-only races. Superior performances had been set by Loa Olafsson of Denmark of 15:08.8 and 31:45.35 but these had been set in mixed races against men. The IAAF ignored Olafsson's markedly superior marks in preference to those set in all-women events.

The major championship distance events of the 70s and 80s - the 1500 metres and 3000 metres - were largely to be dominated by the Eastern block, with its emphasis of speed and endurance. The pressure to extend the range of running events upwards opened up women's athletics to a much wider spectrum of athletes, particularly those from African and Asia.

Recently the IOC/IAAF seem to have become major converts to women's equality. In 1996 the triple jump was added to the Olympics, in 2000 the pole vault and hammer and in the 2005 World Championships, the 3000 metre steeplechase. Most recently we have women's road records being recognised by the IAAF. Why this sudden change of heart after all these years?

During the 1980s and 1990s the world sporting arena changed as television became a voracious consumer. Sport was relatively cheap and attractive for television companies. Television coverage meant the influx of funding from sponsors into sport. As the knowledgeable Peter Matthews, editor of the ATFS annual wrote in 2002, "Athletics has to fight the domination of football…and must maintain favourable publicity in order to maintain major places in the hugely competitive sporting calendar". However the IAAF had hit a major problem. Its most exciting product - world records - were becoming in short supply. The "near-inevitable 'failure' of such record attempts was producing negative comments in the media.

In 2000 there was no world record at any standard men's event, the first time this had happened since 1907; there were none at any of the traditional women's events. In 2000 the only new world records were in the new events, the triple jump, hammer and pole vault! The expansion had been necessary to provide "new world records". Now of course, another event the steeplechase is added to the world record schedule. The suspicion must be that it is not the needs of women but the needs of the media which have dictated these decisions.

These field events would not supply the continual supply of world records that the IAAF needed. So most recently the IAAF have recognised road marks as world records. Despite the fact that the crucial original recognition of the marathon for the Olympics and other major championships was based on all-women events, and despite the previous precedent of the recognition criteria used for the 5000 and 10,000 metres world records, the IAAF went for female marks paced by male runners set mixed races.

Why was this? The IAAF had learned from the experiences of the track scene. Left to their own devices, runners would not produce enough world records. Pacers had been introduced, which initially had offered a more reliable guarantee of records. Desperate for records at any costs, the IAAF went for what they saw as the best guarantee of world records, women being paced by men.

Perhaps in the end this "commercial logic" may be just an excuse. The IAAF male establishment is unwilling to allow women distance road runners their chance to show to the millions of spectators the potent symbol of women competing alone against distance and time The presence of male pacers provide that clear evidence that mere feeble women cannot achieve such performances on their own, that women are still being manipulated by men.

It seems the prejudices of the male athletic establishment which have hindered the development of women's distance running for over seventy years still remain.

A hundred years before the first Olympic 800 metres for women, Mary McMullen, had walked 92 miles in 24 hours. Nearly seventy years ago in Durban, South Africa Geraldine Watson ran 100 miles inside 23 hours despite strong gusting winds and rain. These women showed the endurance potential of women. It has taken a prolonged battle against the athletics establishment since then to achieve some semblance of parity with male distance runners. There are still battles to be fought; women deserve their place alone in the spotlight, unencumbered by the implicit male superiority imposed by male pacemakers.

This article was written by Andy Milroy.