I am womanThere’s a theory going round that women are better suited to distance running than men because their higher ratio of body fat gives them greater amounts of emergency fuel to call on. This doesn’t mean that a woman will improve on Dennis Kimetto’s world-record time for the marathon (2:02:57) any time soon, but the fact that the performances of women marathoners is being compared with those of their male counterparts is a miracle in itself. There was a time, not long ago, when women were not even allowed take part in the event.


It’s hard to believe, but the marathon was off limits to women in Olympic competitions until 1984, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) having pronounced distance racing ‘a little too strenuous for women’. Then again, the committee was guided from on high: ‘Women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands.’ So said Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics.

In the 1928 Games, the women’s 800m was included for the first time. After some competitors were seen to collapse at the end of the race (accounts vary), there was talk of eliminating all women’s sports from the Games. The final decision was that women could not take part in any race longer than 200m, a rule that remained in force until 1960. Women were told they were not up to the effort, that their periods would stop, that they’d become flat-chested and infertile. The medical profession disproved these claims long before the powers that be, namely organisations such as the IOC and the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), finally sanctioned women’s marathon running.


The myth that running can cause uterine prolapse persists largely because some runners who have suffered prolapse (usually as a result of childbirth) find the condition worsens when they start training.

Far more interesting is the evidence that pregnancy and childbirth may make you a better distance runner. In the 1948 Olympics, pregnant mother of two, Fanny Blankers-Koehn, won four golds on the track. In 1983, Ingrid Kristiansen won the Houston Marathon five months after giving birth. Liz McColgan came third in the 1991 World Cross Country Championships three months after giving birth to daughter Eilish. A few months later she took gold in the 10,000m at the World Championships, then won the New York City Marathon in 2:27.32, the fastest ever debut time.

In 2007, Paula Radcliffe was back in training 12 days after having daughter Isla, and won the New York City Marathon in 2:23:09, later that year. Clearly, the bun in the oven or the pram in the hallway need have no detrimental effects on a woman’s athletic prowess.


And if the naysayers can’t cite biological reasons for trying to keep female athletes down, they focus on looks. The old prejudice about athleticism being unfeminine was alive and kicking in the 1980s, with male journalists talking about ‘hard- faced East Europeans with the ambiguous biceps’ (Peter Freedman in The Sunday Times).

In her book Sporting Females (Routledge, 1994), sports sociologist Jennifer Hargreaves says, ‘…athletes who are heavily muscled, small-breasted and do not display on their bodies the usual insignia of conventional femininity, face insinuations about defeminisation’ Even 2012 British Olympics poster girl Jessica Ennis was targeted, branded ‘fat’ by a senior official in UK Athletics a few months before she won her gold. Late last year she revealed to a newspaper that her muscular frame had made her self-conscious, and she still thinks, ‘I am a bit butch but you get to a point where you finally understand that looks do not matter so much.’

We’ve come far but it seems we still have a long way to run.

Here, we list some of the defiant marathon women who made a stand:

1896 Greek runner Melpomene, denied entry to the Athens Olympic Marathon, runs alongside the course and finishes in 4:30.

1963 Lyn Carman and Merry Lepper dodge a race official to crash the Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City, California. Lepper finishes in 3:37:07.

1966 Roberta Gibb Bingay, refused entry, runs unofficially in the all-male Boston Marathon. Women are finally allowed to officially enter in 1972.

1967 One K.V. Switzer enters the Boston Marathon. The K turns out to stand for Kathrine and when a race official sees a woman runner he tries to push her off the course.

1972 In the New York City Marathon the women competitors are told they must start ten minutes ahead of the men. So they sit down in protest – for ten minutes.

Grete Waitz wins the first of her nine New York City Marathons (2:32:30).

1979 Joyce Smith, a 42-year-old mother of two from London, wins the first Tokyo International Women’s Marathon in 2:37:48. She wins it again the following year.

1981 Joyce Smith (yep, her again) wins the first London Marathon, in 2:29:57.

1984 Joan Benoit becomes first Olympic women’s marathon champion (2:24:52).

2003 Paula Radcliffe sets a new marathon record of 2:15:25.

2011 Paula Radcliffe’s “History Stands” campaign persuades the IAAF that her world record stands. (It had been deemed invalid after a change in the rules.)

Words by Ronnie Haydon