Kathrine Switzer leads the advance in women's distance running
When the first women's Olympic 10,000-meter race is held next year, the competitors can thank Kathrine Switzer. The runner who caused a furor just by entering the Boston Marathon two decades ago spearheaded the effort to include a women's marathon in the 1984 Olympics - and that proved to be the breakthrough. The popularity and success of the race in Los Angeles opened the gates for more distance races for female runners, including the addition of the 10,000 for the 1988 Games in Seoul. Today Switzer is a free-lance broadcaster who covers marathons all over the world. This glamorous occupation didn't fall into her lap. It is the culmination of countless hours of hard work.
Speaking of this, she observes, ``When I meet people and they say, `Isn't it great you have a job like this,' what they don't realize is that I'm here because over 20 years ago I was licking envelopes at 2 or 3 in the morning at the Syracuse Track Club.''
That's where her acclaim really began.
In 1967, as a 20-year-old Syracuse University student, Switzer obtained an official entry number for the supposedly male-only Boston Marathon by applying as ``K. V. Switzer.'' During the race, she learned that more than social taboos were keeping women out of marathons.
When Jock Semple, a Boston Athletic Association official, spotted her at about the 4-mile mark, he and another race steward angrily tried to remove her number and stop her from continuing. A boyfriend running nearby, however, came to Switzer's rescue and she went on to finish.
Two days later she was suspended from the Amateur Athletic Union for ``running without a chaperon,'' one of several reasons cited. Kathrine's ability to laugh about it now doesn't diminish the impact this event had on her life and women's long-distance running.
``During the race I made the decision to devote some part of my life to changing this situation with women's sports,'' she said. ``Some part of her life'' turned out to be the next 20 years.
As Kathrine will tell you, persistence is one of her strengths. ``When I was a little girl my father used to call me the broken record,'' she said. ``I can't give up on anything. Finally, I think what happens is, people get so tired of me they get worn down and say, `I give up.'''
First, as a woman, she committed herself to ``running on behalf of the whole female sex'' and once was ranked third nationally. Later, she served as a driving force in getting a women's marathon in the Olympics through her tireless lobbying and organizing efforts.
Before that could happen, many doors had to be opened, and one of those was in Boston, where five years after her famous run women were allowed to become official entrants in the Boston Marathon.
With women forced to enter at the men's qualifying time of 3 hours 30 minutes, only six of the dozen or so women running marathons regularly were able to qualify for the 1972 event. Switzer, who was one of them, recalls that, ``in 1972, for a woman to run a 3-hour, 30-minute marathon, she was really moving along.''
Upon achieving-world class status in 1975 with a 2:51 clocking, Switzer, who predicted a dramatic drop in women's times, decided ``my time was not going to get a whole lot better,'' and turned to organizing.
Today, the path she has taken almost surprises her. ``If you had told me in 1967 what was ahead of me, I would have said, `No, I'm not going to do that; it's too exhausting to think about.'''
Buoyed but not satisfied by her official participation in the '72 Boston Marathon, Switzer took an idea to Avon Products, Inc. to sponsor a series of road races for women as a public relations vehicle. The company liked the concept and hired her to organize the events.
``My dream and drive was to show the Olympic Committee that women could and wanted to run internationally,'' she recalled.
A pilot project was started, with events held in eight countries during the second year. Within eight years 30 countries were involved, creating the global element Olympic officials would require as early as 1978. Putting her findings in a report, Switzer went to the International Olympic Committee.
Eva Auchincloss, former director of the Women's Sports Foundation, remembers these times well and says, ``A lot of people would like to take credit for having a women's marathon event in the 1984 Olympic Games, but Kathrine Switzer was the single most important person in putting together the pieces that were necessary.''
In 1981, a women's Olympic marathon event was finally approved for the '84 Games. When it occurred, many millions watched Joan Benoit's dramatic victory either in person or on TV. And to paraphrase Switzer, ``the world tilted in its view of women's capabilities.''
When Avon dropped its sponsorship of women's races after the Olympics, Kathrine was offered a job in the cosmetics end of the business, but opted to pursue sports broadcasting opportunities. She is engaged to Roger Robinson, a world-ranked runner for more than 20 years, and they are spending the next several months in his native New Zealand.
After two decades at the cutting edge of women's distance running, Switzer worries about the next generation of women marathoners. ``In four or five years women who were very good in track at the collegiate or international level should be emerging into marathons, but that's not happening as fast as I thought it would,'' she observed. Consequently there is very little depth at the top of the women's field.
Unlike 1967, today there are ``tons of opportunities for women to compete and make money,'' Switzer said. ``Women have to realize those oppportunities exist and work very hard to get there. To be a 2:30 women's marathoner requires enormous amounts of training and dedication.''