The Women Who Infiltrated the Boston Marathon

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With the inception of the modern Olympic games, which occurred in 1896, in Athens, Greece, the overseers of the games wanted to ensure that there was an event that would pay proper homage to the ancient glory of Greece. The event chosen by the International Olympic Committee was the marathon. The marathon was such a successful event that America wanted to hold their own annual event. This was the birth of the longest-running, annual marathon event: the Boston Marathon. On Patriots’ Day, the third Monday of April, upon qualifying, one can always count on racing in the Boston Marathon; however, this was not always the case.

Eugene-Roberts-Wheelchair
Eugene Roberts, the first unofficial wheelchair athlete crossing the finish line of the Boston Marathon with his brother, Jim, on April 20, 1970.

There are certain racers that were not allowed to participate during various periods of the race’s history. It was not until 1975 that the Boston Marathon included a wheelchair division. In 1970, Eugene Roberts became the first unofficial wheelchair athlete to complete the Boston Marathon. Using a hospital-issued wheelchair, Roberts finished the marathon in 7:07 (seven hours and seven minutes). In 1975, Bob Hall wrote to the director of the Boston Athletic Association (BAA)–the organization that oversees the annual race–and asked to officially compete in the race using his wheelchair. Hall was not issued a race number, however, was told that if he completed the race in under 3:30 (three hours and thirty minutes) that he would receive an official finishers BAA Finisher’s Certificate; Hall finished in 2:58. This opened the way for the establishment of a wheelchair division and divisions for the blind/visually impaired and mobility impaired.

The impaired were not the only group left out of the Boston Marathon. In 1951, during the height of the Korean War, the BAA denied entry to Koreans that attempted to register. Walter Brown, President of the Boston Athletic Association, stated that:

“While American soldiers are fighting and dying in Korea, every Korean should be fighting to protect his country instead of training for marathons. As long as the war continues there, we positively will not accept Korean entries for our race…”

With the suffrage movement ending, with rather disappointing results, a period referred to as second-wave feminism, started in the 1960s. This produced many inspiring women that sought to combat issues of sexuality, the workplace, reproductive rights, and anti-feminism. While the second-wave feminism movement’s largest victory was the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), their victory in the Boston Marathon is not one to be forgotten.

Roberta "Bobbi" Gibb
Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb Making Headline News

Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb became the first woman to unofficially compete in the Boston Marathon in 1966. Before her completion of the race, it was believed that women were physiologically unable to run marathon distances. In fact, the only Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)-sanctioned race for women, looking to compete in a long-distance run, was the one and a half mile race. On April 19, 1966, Gibb, disguised as a man in her brother’s Bermuda shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, hid near the starting line. After the firing of the starting pistol, Gibb emerged from hiding and started the race. After Gibb witnessed the positive reception and support from her male counterparts, she removed her hooded sweater and completed the race as a women, no longer in disguise.

Roberta Gibb completed the race with a time of 3:21:40 (three hours, twenty-one minutes and forty seconds) and in doing so made national headlines. Moreover, Gibb forever removed all doubts regarding  women and their ability to competitively compete in distance events. The following year Gibb returned to unofficially run again, however, this time she was not alone.

Jock Semple Chasing Kathrine Switzer
Jock Semple Chasing Kathrine Switzer

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer registered for the Boston Marathon under a gender-neutral “K.V. Switzer.” After learning that a women was competing in the marathon, race official John “Jock” Semple attempted to physically remove her from the race, and according to Switzer said, “Get the hell of my race and give me those numbers.” Tom Miller, Switzer’s boyfriend and fellow runner, shoved Semple and kept him from stopping Switzer. Switzer finished with a time of 4:20 (four hours and twenty minutes), nearly an hour behind Roberta Gibb’s time of 3:27:17 (three hours, twenty-seven minutes, and seventeen seconds). With the completion of the race, it made Switzer the first woman to officially compete in the Boston Marathon.

Switzer-and-Semple

Over the next several years women would continue to unofficially race in the Boston Marathon until 1972, when women were invited to run in the Boston Marathon. in 1972, there were eight women who raced, and all eight finished. Today, nearly half of the racers are women.

On a good closing note, the following picture was taken in 1973. It is a picture of Katherine Switzer and John “Jock” Semple. I wouldn’t say they are BFF, however, it does appear that they had mended any broken fences. A later organizer of the race, Narjaa Bakker, stated that “Once the rule was adjusted and women were allowed in the race, Jock was one of their staunchest supporters. He was very progressive.” It was a well-known fact that Semple had a long-time habit of physically attacking those he perceived as “non serious” runners. Case in point: In 1957, Semple was arrested for assaulting a man attempting to race wearing swim fins and a snorkeling mask.

Jock Semple and Katherine Switzer

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