Half a century ago, the idea of anyone running a marathon was pretty crazy. But the idea of a woman doing so wasn’t even crazy – it was unthinkable. It was much too far; insane even to consider it. The longest distance women could run at the Olympic Games was 800 metres – and that event had only been reinstated in 1960.
These days we take events like the London Marathon in our stride – or at least, the idea of it. The striding part still takes a fair bit of doing. But the event is full of women: taking part in the elite event, as the majestic Paula Radcliffe did, or running along with the rest of the field. And that seems – and is – perfectly normal. It’s part of the rhythm of the year.
When spring comes, London closes for a morning so that 50,000 people can run 26 miles and 385 yards, and thousands of them are women. No one thinks it’s weird: it’s just what happens. It seems as if it’s always happened.
Lining up among the starters for this year’s race will be an American runner called Kathrine Switzer. She is 71 and still running hard, so good on her. But she’s someone special. In 1967 she became the first woman to take part in the Boston Marathon as an official runner with an official race number. A few miles after the start she was accosted by the race director, Jock Semple, who attempted to grab her and rip the number off her clothing. “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” he shouted.
Pictures show a man almost wild with rage. Switzer had entered the race formally, although she used her initials, not her full name. She’d checked the rulebook and found it didn’t say that women were forbidden, but it was assumed that they wouldn’t enter because they could never – not in a million years – manage the distance. Since the race began in 1897, no woman had taken part officially. She signed herself, as she always did, KV Switzer. And got her number.
She ran in lipstick, no disguise attempted. When the shocking encounter with Semple took place – in front of the whirring cameras of the press – her boyfriend intervened. He was, as it happened, an All-American footballer. He caught Semple with a cross-body block that laid him out. And on they ran. It was a long hard race in the snow, but Switzer knew she had to finish, on her hands and knees if necessary. “If I don’t finish, no one will believe that women can do it,” she said, as she ran.
It was an uncomfortable feeling: with 20-odd miles still to go, she realised she was running for half the population of the planet. But finish she did, in a time of four hours and 20 minutes. That time is far from the most significant part of that run. The Boston Marathon formally accepted women runners in 1972. Two years later, Switzer won the New York Marathon, in three hours, seven minutes and 29 seconds. She campaigned for the inclusion of the women’s marathon in the Olympic Games, which finally happened in 1984.
Strange to think that things we take utterly for granted once needed to be fought for – in this case literally. And strange, too, to think that matters that seem right and proper and wholly uncontroversial only became part of our lives shockingly recently. Sport plays its part in society’s changes, showcasing them, dramatising them, even helping to bring them about. As for Switzer, she’s still running – so here’s wishing her a cool, bright, blister-free morning.
Coverage of the 2018 London Marathon on Sunday 22nd April will kick off on BBC1 at 8.30am until 2pm followed by a short program on BBC2 from 2pm until 2.30pm