Last week, Kathrine Switzer, the first woman officially to complete the Boston Marathon, back in 1967, ran the race again. 50 years later.
Switzer, who was actually attacked by race official Jock Semple the first time she ran, wore the same bib number (261), lipstick (just as she had the first time) and completed the 26.2 miles in four hours, 44 minutes and 31 seconds.
Speaking to us before the race, she said she was “nervous” but also, “What the hell, it’s going to be a great day.”
Switzer started running when she was 12. She attended Syracuse University where she trained unofficially with the men’s track team because there was no women’s team. Her coach was the one who convinced her to sign up. “He said, 'It’s not against the rules – there are no rules written about it.'” She laughs. “He said they don’t have anything about gender because no one assumes that a woman even wants to run! So I signed up.”
On the day, things went relatively smoothly until mile four, when race official (and ex-runner himself) Jock Semple attempted to tackle Kathrine. Switzer's boyfriend at the time, Tom Miller, who was running with her and just so happened to be a 235-pound American football player, intercepted and tackled Semple to the ground.
The picture of the incident went as viral as a picture could go in 1967. It was on the front of newspapers everywhere and was eventually featured in Time Life’s book 100 Photographs That Changed The World.
“I think it was because we were on the eve of the women's liberation movement,” Switzer says. “This race official thought I was trying to barge into his race and make a mockery of it.”
Switzer had entered the race using her initials rather than her first name (she says she wasn’t intentionally trying to hide her gender) and thinks Semple’s attack was more to do with the fact that he thought he was being taken for a fool. “He was angry I was a woman, absolutely,” Switzer says. “But he was angriest of all that I was wearing a bib number. He felt that he had been foiled. That I had done it [entered the race] by subterfuge.”
There were many weak reasons given by men at the time for keeping women out of running, including the 'fact' that the trauma of long-distance running could damage their reproductive organs. I laugh at the absurdity of this but Kathrine reminds me that in some parts of the world, this belief is still upheld. “They still believe this myth that women doing anything arduous will turn them into a 'man'," she says, adding that men believe women will "become masculine or their uterus will fall out and they won’t be able to have children and they’ll be totally ‘undesirable’.”
“The diabolical thing about it,” Kathrine continues, “is that women are ideally suited for any endurance activity – endurance and stamina are the things that women excel at, along with stability and balance.” For the longest time, she explains, sport has been about traditionally 'male' physical capabilities like speed, power and strength, but now, it’s edging towards being about endurance and flexibility. “So the proliferation of women's sport is going to be increasing in the next 50 years especially.”
So many barriers within women's sport have already been broken. In 1984, the women's marathon was finally included in the Olympic Games and Joan Benoit Samuelson became the first winner, with a time of 2:24:52. “It was the physical equivalent of giving women the right to vote,” Kathrine says.
Another highlight for her has been watching the number of female runners exceed the number of male runners in the US. The women's sportswear industry in the US is now apparently worth $20 billion; in the UK, it’s a far-from-insignificant £720 million.
Of course, with money comes opportunity. “Egalitarianism in sport” has been helped by TV coverage and prize money: “It opens things up in other countries so women can actually earn a living from sport,” Kathrine says.
“Running has changed women’s lives so profoundly,” she says. “Look at women in Kenya – who really had so nothing – and those who ran came back and suddenly were esteemed for their running and their money. They transformed their villages with money and schools and water. If we can take that simple message around the world we’re going to make a big difference.”
It's a change that's still going on today and affecting the next generation, too. Kathrine recalls the London Olympics in 2012, when Saudi Arabia were forced to include two female participants in their team. "Sarah Attar went down on the track in her hijab and long pants and sleeves and ran the 800m for Saudi," Kathrine says. "Well she got a standing ovation all the way round the track. Was she pilloried back in Saudi? Yes. A lot of journalists said horrible things about her but when she goes back and talks to schoolgirls, almost every one of them wants to be like her."
It's moments like this that Switzer lives for. Her running organisation 261 Fearless aims to empower women the world over through running. "There's this massive door which has been closed for a long time and, because of sports, it can be opened a crack and when it's open a crack, people can lean against it and push it fully open."
"A lot needs to be done," she continues. "The negative part of me says most women in the world still live in a fearful situation – that’s true. The positive part says running works for every woman and when we can get them to do something so easy, cheap and accessible, you can make change happen."