Joan Benoit and her Marathon Towards History


When it comes to sports, much like many other things in life, women have not been treated fairly. Many opportunities that were given to men in the field of athletics were withheld from women due to various social, economic, and scientific reasons. With the passing of Title IX in 1972, women were finally given the opportunities in college athletics that had been withheld from them for so long. While it was an amazing event that has definitely changed the way the sports world is today, these changes were not immediate.  Many of the same prejudices that existed before Title IX continued until well after its inception. One sport that had particularly bad reasons for barring women from participating was that of distance running. Certain discriminatory beliefs combined with bad science kept women from participating in long distance running on almost every level of competition until very recently.

The marathon has been an Olympic event since the first modern Olympic games.  While the Olympics were originally an all male event, women began to be allowed to compete in different events over time, though they were very limited in what they were allowed to do.  One event that they found themselves excluded from was that of long distance running.  The reasons that they were excluded from the events originally were far from valid. It was seen as being un-ladylike, which was a violation of the law. To back up their social customs, unfounded scientific facts were added to the reasons to keep women from running.  It was beloved that women couldn’t handle running mile after mile because their bodies were not built for it and they were not “physiologically capable” of doing so.  There was also a belief that if a woman participated in a long race she would do irreparable damage to her uterus and would risk infertility.  These beliefs that were founded in “junk science” were used to bar women from participation in these events for decades.  When six women collapsed after running the 800 meter race in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, many people started jumping to conclusions and feeling vindicated. People felt that it was too great of a stress for the female body and that running too far would cause a woman to age too fast.  The 800-meter race was discontinued and the longest race that women were allowed to participate in was the 200-meter.  These restrictions lasted all the way until 1960 when a few longer events were finally added back into the Olympic completions.

The governing body of distance running in the United States was the AAU, or Amateur Athletic Union.  That organization sanctioned marathons and other running events and set the rules and regulations for them.  The AAU had discouraged the participation of women in marathons and other longer running events by barring them from the events with junk science.  They continued the false claims that long distance running would harm the female reproductive system and cause infertility.  The organization did everything they could to keep women from running in marathons.  Even when they were allowed to finally participate in the early 1970s, the AAU made them run at different times than the men or start from a different starting line.

Joan Benoit Samuelson was a high school star on her track team in 1975, after title IX was already introduced.  However, girls in the state of Maine were not allowed to run distances longer than one mile.  She won the state championship in the mile, but had dreams to run further.  She continued to train further and further distances hoping for her shot at running long distances in the Olympics. That seemed like an almost impossible task because the Olympics still had no marathon race for women.  It took a lot of pressure from activist, advertisement, and athletes before the event was considered.  The cause of a woman’s marathon was helped by the American College of Sports Medicine when they released an opinion statement in 1980 that said they found no scientific evidence that distance running caused harm to the female body.  The cause also received help from senators and members of the international Olympic committee who wanted to see women’s distance running included in the Olympics.  In 1981, the IOC voted in favor of including the women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles.

By this time Samuelson had become an accomplished marathoner and at the time the Olympics began, she owned the world record in the marathon.  She won the first gold medal ever in the women’s marathon.  She also proved the junk science wrong as well when she had 2 children even while she was still training every day.

The Olympics continue to make progress and women now compete in every sport that men do.

Longman, Jere. “How the Women Won.” The New York Times. June 23, 1996. Accessed November 19, 2016.

Butler, Charles, and From The November 2012 Issue. “Sole Sisters of ’72.” Runner’s World. November 2012. Accessed November 20, 2016.

“The Fight To Establish The Women’s Marathon Race.” The Fight To Establish The Women’s Marathon Race. Accessed November 20, 2016.


5 thoughts on “Joan Benoit and her Marathon Towards History

  1. This is awesome. My sister ran a marathon at the age of 16, my other sister won state two years in a row for track. i’m so glad they had great examples and hard working, persistent, women like Joan Samuelson to show women they can achieve their dreams.


  2. This is such an epic story! I think it’s pretty terrible that “junk science” existed in order to ban women from doing long distance running, which is something that I really like and I can’t imagine not being able to do it or having people tell me it would affect my infertility.


  3. I love this story. I am passionate about running and I have done three marathons and live for distance running so this is incredible to me that not very long ago it was so tabooed and forbidden. Even though there was lots of taboo/”junk science” to bar women from participate in distance/marathon running, did women still do it? When did running become such a trend for women for regular physical activity?


  4. All the fake science backing up the idea that women shouldn’t run reminded me of Muller V Oregon, where they used fake science to back up the idea that women shouldn’t work long hours because their bodies couldn’t handle it. People realize that blatant sexism won’t fly, so they come up with these weird “scientific” explanations that so many people accept at face value. It’s also really interesting that one of the reasons women weren’t supposed to run is that it might affect their ability to have children, because it reflects the fact that society viewed women basically as baby-making machines; if they lost that ability, they had lost everything.


  5. I am grateful for the women who pushed to run longer distances in races. As a distance runner of medium ability I am grateful that no one questions why I am possibly damaging my body by running 5K and 10ks. It is great that the marathon was opened to women at the Olympic level and I admire all who put in the hard work to train for it.


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