In the world of professional sports, few images are as powerful as the shot of burly Boston Marathon race official Jock Semple furiously attempting to rip bib #261 off 20-year old runner Kathrine Switzer in mid-stride. You see, back when the shot was taken in 1967, women weren’t allowed to compete in the world’s most famous annual marathon (or the majority of sporting events, for that matter). While using her initials to register had effectively hidden Switzer’s gender, her showing up in lipstick and earrings on race day caught attention as soon as the starting gun went off.
Switzer would later recall, “Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce…he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, ‘Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!’”
As Semple attempted to strip her of her number, Switzer’s then-boyfriend and teammate managed to push the race official away, giving Switzer her chance to complete the 26-mile race. While her finishing time of four hours and 20 minutes would later be disqualified, Switzer had accomplished the far more important feat of running straight into the history books.
Switzer was disbarred from the Amateur Athletic Union for daring to run in the race (“Real women don’t run!” screamed journalists who witnessed the event). Ignoring them all, Switzer took her advocacy to Canada, where she set up the first of her running clubs that would go on to stage women’s-only races in 27 countries.
By 1972, Switzer was able to leverage the fame she’d gained to lobby for women to formally compete in the Boston Marathon and, in 1984, she helped guide the introduction of women’s marathon to the Olympics. The years that followed saw Switzer settle into her life as an author and TV commentator for the Olympics, World and National championships until, in 2011, fit as ever at the age of 64, Kathryn Switzer returned to active competition in her beloved sport.
Today, the athletic landscape is very different, as women are able to compete in sporting events they were previously barred from, as seen in 2016 Olympic Silver Medalist Hidilyn Diaz. In the US alone, women comprise 58% of all marathon runners.
Earlier this week, on the 50th anniversary of her historic first race, Switzer returned to the Boston Marathon as an honored guest, firing the starting gun for the Elite category. In her own category, people cheered on a visibly emotional Switzer who, wearing her original number of 261, took only 25 minutes longer to cross the finish line than she did in 1967. Following the Marathon, race officials conferred on Switzer the ultimate recognition of her accomplishments by retiring the number 261.
In a career marked by drive and determination, Switzer has been asked time and again why she didn’t stop running when Semple attacked her. Her official response: “Because I knew if I did that no one would believe women could run distances and deserved to be in the Boston Marathon; they would just think that I was a clown, and that women were barging into events where they had no ability. I was serious about my running and I could not let fear stop me.”
Remarkable words from a remarkable woman.
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Image source: The Guardian