By Peg Morrison
In 1984 Joan Benoit won the first Women’s Olympic Marathon in convincing fashion. We all saw it on TV. However we all saw something slightly different, in keeping with our individual perspectives.
Many saw “Joanie Benoit.” I always disliked that name, but I admit I don’t know how she feels about it. Maybe her close friends and family really call her that. To me though, “Joanie” implies something diminutive and frail. That was not the woman I saw.
The three women who raced that day—Joan, Ingrid, and Grete—embodied the best of womanhood as I knew it growing up. They were towers of physical and psychological strength in the small bodies of women. Joan, boldly going where no woman had gone before; Grete, her implacable Nordic self; Ingrid, typically squinting a bit as if looking for the finish line just ahead; faces frozen in the concentration of the moment.
To me they were beautiful. Women shorn of the excess most of us carry to comply with contemporary standards. They were not chiseled and angular, as many of the men are, but they were honed down to the essence, and not dressed for a dance.
I went to high school in the late ’60s. The full impact of Title IX didn’t occur until several years later, so organized sports were not much of an option for me. I did grow up with two brothers, however, and they provided me an opportunity to avoid the worst excesses of being a “girl.”
I would see them run for the high school team, and I knew they did as much talking as training.
I never accepted that girls couldn’t participate in sports or be fit; it seemed to me that most girls simply chose not to exercise. I knew the difference between boys and girls. Girls had less muscle, were gentler by nature, were able to bear young. We maintained a higher level of adipose tissue for this reason. However, not intending to have any young for several years, I saw no reason to have a protruding abdomen and then wear constricting clothes to hold myself in. I decided sit-ups made more sense. My brothers did them, and if they could, I would.
We played a little basketball in the driveway. I learned to shoot hoops with them.
In college, I took advantage of intramurals and used the facilities, when they were not in use by the boys’ teams.
Lacking much organized sports opportunity, I took up casual running. There was plenty of information available. Runner’s World was already popular. I would go to my local track and just do my own thing. I learned to sweat. Eventually, I appreciated the benefits of going down back roads. Jim Fixx helped to make it sound doable for many of us. Sure, there was always the personal safety concern, but we women live with that. I decided I could live with it better if I was fit, than I could if I was unfit.
Eventually I ran a few marathons. Ran them, not raced them. I would do it for me, not to meet anyone else’s standard. I could have qualified for Boston but had no need to do so. My brothers never did run a marathon. They complained they were too busy working, supporting wives and kids. I knew all about being a wife and mother; and later I learned about work; somehow I never bought the excuses.
Life, unfortunately, does have a way of getting in the way. I still run. I like to run long in the woods or parks when I get the chance. It eases my mind and helps my body age gracefully. My husband tolerates my behavior.
I thank the three ladies—Joan, Grete, and Ingrid—or the validity they gave to women that day.
Editor’s Note: The top five finishers in the 1984 inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon were Joan Benoit, Grete Waitz, Rosa Mota, Ingrid Kristiansen, and Lorraine Moller. Brava to these awe-inspiring trailblazers.
Way to go, Ladies!