When Grete Waitz won the New York City Marathon for the first time in 1978–she would be victorious in the race eight more times over the next 10 years–competitive marathon running for women was still in its infancy. But Waitz, who died today at 57 in her native Norway, helped bring it into the international spotlight.
Consider how long it took for women to be recognized for running such a long way: Not only were women disallowed from the Olympics in ancient Greece, but they weren’t immediately allowed into the modern Olympics either. You can’t stop a woman who wants to run, though: In 1896, Stamatis Rovithi ran the marathon course anyway, a month before the Games were revived in Athens. And during the actual Olympic marathon that year, a woman nicknamed Melpomene (who may have been Rovithi) snuck into the race, finishing it with a lap around the outside of Panathinaiko Stadium because she was barred from entering.
A woman wasn’t officially timed in the marathon until 1926, and until 1972 women were barred from the famous Boston Marathon. That didn’t stop Roberta Gibb from sneaking into the race in 1966, nor Katherine Switzer, who registered as K.V. Switzer in 1967. Indeed, it was 44 years ago TODAY that Switzer became famous when a Boston race official tried unsuccessfully to pull her off the course. She used her fame to lobby for the inclusion of women in all marathons and for the establishment of an Olympic woman’s marathon. Thanks to other women’s sports activists, especially U.S. marathoner Jacqueline Hansen, the International Olympic Committee finally opened the stadium door to women at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Which brings us back to Grete Waitz. Although she didn’t directly lobby for the women’s Olympic marathon, “her successes were often cited by supporters of the race,” writes Charlie Lovett in his excellent review of the long struggle of long-distance women runners in Olympic Marathon. Said Svein Arne Hansen, president of the Norwegian Athletics Federation,
It was Grete who proved that it was possible for women to compete in the longer distances.
She was probably the most famous woman marathoner in the world coming into the ’84 Olympics, having lowered the world record several times and having won the world championship marathon the year before, but she placed second to Joan Benoit in the L.A. race. “Hey, I’m glad to get second,” she reportedly said to Benoit after the winner told her she had “lucked out” when she decided to take a strong lead early in the race.
Waitz ran her last marathon–New York, again–in 1992, trotting along the course at half-speed with the legendary race organizer Fred Lebow, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. In the past six years, she herself fought an unspecified cancer, and started an Active Against Cancer foundation.
There’s no better way to remember Grete Waitz today than just to watch her run: