This week’s Olympic Flashback takes us all the way back to 1984. That was a really good year. It was the year of the Rat and the year that the City of Angels was charged with hosting the Olympic Games. 1984, would be the first time ever, that women would be allowed to compete in the marathon in the Olympics. That’s right, it only took from 1896 until 1984 (88 years) for the International Olympic Committee to agree to allow women to run 26.2 miles. They, and an irrational but large subset of society believed that women’s frail, fragile bodies couldn’t withstand the grueling race. It was believed that aaaall that physical activity was actually unhealthy for women. Despite the greatest paternalistic efforts, women would no longer be denied the opportunity to put themselves through the same unnecessarily long race that men had for the sake of a gold medal.
The first winner of the women’s marathon was American runner Joan Benoit and she completed the race in a time of 2:24:52. While Benoit’s accomplishment was and still is noteworthy, the real story of the race and the Games was Gabriela Andersen-Schiess. The 39-year-old Swiss competitor’s performance was truly one for the record books.
As Andersen-Schiess entered the Olympic stadium to complete the final 400 meters of the marathon, she was far from the poster child for feminine strength that anyone expected. She was severely hunched over with contorted limbs while attempting something the fell between a walk and a limp, and it was clear that she had lost a large part of her ability to control her coordination. Her performance screamed of physical exhaustion and breakdown. But, miraculously and inspirationally, it also screamed of shear determination and a mental capacity to overcome anything. In the 5:44s that it took Andersen-Schiess to complete the final lap, she turned away medical attention so that she wouldn’t be disqualified and forged ahead despite a body that did not want to. She absolutely willed herself to the finish line and in doing so proved the strength of women stretched deeper than muscles and skin.
Andersen-Schiess finished the race in a time of 2:48:45, 8th to last place. Mere hours after being carted off to the hospital, she emerged vowing to compete in a 38-mile long team race through the mountains of Utah in two weeks; which she did.
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