The primary means of political dialogue in America is through sports. The fight for racial integration took place on the baseball field. We have wrestled with the equal rights for women in school sports, on golf courses, and in distance running. We use sports to argue over who is an American*, to champion animal rights, and to combat homophobia.
Whether as spectators or participants, we reflect our politics through our discussions of sports and our actions on the field of play. We always have. This intersection of sports and politics is part of what makes the stories of the first running boom so fascinating. At the same time that runners like Frank Shorter were experimenting with their own bodies to see how far, and how fast, a human being could run, runners like Katherine Switzer were breaking down the gender barriers in long distance running.
All of this was in my mind as I read the fascinating article in the November issue of Runners World about the six women who sat down at the start of the 1972 New York Marathon. I’m not going to go into all the details of the article, you should buy a copy of RW and read it for yourself, but suffice it to say in 1972 the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) was still treating women as second class runners. In protest, a group of women runners, Lynn Blackstone, Jane Muhrke, Liz Francechini, Cathy Miller, Pat Barrett and Boston Champion Nina Kuscsik, with the cooperation of race director Fred Lebow**, orchestrated a sit down protest at the start line of New York City Marathon. A month later, helped along by a lawsuit filed by Kuscsik, the AAU began to change its policies and distance running became a more equal playing field.
All of the women who sat down at the starting line that day were runners, but not all of them were fast. In fact, only Barrett and Kuscsik finished the race. Kuscsik won in 3:08, Barret finished in 3:19.*** But whether they finished the race or not, won or not, all six of these women are running heroes worth remembering.
* Discussions over Meb’s status as an American continue to enrage me by the way.
**The article hints that perhaps part of Lebow’s enthusiasm for this protest came from his desire to promote the NYC marathon. We’ll never know Lebow’s motivations for sure, he died in 1994, but I hardly care. Whatever his reasons, he was on the right side of the fight.
***It is worth noting that Kuscsik remains the only women to have won both Boston and New York in the same year.