As reported in the Wall Street Journal, London 2012 will mark the first Olympic Games in which women athletes from Saudi Arabia will participate. But it was not long ago that all women were barred from many competitions, including the marathon. Then Avon came calling and helped change the face of running. Yes, Avon.
As marathons rose in popularity for men, common belief held that women could not run 26.2 miles or, if they did, it would endanger their health (including sterility). Enter Kathrine Switzer, who ran the men-only Boston Marathon in 1967 (as KV Switzer) and was, in her own words, “radicalized” when race officials attempted to drag her from the course.
I chatted recently with Kathrine, who recounted how she dedicated herself to driving opportunities for women in sports, and found in Avon the perfect partner to help make this dream reality.
In 1972 Kathrine helped create the first women-only 10K in New York City, which attracted 78 women – small by today’s standards, but a surprising number 40 years ago. This was also the year of the US Title IX Amendment, best remembered for ensuring women equal access to sports. A revolution had begun.
Fast forward to 1976. Avon executives met Kathrine at a women’s sports event and tapped her to develop programs to empower women through sports. In 1977 the all-women Avon Futures Tennis Circuit launched, followed by the Avon International Women’s Marathon in Atlanta in March 1978, with runners from nine countries. That same year, Avon Women’s Running Events launched in Japan and Belgium, and quickly expanded to 27 countries on 5 continents, culminating in an annual global marathon with the winners of each country’s race plus top women runners from around the world, all brought to the event at Avon’s expense.
In the book Olympic Marathon, author Charlie Lovett affirms that “Avon races brought international attention and participation to the sport.” The Avon Women’s Marathons broke barriers by giving talented women runners confidence, opportunity and exposure. The marathons proved they could do it.
In 1980, when London was the Avon Championship host city, the time was right to push for more. The event had surpassed the criteria of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that any new sport draw participants from at least 25 countries on three continents. Targeting a women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Kathrine supported the Los Angeles Olympic Committee in developing the pitch for the IOC, including providing medical reports to dispel lingering claims that marathons are harmful to women. History shows they succeeded.
LA 1984. US runner Joan Benoit wins the first Olympic Marathon for women, making a dramatic solo entry into a packed stadium for the final lap of the event. As described by Joan to The Chicago Sun-Times in 1998, she “used the original Avon women’s running series as a springboard to a place in history as the gold medalist in the first Olympic Marathon for females. ‘Due in no small part to the (Avon-sponsored) marathons, the (International Olympic Committee) took a long, hard look at women’s distance running and to my luck instituted the marathon in 1984’.”
For those who feared for the health of women marathoners, Joan lives happily in Maine and is the mother of two. She still runs.