Remembering the First Women’s Olympic Marathon

Watching the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio has made me remember the 1984 Summer Olympics.   There were a number of iconic moments during the 1984 Games.   I wrote about them back in the early days of the Funatical Runner.   This blog post puts me in the mood for the next two Sundays when the world will see who will win Gold in the Women’s and Men’s Marathons.  And you know I will be cheering for Meb.  😉

I didn’t start out a runner in high school or college like many people I know. The seeds of my running career were planted in 1984, the year that Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics.

The 1984 Summer Olympics were pretty amazing. It was the first time in history that the Games were not sponsored by the government. Peter Ueberroth was put in charge of making everything happen but without funding from the US Government. Ueberroth ran things like a business and assembled a board of entrepreneurs and other business people. Through corporate sponsorships, private funding, and a huge price tag for the television rights, they came up with more than enough money for the Games. Ueberroth did such a good job managing things that he was named Time’s Man of the Year.

The opening ceremonies for the 1984 Summer Olympics were something that only Hollywood could pull off. The opening ceremonies were held in the LA Coliseum. There were cards on all of the seats. At one point, everyone was directed to pull out their card and hold it up. The effect was to create the flags of all nations competing in the Games. It was an impressive sight. The other incredible moment was when 84 grand pianos were rolled out with 84 male pianists dressed in light blue tuxes who played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” It gave me goosebumps. To this day, when I hear that song, I see all those pianos. John Williams composed “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” for the Games and they played it during the opening ceremonies – incredible music that was perfect for the event. Let the Games begin!

My oldest sister was living in Los Angeles at the time. They needed a lot of volunteers to help run things so she volunteered. Her assignment was to be a course marshall for both the Women’s and Men’s Marathons – a job that involved keeping spectators from wandering out onto the course during the races. I lived on the East Coast and did not see her often. My husband and I decided we would watch the marathon events on television in the off-chance we might see her in action as a course marshall.

This was the first time that the Summer Olympics included a Women’s Marathon. The race was held on the first weekend of the Games (the Men’s race was held on the second weekend). Joan Benoit (now Samuelson) was one of three runners representing the US – a spot she won 17 days after knee surgery. Going into the 1984 Games, Joanie held the world record for women in the marathon – 2:22:43 at the 1983 Boston Marathon. I liked her when I saw her because Joanie is short like me – a mere 5’2”.

The runners lined up, the gun went off, and 50 women marathoners were off to the history books. While it might not seem like there is much strategy to running a marathon, there is. Nobody wants to lead the pack early on because your legs might not be able to carry you the distance. Runners trade the lead position from time to time during the race. This race was a bit different. Perhaps the women were not acclimated to the hot, muggy Los Angeles weather but 14 minutes into the race, Joanie got tired of the slow pace and pulled ahead of the pack. Remarkably, she stayed there for the remainder of the race.

I remember the camera being focused on Joanie, the other runners visible well behind her. She was wearing an oversized painters hat (not some fancy runner’s cap) and the right shoulder of her singlet had fallen down her arm. For the rest of the race, I kept wanting to reach through the television and pull it up for her. I was mesmerized by this woman, running through the LA heat and beating what I understood were some of the greatest women runners at the time. When she came into the Coliseum, the crowd went wild. It was clear that she was going to win as she ran a final lap around the track to the finish line wearing a smile 26.2 miles wide. She finished with a time of 2:24:52.

While Joanie blew everyone away with her performance, there was another incredible runner that day who I will never forget. About 15 minutes after Joanie crossed the finish line, Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, a runner from Switzerland, entered the stadium. She was suffering from heat exhaustion and every step she took looked like it would literally be her last. She was hunched over and staggering. Medical personnel came to her but she waved them off – if they had touched her, she would have been disqualified. Instead they walked along side her as she made the last lap around the track. It took her almost 6 minutes to finish. She collapsed into the arms of waiting medics when she crossed the line. Fortunately for Gabriele, she recovered but she is still a vivid reminder of the dangers of running in the heat.

The 1984 Games were also marked by the famous collision between Zola Budd, an 18-year old barefoot runner representing the UK, and the US favorite Mary Decker-Slaney in the final of the 3000 meter race. The collision caused Mary to fall, wiping out her dream of an Olympic medal. The crowd booed Zola for the rest of the race. Zola dropped back well out of medal contention. It was later determined the collision was not Zola’s fault. I think about that collision every time I am in a close pack of runners in a race. I don’t want to be Zola or Mary.

After the 1984 Games were over, my husband and I decided that maybe we would take up running. We put on our tennis shoes (no, we didn’t have running shoes) and headed to the track at a nearby high school. After about two laps around the track, I was hot and bored. I didn’t understand how anyone could enjoy this running stuff and vowed never to do that again. My husband who had not run since college pulled his hamstring. He quit too. That was the start and end of my running career. At least, I thought so at the time.

(And in case you are wondering, I never did catch a glimpse of my sister along the course.)

There isn’t great quality video available of the 1984 opening ceremonies where “Rhapsody in Blue” was played.    This will give you an idea of how fantastic the pianists played.