Monday, 26 August 2013

Running History (4): The Women's 800m - 1928 and today

The Women's 800m final at this month's World Championships in Moscow was one of the highlights of the competition. After leading for much of the race, Alysia Montano was overtaken in the final strait by Kenya's Eunice Sum (Gold), Russia's Mariya Savinova (Silver) and her USA team mate Brenda Martinez who secured Bronze after an incredible finishing burst on the inside. Nobody watching this display of speed and power would believe that for much of the 20th century the athletics establishment believed that women couldn't handle the 800m!

The 800m final in Moscow, August 2013
Women's Athletics were first included in the Olympics at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, and the 800m was the longest race for women.  German runner Lina Radke  (below right) won in 2 minutes 16 seconds - a new world record (compared with Sum's 2013 time of 1 min 57.38sec). She beat Kinue Hitomi (left) of Japan and Gentsel of Sweden, with Canadians Jean Thompson and Bobbie Rosenfeld finishing 4th and 5th.

Reuters, 2 August 1928
Bobbie Rosenfeld, who came fifth in 1928

Media reports immediately afterwards suggested that several women had collapsed during or after the race, and this led to calls for them to be banned from long distance running. Here's a particularly ludicrous example from an Australian newspaper which suggests that women exist to give birth but paradoxically are incapable of strenuous effort:

Collapse of Women at Olympic Sports: Doctors Condemn their Participation 
(The Mail, Adelaide, 4 August 1928)

'Several women athletes in the final of the 800 metres race at the Olympic sports at Amsterdam fell by the side of the track, apparently suffering from the dangerous strain. This has aroused adverse medical comment here. One specialist declares that women are not built physically to undergo the strain of races. Nature made them to bear children. They cannot rid themselves of fat to the extent that is necessary for the physical fitness demanded for feats of extreme endurance.

Sir Percival Phillips, in describing the scene after the race at Amsterdam, says that Miss Thompson, a pretty Canadian girl with fair, bobbed hair, lay with her face down and her head on her arm, sobbing convulsively.  Three of her companions tried vainly to console her. She appeared to be in acute pain in addition to suffering from the disappointment of defeat.

Miss Hitomi, the Japanese girl who was second, had to be massaged before she was able to leave the trade. She limped to her dressing room, too exhausted even to put on her shoes. One physiologist declares that woman has a layer of fat; round the heart that makes attempts to emulate men positively dangerous. All women must realise that no amount of training will ever alter their physical condition.

'It is true,' says this specialist, 'that we are getting a race of women who are half men, but they can never compare with men physically.' Another points put that after generations of soft living civilised women have become congenitally unfit for such strenuous effort. Women of this kind are not likely to
become mothers. Therefore races do not serve any useful purpose. Men athletes, on the contrary, have children of an improved standard, which is all to the collective good'.

The start of the 1928 800m race in Amsterdam
A week later there were calls at an International Athletic Federation meeting to stop women's track and field events altogether. Although this was rejected, the 800m was dropped and proposals to extend the list of women's events were also voted down. A German doctor told the meeting that there was really nothing to worry about - 'Frau Hadke, world champion, cooked, sewed and kept house like any other woman, and competition had not affected her system'!

Canberra Times, 9 August 1928
It was not until 1960 that the 800m race for women was reinstated, and the Women's Marathon was not included in the Olympics until 1984. The facts of exactly what happened in 1928 remain contested. It would not be surprising if some of the athletes were tired, as they had already competed in several events. Hitomi for instance had already taken part in the 100m, discus and high jump and decided to enter the 800m at the last minute despite never having taken part in a race over that distance. Roger Robinson suggests though that it is a myth that several women collapsed during the race: 'There were nine women in the race, not 11. All nine are recorded as having finished. None dropped out. Film footage shows only one woman falling at the finish' ("Eleven Wretched Women": What really happened in the first Olympic women's 800m, Running Times, May 14 2012).

In any event, today we would think it perfectly normal for an athlete (male or female) to collapse at the end of a race and maybe get emotional after giving their all - just as Montano did in Moscow this month.

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