Women’s athletics has come a long way since the Olympic Games in Amsterdam 1928, when the good ole boys of the International Olympic Committee, seeing that several of the ‘girls’ in the 800 metres had collapsed at the end of the race, promptly banned women from racing further than 200 metres for the next 32 years. After much lobbying, the two-lapper made an Olympic comeback in Rome 1960, the 400 metres saw the light of day in the Land of the Rising Sun, in Tokyo 1964, and the nonsense was finally expunged when the women’s marathon made the cut in Los Angeles 1984.
Since then, one of the most exciting aspects of international track and field athletics has been the advances in women’s events. Women are still subordinate in so many societies, that it has been fascinating to see how sport is used as a means of emancipation, in parallel to the rapid and extraordinary revision of records.
Here are two of the best/worst stories I’ve encountered, ie had related to me by the women in question. Firstly Tegla Loroupe. The diminutive Kenyan recounted how, when she moved to Detmold in Germany to train under the aegis of her manager, Volker Wagner, the Kenyan male runners she shared the house with brought their washing to her, and expected her to do the cooking as well.
She quickly disabused them of the notion that she was there as their servant, and in a nifty piece of role reversal, they ended up being her pace-makers as she ran to successive marathon world records. She’d had pretty good training prior to that, though. Her father had repeatedly tried to stop her running as a youngster, giving her arduous tasks to do on the family farm. But in the end, he just had to give up. And he got the message even more forcefully when, in her first major race, she earned more than he had in a lifetime of farming.
Altogether more serious and nasty was the religious edict issued against Hassiba Boulmerka, following her victory in the 1500 metres at IAAF World Championships in Tokyo 1991. A week later, imams in the more conservative mosques across Algeria issued a kofr against her for daring to show her body off to the world, ie run in regulation running shirt and shorts, not even the skimpy outfits favoured by some women.
Like Loroupe, Boulmerka was nobody’s patsy. Although she told me she had been spat on in the streets, and had to restrict herself to running in the forest with guys, or on the track, she redoubled her efforts, and won the Olympic 1500 metres the following year at a canter. She even dedicated that victory to the Algerian leader recently assassinated by Islamic extremists. Boulmerka is now a successful businesswoman in Algiers.
On the other hand, it’s obvious that some of the big improvements in women’s standards have been due to performance enhancers. Inevitable when you consider that many of the drugs are based on male hormones, and therefore more beneficial to women . But drug-taking is a problem common to both genders in the sport.
Nevertheless, any big improvement runs the risk of being blamed on performance enhancers. One of the greatest runs I’ve ever witnessed was Paula Radcliffe’s European 10,000 metres victory in Munich 2002, in a fraction over 30 minutes, on a saturated track in torrential rain.
Yet victory in such an excellent time, after her succession of narrow failures to medal in major competition was sufficient reason for a journalist on L’Equipe Magazine (the Saturday supplement to the daily paper) to question the validity of Radcliffe’s performance, ie all but accuse her of taking drugs.
It’s easy to accuse, just as easy, I suppose as it it to deny. I don’t think Radcliffe takes drugs. Having watched her inexorable progress, from world junior cross champion, in Boston 1992, to world marathon record holder, with 2.15.25 in London 2003, and given her commitment to training, her success was almost inevitable. Compare that with the breakthrough, in 1993, of various Chinese, beaten by Radcliffe in that junior cross the previous year. A giant leap like that is much more suspicious, to say the least. But even such gradual progress as Radcliffe made over ten years invites accusations.
Unfortunately, it goes with the territory nowadays. Indeed a female coach (of middle distance and marathon runners) from Eastern Europe, who I’ve known for years, looks at the gap between Radcliffe and her marathon pursuers on paper, and assures me that a woman cannot run 42 successive kilometres at an average of 3min 12sec per kilometre.
But let’s move on. The only blemish on Radcliffe’s marathon CV/resumé is her failure to finish the Olympic race in Athens four years ago, when she was outstanding favourite to win. Apart from the birth of her child, Isla, the intervening period has been dedicated to correcting that oversight. Now it seems that an injury necessitating a plaster cast and crutches, at less than three months from the Games may deprive Radcliffe of the ultimate prize in athletics.
That would not diminish Radcliffe as one of the all-time greats any more than a similar gap in Ron Clarke’s medal collection means that the Aussie wasn’t one of the great barrier busters in our sport. Which brings me to two new world beaters, who are among the most exciting prospects I’ve seen in track and field for years.
Twelve months ago, hardly anyone had heard of Janeth Jepkosgei. Yet, for my money the elegant flame-streak-haired Kenyan was the star of the World Championships in Osaka last summer. The way Jepkosgei took the women’s 800 metres field apart was reminiscent of Joaquim Cruz doing the same at the LA Olympics. Like the Brazilian, Jepkosgei ran each successive round faster than the previous, and ended with a Kenyan record 1.56.04, and a gold medal. Yet Jepkosgei’s national record was consigned to the history books last Sunday, when her compatriot, 19 year old Pamela Jelimo front-ran a world junior record 1.55.76 at Hengelo, Netherlands, leaving world 1500 metres champ, Maryam Jamal 25 metres behind.
If the Kenyan pair can keep it all together for Beijing (always presuming that Athletics Kenya has the sense to select them), then we can expect some fireworks in the Birds’ Nest (the nickname for the steel wraparound in BJ’s Olympic stadium). We’ve long got used to male Kenyan success, and the occasional gold for the likes of Sally Barsosio and Edith Masai, and the world records for Loroupe. But the sort of breakthrough made by Jepkosgei and Jelimo, and the promise it presages was not unforseen in some quarters.
When I made my documentary film, Race For Kenya at the end of the last millennium, I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Professor Bengt Saltin, the Swedish world-renowned muscle biologist. Among the revelations that Prof Saltin has made in lengthy biometric testing of Kenyan athletes and non-athletes, there is one that particularly amused him, namely that Kenyan athletes, men and women owe their genetic advantage solely to their female predecessors.
“It’s the Kenyan men who are the top performers, but they get their genes from their mothers, one hundred per cent from their mothers,” says Saltin. “The Kenyan women have at least the same potential as the men, but it’s just the society that prohibited them in earlier generations”.
And that’s something that the good ole boys of the International Olympic Committee wouldn’t have seen coming in a thousand years, let alone the three-quarters of a century since Amsterdam 1928.