The Race That Kept Women from Running

Release Date: October 24, 2023

Organizers of Paris 2024 have been touting gender parity, that an equal number of female and male athletes will be competing at the Summer Olympics for the first time in history. Women in sports still do not receive the same attention or support that men do, and the disparity between women and men in the Olympics remains broad. But women have been competing in the Olympics since 1900, why has it taken so long to reach even this milestone? Why have women been 324825. Medical professionals falsely claimed that strenuous activity damages women’s bodies, especially in terms of fertility. Olympic officials played on these fears to further limit women’s participation in the Games after the 800m race at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.

For the first time in 1928, women were permitted to compete in athletics. Just as the IOC of the day upheld the ideal of the gentleman athlete, officials embraced notions of chivalry and the need to protect delicate ladies. However, IOC members feared losing their monopoly on international sport. The growing popularity of the Women’s World Games (originally called the Women’s Olympics), spearheaded by Alice Milliat, raised concerns for men in the Olympic world. In response, five athletic events for women were added for 1928: 100m, 4×100 relay, 800m, discus and high jump.

The 800m was the last of the women’s events. The stands in Amsterdam were full on August 2, 1928 to witness the nine women run the final. The race was one for the ages. German Lina Radke took the lead in a daring move on the final lap breaking the world record and winning gold. Kinue Hitomi of Japan and Inga Gentzel of Sweden tried valiantly but could not catch Radke, earning silver and bronze respectively.

The runners were fatigued after such an intensely fast race, and did not look the way proper ladies of the day were expected to look. The racers sported short haircuts and clothes that exposed their legs and arms. The women were sturdy, in the language of the day, not petite or delicate. They had lunged for the finish line and according to the photos, Radke threw her arms up in victory at the end of the race.

The press, however, reported a very different scene. They described women collapsing on the track and having to be carried off, blood on their feet and legs, runners unable to finish. John Tunis, a prominent sportswriter of the day, described “11 retched women.”  Sportswriter William Shirer detailed in the Chicago Tribune that five women collapsed after the race and that Bostonian and fifth-place-finisher Florence MacDonald needed to be “worked over” after “falling onto the grass unconscious.” In the Pittsburgh Press, Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne wrote, “It was not a very edifying spectacle to see a group of fine girls running themselves into a state of exhaustion.” Other journalists claimed that running was dangerous and disgraceful for women.

It did not matter that reports were exaggerated or outright false. No runners collapsed, no runners dropped out, only nine (not eleven) women ran the race, and the blood described was likely the red cinder from the track. There was no film of the race, and television or radio broadcasts of the Olympics had yet to be implemented. So the sexist reports of an imagined scene of female devastation ruled the day and determined the fate of female athletes for years to come. The 800m was eliminated from the Olympic program until 1960. Women did not compete in the marathon until 1984. Women did not wrestle in the Olympics until 2004 or in boxing until 2012. Women swam a distance longer than 800 meters, the 1500m, for the first time in Tokyo.

Sadly, the press still questions the femininity of women in sport, despite constant talk of parity. Not much has changed since 1928.

–Alison Brown