A website dedicated to athletics literature / Women in Athletics - from 1950-2012

The second half of the 20th century began with women athletes recognised around the world and with a stable organisation.  In 1951, however, when Ross and Norris McWhirter attempted to put together a history of women’s performances they commented that in comparison to men’s athletics “the sport is ill-documented and strange decisions, oversights, and lapses concerning records tend to be the rule rather than the exception”.  Within three years this proved to be of historic and academic interest only, as women rewrote every world record.

The photograph of Paula Radcliffe was kindly provided by Mark Shearman



The Old Taboos Crumble.  In this period, the old taboos on women running endurance events slowly began to crumble.  In 1960, the 800m returned to the Olympic Programme, and in 1969 the 1500m was included in the European Championships, the first major championship to stage the event.  In 1974 the 3000m was added to the international list of events, and in 1970 the Road Runners Club of America organised the first championship Marathon for women.  Other events were reconsidered too.  In 1968 the 80m Hurdles was deemed too great a concession to the fact that women tend to be shorter than men, and the event was replaced with the 100m Hurdles.  In the Pentathlon new scoring tables were introduced in 1954 and 1971.  The 4x400m Relay was added to the world record list in 1969, and the 400m Hurdles in 1974.

Doping and Gender Tests.  Activities outside the arena also attracted attention; much of it unwanted.  In 1966, gender-tests for women were initiated at the European Athletics Championships in response to rumours and suspicions that some men had, and still did, compete as women.  There were some high-profile casualties, but what was discovered was not an infiltration into women’s events by men, but that biology was not always as simple as the simple dichotomy – male/female – that the rule book suggested.  Gender testing for women was continued by the IAAF until 1992 when it was discontinued as being an unwarranted intrusion into the privacy and dignity of women.  However, the right was reserved to call for it in special circumstances, when it was thought there was a need for clarification of a competitor’s gender or underlying biology. 

In the late 1960s, new anti-doping rules were introduced, and were enforced for the first time in the Olympic Games in 1972.  It was anabolic steroids, mimicking the male sex hormones, which had the greatest effect on women’s performances.  Some performances set during the peak of steroid abuse set unrealistic standards in many events, and masked the real merit of many future performers.  The Cold War also divided women’s athletics, as it did in other things, but tended to add an extra edge to the competitions between women from different political ideologies.

On a more positive note this period produced some outstanding world stars.  These included Betty Cuthbert (AUS), Wilma Rudolph (USA), Iolanda Balas (ROM), Chi Cheng (TPE), Irena Szewinska (POL), and Alice Annum (GHA).



New women’s events continued to be added – in 1981 the Heptathlon replaced the Pentathlon, and in 1983 the IAAF held the first 15km Road Race for Women in San Diego, USA.  In 1984, the Marathon was included in the Olympic Games for the first time, and in 1985 the 10,000 was added to the events in major championships, and in 1995 the 5,000m replaced the 3,000m.  By 1999 the Triple Jump, the Hammer Throw and the Pole Vault had been added, and the 20k walk had replaced the 10k walk.  So by the end of the century, the IAAF world record list for women comprised of 21 running, hurdling and relay events, nine field events and one multi-event.

Clearing More Hurdles. The last quarter of the 20th century saw the steady consolidation of the position of women in world athletics, and barriers to their participation continued to tumble.  Perhaps the most significant was the Title IX legislation of 1972 in the USA that came into effect in 1978, and prohibited sex discrimination in any educational institution.  In several countries women-only organisations merged with the men’s.  This often helped raise the profile of the women’s sport and was often necessary to access government funds.  But there were unforeseen consequences.  In these new, larger organisations women seldom retained their decision-making powers and the number of women in positions of power declined sharply.  In the USA, coaching was affected too.  In 1972 more than 90% of coaches of women’s college teams were women, but by 1990 the figure had dropped to 47%.  Nevertheless there were major new administrative achievements for women – in 1995 Nawal El Moutawakel (MAR) and Abby Hoffman (CAN) were elected to the IAAF Council. 

GlobalisationIn the competitive arena, the globalisation of women’s athletics continued.  African and Chinese women won more major championships than ever before and it was in the middle and long distances that runners seemed to make the greatest progress.  Women like Mary Decker (USA), Joan Benoit (USA), Grete Waitz (NOR), Ingrid Kristiansen (NOR), Rosa Mota (MOZ), Hassiba Boulmerka (ALG), Fatuma Roba and Derata Tulu, (ETH), Tegla Loroupe and Catherine Ndereba (KEN) turned the old arguments about the suitability of women for endurance events on its head.  Indeed, the suggestion emerged that perhaps women were particularly suited to them.  Among the other stars of this period in other events were Sara Simeoni (ITA), Jackie-Joyner Kersee (USA), Florence Griffiths-Joyner (USA), Heike Drechsler (GER), Merlene Ottey (JAM), Ana Fidelia Quirot (CUB), Marion Jones (USA) and many others.


The 21st Century.

The first IAAF World Championships of the century were held in Canada in 2001, with 699 women from 134 nations competing in 22 different events.  Women comprised 41.7% of all the competing athletes.  In 2005 the 3000m Steeplechase was added to the women’s programme, and by 2009 the number of women participants in the World Championships had risen to 857 (45.2% of the total), in 23 events.  In the 21st century, therefore, the number of women who competed at the highest level continued to increase, and women were an increasingly large proportion of all competitors at the World Championships.  The women’s and men’s programmes were now all but equal, and so was the possibility of winning prize money, which was still not the case in many other sports.  But not all the news was good. 

Kelli White and Marion Jones (both USA), two of the sport’s biggest stars, were caught in the investigative web surrounding the activities of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) in California who supplied prohibited substances to athletes and coaches.  Both athletes were banned and their performances and records from December 2000 were expunged.  “Marion Jones will be remembered as one of the biggest frauds in sporting history” said IAAF President Lamine Diack.  These were bleak days for elite women’s athletics, but detecting and punishing such behaviour was at least evidence that there was a willingness to face up to these difficult issues and to take firm action when necessary.  Many wondered whether some of the world records set in the 1980s would ever have been allowed to stand if an anti-doping regime similar to the current one had been in place then.  In an attempt to be fair to 21st century women athletes calls were made to delete the current women’s world records and for new ones, untainted by the suspicion of drug enhancement, to be established. 

But although a few cheated, the vast majority of women competed with pride and dignity on the world stage, and they came from more parts of the world, and competed in more events, and at a higher level, than would have been imaginable even a few years earlier.  An illustration of this was Yelena Isinbayeva (URS) who was voted the best woman athlete in the world in 2004, 2005 and 2008, in an event that was not even on the women’s programme until 1999 - the pole vault.  Similarly, in 2007 Meseret Defar (ETH) was voted the best woman athlete in the world, but her main event, the 5,000m had not been added to the programme until 1995.  In these relatively few years the success of African women in the endurance running events was extraordinary; for example, in the World Championships at Daegu in 2011 women runners from Africa took the first six places in both the 5,000m and 10,000m (8 by Kenyans, 3 by Ethiopians and 1 by an Ethiopian-born runner competing for Bahrain).  Paula Radcliffe (GBR) was also one of the great distance runners of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Her marathon time of 2h 15m 25s in 2003 was not only a World’s Record, but was the fastest time by a Briton that year – male or female!   But the success story of women runners was not limited to the elite alone. 

Mass-participation city marathons.  Women of all abilities and ages now take up running.  The major city marathons, Berlin, Boston, Chicago, New York, and London, are good examples of this.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s the general health-benefits of endurance-running was recognised, and thousands of people began running and jogging long distances.  This led to many wanting to test themselves over the marathon distance.  Women, of course, were part of this mass-movement but they were not permitted to compete in marathon races.  There are many stories of women in the 1960s adopting devious strategies to take part in marathons – joining the race after the start and leaving it before the finish – running unofficially with no number - entering as if they were men – even pretending to be men.  By 1972, however, women were officially admitted into the Boston Marathon, and in 1974 into the Berlin Marathon.  By the late 1970s the number of women in marathons had increased rapidly and continued to rise for the next thirty years, for this was not only a major sporting phenomenon, it was a social one too.  From a few hundred runners the numbers rose to tens of thousands.  In 2011 43% of all the finishers in the Chicago Marathon were women (15,414 women out of a total of 35,670 finishers).  In the same year the London Marathon accepted 17,838 women runners.  The steady rise in the number of women participants was nothing short of extraordinary; as an example - in the 31 years from 1981 to 2011 the number of men accepted to take part in the London Marathon rose from 7,375 to 32,694 (a 4½-fold increase).  During the same period the number of women rose from 372 to 17,838 (a 48-fold increase).  The popularity of the major city marathons (and countless others, plus half-marathons, 10k events and fun runs), became so great that standards had to be introduced to control the numbers.  In Boston for example qualifying standard were set for women in eleven age groups – the youngest being 18-34, and the oldest, 80+.  And there was no sign in 2012 that the trend of increasing women’s participation was approaching its peak. 

The 21st century shows just how far women’s athletics has travelled, but despite extraordinary progress it must be remembered that in the early 21st century some women are still excluded by poverty, ignorance, or prejudice.  And in some parts of the world there are still pressures from within families, communities and even cultures that severely limit the activities of women and girls and deny them the opportunity to take part in athletics at any kind.

Much has been achieved – in recent times athletics has enriched the lives of countless women and girls around the world, which is a fitting tribute to the generations of women who had to fight prejudice and ridicule to establish and develop their sport.  The early pioneers would be proud of the current achievements and also amazed by them, but there are still challenges ahead, but today’s women athletes owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who went before.


by Peter Radford

Written in 2012 (revised 6iv2014)

Acknowledgement.  Athlos is grateful to the IAAF for giving permission to reproduce this three-part essay, which was originally published as, Women’s Athletics – The Road to Recognition, in, IAAF 1912-2012 – 100 Years of Athletics Excellence, (Monaco: IAAF, 2012), pp. 239-259.

Acknowledgements.  I am grateful to Peter Lovesey of the National Union of Track Statisticians, and to David Bedford of the London Marathon, for information, and to members of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport – most notably Jean-Michel Delaplace, Giglio Gori, Allen Guttman, Gerd von de Lippe, Roberta Park and Gertrud Pfister, on whose original research I have heavily relied.  Any errors of interpretation are, of course, my own.






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