Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Grete Waitz

Earlier this month, C and R were very saddened to hear that the great marathoner Grete Waitz passed away from complications from cancer. She was only 57 years young. She was a personal hero of R’s, and admired by both of us.

Super pen pal TH was also saddened and so wrote to us:
“I was a competitive runner in college (and a bench warmer on the basketball team in high school!).  So when I heard the news of Grete Waitz's death, I was heartbroken and felt compelled to write a piece about it.”

She sent it into the Oregonian Newspaper, and they published it online. It puts Grete’s accomplishments in context with her times. Last month, during my track and field unit with my middle school students, I shared that the “powers that be” wouldn’t let women run more than a few miles in Olympics races for fear they would “hurt themselves.” Never mind that they thought women would hurt their reproductive organs and not be able to bear children, that discussion would be saved for another day. I shared with them the fact the first Olympic Marathon for women was held in 1984. The students were incredulous about the olden days, the dark ages. That was only 27 short years ago. And Grete was at the forefront of history. Oh, why don’t I let TH tell you all about it.

Here is her gracious and gracefully written article, reprinted with permission from the author. (Okay, hear that everyone, we got permission!)

Why we’re lucky to have known Grete Waitz

Some athletes arrive at a time when the world is still too small to fully appreciate their enormous physical talents.  But instead of shrinking away from their calling, these giants make the world bigger, and we grow to love them for it.  Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Babe Didrikson, and Jim Thorpe are a few who come to mind, but so does the lesser known Grete Waitz, a high school teacher turned marathon runner who died of cancer earlier this month at age 57.  Her domination of the sport of marathon running includes nine wins between 1978 and 1988 at the elite New York City Marathon, a feat no other human being has replicated.

In the early 70s, at the beginning of Waitz’s running career, the International Olympic Committee enforced an antiquated ban against women running any race longer than the 1500 meters—a distance just shy of four laps around the track.  As history would soon show, the 1500 meters was about 25 miles too short to be Waitz’s optimal racing distance, making her appearance at the 1972 Olympics that much more impressive.

By 1978, Waitz was ready to retire from track as a relative unknown and return to teaching full time.  But first, as a lark, she agreed to appear at the New York City Marathon as a “rabbit,” to set an early pace for the “real” contenders.  Instead, she crossed the finish line ahead of 99% of the 8,000 men entered in the race, won the women’s competition, and set a world record.  Astonished crowds looked for the racing bib pinned to the blur in pigtails--“Go number 1173!”

The 1978 marathon was the beginning of a beautiful marriage of talent and opportunity and undeniable proof of what women could do if they were allowed to do it.  In 1978, there were no “running shoes” marketed to women.  It would take another five marathon wins by Waitz, speeches on the floor of the U.S. Congress, and a concerted effort by women around the world before the International Olympic Committee agreed to let women run long distances—including the marathon—at the 1984 summer Olympics.  That year, Joan Benoit, the American, won the gold; Grete Waitz took the silver.  When the two met again at the New York City marathon in 1988, Waitz finished first.

Grete Waitz was a fantastically gifted runner.  She had an elegant, efficient stride and never looked tired, at a moment when women athletes simply could not afford to.  The times she posted in the marathon do not have the faded and remote look of historic stepping stones.  Her winning time in the 1980 NYC marathon would be fast enough to have won last year, or in 2009, or in 2002.

In 1992, Waitz came out of retirement to jog the NYC marathon alongside Fred Lebow, her friend and the head of the New York City Roadrunners Club who first invited her to take part in the race.  Lebow had been stricken by brain cancer and the two crossed the finish line together holding hands.  According to one New York Times contributor, the friends returned to the finish line at dawn the next morning, “after Central Park had been cleared of any hints of a marathon race,” to roll out a finishing tape for a disabled athlete, the last entrant to complete the race.

Grete Waitz demonstrated year after year that the American running craze was more exciting if everyone was included.  It’s hard to underestimate her role in making the neighborhood mom’s or the 10th grade girl’s 5-mile jog from home an utterly unremarkable event.

Grete Waitz’s modest and dignified brand of competition stood out among the flamboyant firebrands who achieved fame in the sporting world of the 1970s and 80s.  She was, in many respects, miles ahead of us, but gracious enough to pull us along.  We’ll miss her.

-- Tiffany Harris competed in middle-distance and distance running in high school and college. She is a lawyer in Portland.

No comments:

Post a Comment