(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from May 1984.)
TRIALS AND DENIALS. Long before this day arrived, Jacqueline Hansen knew April 16th, 1984, would be important to her. Long after it passed, she would remember the day with emotions more mixed than she could have imagined.
Hansen had been in a race against time, and time would run out on April 16th. That was the final day of qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials. Jacqueline felt she must qualify for the later event that she helped make possible.
She once held the women’s world record at this distance. But injuries, one requiring surgery, and kept her from running the required 2:51:16 qualifying time between the last Boston Marathon and the latest one. Boston, on April 16th, was her last chance to gain entry to the first such trials.
No one had played a greater part in securing a place for women marathoners on the Olympic program than this woman who lives just off the Santa Monica portion of the 1984 Olympic course. She spent most of 10 years on this project, often at the expense of her own running.
Marathon approval didn’t satisfy Jacqueline Hansen. She said, “We were after parity with men – the whole package of 5000, 10,000 and marathon.” One out of three isn’t bad, but it isn’t enough.”
Hansen worked on, arguing that “acceptance of the marathon is all the more reason why the 5000 and 10,000 should be on the program. The women now have a 39,000-meter gap between their two longest races.
“Those who fall into that gap must make the unfair and drastic choice between stepping down to a very short distance [the 3000] or up to a very long one [the marathon] -- a choice that male runners don’t face.
“It is all very fine that these distances are now recognized as world-record events for women, but the 10,000 won’t be a World Championships event until 1987 or an Olympic race until at least ’88. At this rate, the 5000 won’t be added until the 21st century.”
Hansen couldn’t accept this dawdling pace of “progress.” She sought and got approval from dozens of world-class women athletes to sue for their right to run the five and 10 in the Los Angeles Games. She enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union to file the suit, charging sex discrimination.
ACLU attorney Susan McGreivy characterized the Games as “a very, very expensive restaurant where a dinner costs thousands of dollars.” Few people can pay that price, she said but no one who can afford it should be denied access. “In the same manner, qualified women should not be denied participation in the 5000- and 10,000-meter events.”
Seven months later, the 82 women runners (from 26 nations) signed by Hansen as plaintiffs in the case had their day in court. That day was April 16th, 1984, when Hansen’s loyalties were divided.
She knew she belonged in the Los Angeles courtroom to hear the judge’s decision. But she also knew she had to make one last run at qualifying for the Olympic Trials.
The day in Boston was miserable, particularly for a Californian. Marathoners ran into a wind gusting to 30 miles an hour. Rain fell, making the temperature feel colder than the 40s.
Hansen gave the marathon all she had, and it was enough. She ran more than three minutes faster than required, and finished in the grip of hypothermia.
Meanwhile, back home in California that same afternoon, a U.S. district judge handed down his decision on the lawsuit. Jacqueline heard the news by phone: “We lost.”
Although the judge David Kenyon expressed sympathy toward the women who had no event to run in the Games, he said no pattern of discrimination could be demonstrated.
Hansen told a reporter on the evening of April 16th, “I just qualified for the Trials and feel very high about that. Then after the race I got the phone call that our suit was denied. I feel very low about that.”
The suit was not a total loss, however. It gained these women something they didn’t have before: the attention of the sport’s rulers, who traditionally have been more indifferent than hostile.
The time is coming soon, as it did with the marathon, when the women of the 5000 and 10,000 will win the friends they need in the sport’s governing bodies, and everyone will agree to the rightness of these events. Thanks to Jacqueline Hansen, women won’t have to wait until the 21st century to run events that men have had almost since the 19th.
UPDATE. The women’s 10,000 joined the Olympic program at Seoul in 1988. Runners in the 5000 debuted at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Jacqueline Hansen didn’t mention the women’s steeplechase in this piece, but her prediction that full parity with the men wouldn’t come until the 21st century came true. That event finally joined the Olympic program at Beijing 2008.
Hansen ran the 1984 Trials less than four weeks after qualifying at Boston. Her recent memoir is well titled: A Long Time Coming.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]