Joan Benoit Samuelson is one of the all-time greatest distance runners in the world. Best known for her Olympic gold medal in the Women's Marathon in 1984--the first women's Olympic Marathon--she also set world and American records. She won the Boston Marathon twice, setting course records both times along with a world best in 1983. Tremendously personable, she remains one of the most popular and highly recognized distance athletes in the world.
Benoit Samuelson began running in 1972 as part of her rehabilitation after suffering a bad fall while skiing and breaking her leg. She found she loved it and became exceptionally good at it. She was passionate about athletics throughout high school, and had many pickup opportunities to play sports along with her three brothers. However, there were few organized sports available to girls in the schools of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, as with most schools throughout the country. Interscholastic running was not among them.
"I really was not aware of inequities in high school. We never really thought about it. Although, it did often cross my mind that my brothers had opportunities to play organized soccer, baseball, and so on, and I did not," Benoit Samuelson recalled.
The same year Benoit Samuelson began running, Congress passed the Title IX Amendment, bringing about more opportunities for women in sports. Also known as the Equal Opportunity in Education Act, it declared: No Person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal assistance.
When Title IX was passed, her school started a club running program for girls, and her competitive running career began. After graduating in 1975, Benoit Samuelson enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Significantly, however, it did not admit women until 1971, just a year before Title IX went into effect.
As a senior at Bowdoin, Benoit Samuelson entered the Boston Marathon as a complete unknown. There were few women marathon runners in 1979, only seven years after Boston officially admitted women (1972, the year Title IX was passed). She went on to set a Boston course record of 2:35:15 at age 21, wearing her Boston Red Sox baseball cap throughout.
Was Title IX a factor in the rapid growth of women's competitive running and Benoit Samuelson's success?
"Actually I had little awareness of it when I was a college student. It was a definite issue for administrators and coaches, I'm sure", she said. It could have played a role in the admission of women to the Boston Marathon, and certainly contributed to the number of women distance runners entering road races of all types. There were more women training in expanded high school and collegiate track and cross country programs and then taking their sport to the next level.
Benoit Samuelson became women's distance coach at Boston University in 1981, a post she held for three years. As a coach, she often discussed Title IX with fellow coaches and administrators. This was a different perspective.
Twelve years after Title IX went into effect, the women's marathon was added to Olympic Track and Field for the Games in Los Angeles, although the decision was made as early as 1977.
Benoit Samuelson competed in the Olympic Marathon and no one could stay with her. By mile three she was running alone and remained well in front throughout, entering the Coliseum a minute and a half ahead of the silver medalist and two minutes up on the bronze. Benoit Samuelson was then, and will always be, the first women's Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist, as she ran through the broiling heat and pollution of Los Angeles to record the third best time in the world of 2:24:52.
Benoit Samuelson plans to run the Olympic Trials Marathon in 2008 at age 51 on her home course in Boston. The elite women running with her in those trials will be testimony to the impact of Title IX.
As a mother of a high-school-aged girl (she also has a son), Benoit Samuelson has a comprehensive perspective on Title IX and its impact on education and sports. She has been a student athlete, coach, elite athlete, race organizer, commentator and mother of two.
"In our sport I think we are close to where we should be, although there needs to be a lot more progress in other areas," she observed. "Organizationally, and with sponsorships we are doing well. Running is a natural equalizer--the runner against the clock, the distance. It lends itself to equality. But in many other areas we are not there yet."
Her gold medal in Los Angeles was an inspiration to countless women who may never have run long distance without her example. She inspired a women's running boom--especially in the marathon--fueled by hundreds of running programs initiated and enhanced by the impact of Title IX, and the changes it set in motion in 1972. Title IX has been with us for 35 years. Joan Benoit Samuelson has been running for 35 years. Neither should be taken for granted. The sport of running has changed dramatically because of both.
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