When is a race not a race? How about when you run the fastest time and don't win?
That's a good place to start. Perhaps a better choice of words is in order, since "a good place to start" might cause Arien O'Connell to wince. The 24-year-old teacher from New York City, who recently competed in the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco, apparently did not choose "a good place to start" in the marathon. In fact, she made no choice at all, which unknowingly cost her chance at first place.
The marathon, following the lead of some of the world's biggest and most prestigious marathons, established a separate start for elite athletes, who were allowed to begin the race 20 minutes before the remainder of the field, comprising some 4,000 runners, including O'Connell.
All was well until the awards ceremony, at which point O'Connell saw the top finishers called up to the podium to receive their awards, all of whom ran times slower than she did—2:55:11, a personal best by more than 12 minutes. But O'Connell did not start with the elite group, and thus was ineligible for an award.
"They called out the third-place time and I thought, 'I was faster than that,' " said O'Connell after the race. "Then they called out the second-place time and I was faster than that. And then they called out the first-place time (3:06), and I said, 'Heck, I'm faster than her first-place time, too.' "
Although she pointed out the discrepancy to race officials, they were initially unsympathetic to her plight. "If you're feeling like you're going to be a leader," race producer Dan Hirsch said, "you should be in the elite pack." But O'Connell did not consider herself an elite runner, never having broken three hours in her previous marathons.
Should she have been penalized for not knowing she would be faster than all of the supposed "elite" participants? That is a tricky question, not as easy to answer as it might first appear. Certainly the public has made its opinion known on this issue: comments on Internet message boards have supported O'Connell by at least ten to one, chastising race officials for a callous, misguided policy, demanding that O'Connell be named the race winner.
Several days after the marathon, Nike, surely sensing a growing public relations fiasco, issued a press release in which they named O'Connell "a" winner (but not "the" winner) and said she would receive the same award as the elite group winner.
How did this gray area in marathon running suddenly become such a contentious issue? For that matter, why is there a need for women's elite starts at all? Blame it on the "chip." Or the Olympic Games. Or Tegla Lorpupe.
Rejecting a Head Start
Interestingly, the first known "head start" for women was viewed as more of a punishment than a reward. In the 1972 New York Marathon, during the era in which women were fighting for acceptance in the sport, the six women entered in that year's race were allowed to compete, but would have to start 10 minutes before the men, so as not to "contaminate" the main running of the marathon.
A "sit down strike" was staged by the six women entered in the race in order to protest this edict from the archaic and stodgy AAU. When ten minutes had elapsed, the women began the marathon with the men, asserting their claim to equal rights. That 10 minutes was added to all of their times hardly bothered them, since the sit down had attracted the attention of local and national media, and the outdated policies of the AAU were brought to light.
By the end of the decade, women's marathon running had become not only an accepted part of the sport, but an integral one. The world's premier women marathoners were recognized worldwide. The astonishing record times run by Grete Waitz in New York starting in 1978 proved that women could indeed produce world-class marathon performances.
The first Women's Olympic Marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles, in which Joan Benoit Samuelson captured the gold medal, was the final piece of the puzzle that put women's marathon running on equal footing with the men, so to speak.
While women were setting records and engaging in terrific, competitive races, there were however, other men around to occasionally aid or hinder their performances. In the 1983 Boston Marathon, some felt New Zealander Kevin Ryan, an elite runner covering the event on foot for a local television station, offered support to Samuelson when she sped to a world record time of 2:22:43. Samuelson denied she either sought or received any help.