LA ’84: The greatest women’s marathon ever?

Hats off for a pioneering Olympic champion

We’ve already seen how the men’s marathon at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles can lay claim to being the greatest marathon ever. One of its contenders for that title is the women’s race at the same Olympics, which featured a strong field, great performances and plenty of drama.

The 1984 women’s Olympic marathon was historic – it was the first time the event was included at the Games. In fact, the women’s 3,000 metres also made its first Olympic appearance in Los Angeles; up to that point 1,500 metres was considered the upper limit of ladylike Olympic competition.

It was unfortunate, then, that these two events provided the most controversial images of the entire Games – the Decker-Budd clash in the shorter event, and a distressing scene in the marathon, of which more later.

As was fitting for such a notable occasion, the first Olympic women’s marathon featured the best long-distance runners of the time. Grete Waitz of Norway had won the event at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki the previous year, and her compatriot Ingrid Christiansen had won the Houston and London marathons in 1984 (the same double as Charlie Spedding of Britain in the men’s event). The two Norwegians would dominate women’s long-distance running during the 1980s.

Completing the quartet of favourites were world record holder Joan Benoit of the United States and European champion Rosa Mota of Portugal. Four top-class athletes competing for three medals – which one would miss out?

Another record-breaking competitor was Joyce Smith of Britain – aged 46, the two-time former winner of both the Tokyo and London marathons would be the oldest woman ever to run at the Olympics. Her team-mate Priscilla Welch was 39, and the third Briton in the race, Sarah Rowell, was at 21 young enough to be the daughter of either of her compatriots.

Meanwhile, Irish athletics fans had reason to be optimistic about the race – Regina Joyce and Carey May had finished 7th and 13th respectively in the World Championships the year before.

Where the men’s race started cautiously, the women’s race provided an early sensation – after only a few miles Benoit began to pull away and take the lead. What’s more, not wishing to fall back into the pack, the American skipped the first water station. As the morning would grow warmer, this looked like pure folly.

But as Benoit gradually pulled further away and built up a two-minute lead by mile 20, the other favourites in the following group had to make a tactical decision – should they bet on a tired and heat-stricken Benoit blowing up in the last few miles, or should they chase her down?

Waitz attacked and closed the gap slightly but it was too late. The American kept up her strong running and was rewarded with the first Olympic women’s marathon gold. Her time of 2:24:52 stood as the Olympic record until 2000 and would still have been good enough to win the 2004 and 2008 titles.

Behind Benoit, Waitz ran in for the silver and Mota took the bronze, leaving Kristiansen as the unfortunate one who finished fourth. True to form, the four favourites and world’s best had taken the top four places.

The three Britons put in great performances – Welch and Smith finished 6th and 11th respectively, ahead of the younger Rowell in 14th place. As for the Irish, Joyce and May both ran around 4 minutes slower than their World Championship times to finish 23rd and 28th.

A couple of minutes after May finished came the most notorious image of the entire race, one which subsequently threatened to overshadow Benoit’s epic win. Just as the American had forgone the first water station, so Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss of Switzerland inadvertently missed the final water station. With the morning temperature rising, the Swiss runner began to feel the effects of dehydration and heat exhaustion – she staggered into the stadium and set off on the single lap to the finish.

Even on video, it is a horrific sight. Down the back straight, cap skew-ways on her head, Andersen-Scheiss walks in a crooked march like a headstrong drunk. As other finishers pass her, she continues her progress around the last bend with medical officials trailing her on the infield – she waves them away because if they intervene or even just touch her she would be immediately disqualified.

Down the last 100 metres her left leg has seized up, her left arm hangs limp and she lurches forward precariously. Clearly determined to finish, at one point she puts both index fingers on her temples in an apparent gesture at concentration and focus. Ten metres from the end of the Olympic marathon, the medical officials have to point the direction of the finish line to her. It genuinely looks as if she will collapse before she can make it.

Finally, with her upper body almost horizontal, Andersen-Scheiss staggers head-first over the line and into the arms of three male medical officials. The last lap has taken her 5 minutes and 44 seconds. Incredibly, she finishes the marathon in 2:48:42 and 37th place – beating seven other competitors.

Andersen-Scheiss’s painful finish dominated post-race TV coverage and sparked immediate controversy. Should she have been allowed to continue? Brain damage is a serious risk in cases of extreme dehydration. Had she damaged the credibility of women’s marathon running? An experienced runner who had won two marathons the previous year, she had clearly been unfortunate to suffer so badly and so prominently – and yet the first women’s Olympic marathon was now being reduced to replays of the stricken Swiss competitor staggering across the finish. Fortunately for her and the image of her sport, she recovered within hours, while days later a more sensational controversy – Decker’s tangle with Budd – had taken all the attention.

Still, the women’s Olympic marathon had arrived. Mota won the next title, in Seoul in 1988, while Kristiansen could ease the pain of an Olympic fourth place by winning the European and World titles at 10,000 metres. And Andersen-Scheiss inspired a rule change where medical officials could provide on-course assistance without fear of the athlete being disqualified.

From the excellent documentary ’16 Days of Glory’, here’s the story of the closing stages of the first Olympic women’s marathon:

YouTube credit: ynotlleb

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