OBITUARY-Athletics-Waitz pioneered women's distance running

Reuters

Tue, 19 Apr 18:23:00 2011

Grete Waitz, the elegant, cool Norwegian who pioneered women's distance running, fittingly became the first world marathon champion in 1983.

The former Oslo schoolteacher, who died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 57, came to the inaugural championships in Helsinki as the overwhelming favourite after a career of unparalleled success on the road and in cross country.

Waitz more than justified her status, winning by more than three minutes and completing the final 10 km in under 33 minutes.

"I could easily have run another 10 kilometres, no trouble," she said.

Women's distance running is such an accepted part of the athletics calendar, as last weekend's London and Boston marathons demonstrated, that it is salutary to recall how very different it was for most of the 20th century.

When several competitors dropped to the ground and required assistance after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic women's 800 metres final, the International Amateur Athletics Federation banned all women's races longer than 200 metres for 32 years.

The then International Olympic Committee president Count Henri de Baillet-Latour spoke for the reactionaries when he declared women should not take part in the Games at all and the 800 metres was not restored until the 1960 Rome Olympics.

In 1972 the 1,500 was added at the Munich Games, in time for the 18-year-old Waitz to compete, although she did not qualify for the final.

She had run the 1,500 in the European championships in Helsinki the previous year after an active childhood during which Waitz thrived in the Norwegian outdoors culture of summer hiking and winter cross country skiing

COPS AND ROBBERS

"As children, we used to play cops and robbers, and it was from this game that I sensed for the first time that I had some running ability," she recalled in her book World Class.

"When I was a robber, no one wanted to be the cop to chase me as I simply wore them down by continuing to run for such a long time."

In 1974, Waitz won the 1,500 metres bronze at the European championships and was named Norway's athlete of the year.

She set a world record of 8:46:6 in her second race over 3,000 metres but the event was not yet on the Olympic programme at the 1976 Montreal Games and Waitz was eliminated in the semi-finals of the 1,500 despite clocking a personal best.

Waitz began to train relentlessly hard during the dark Norwegian winters, including cross country skiing in her regime, and was rewarded when she won the five km race at the 1978 world cross country championships in Glasgow.

Her breakthrough came in the same year when New York marathon race director Fred Lebow invited her to compete at the height of the 1970s running boom.

Waitz, who had not previously run on the roads or in the United States or even competed in a half-marathon, set a world best of two hours 32 minutes 30 seconds despite cramping badly at the end.

She won the New York race a record nine times with two more world bests and set a fourth world best of 2:25:29 in the 1983 London event months before winning the first world title in Helsinki.

During that period, Waitz was untouchable over the cross country (where she won five world titles in all) and on the roads and she attained celebrity status in New York.

She exploded any lingering myths that women could not handle the same workloads as men, running 160 km a week in training under the guidance of her husband Jack, and headed for Los Angeles in 1984 for the first women's Olympic marathon in the best shape of her life.

A back injury disrupted the Norwegian's training and she admitted later she was not mentally prepared for a race won by American Joan Benoit Samuelson, who took an early lead she was not to relinquish.

Waitz won the silver in what was to be her only Olympics with injury keeping her out of the 1988 Seoul Games. Her last competitive race resulted in a fourth place finish in the 1990 New York marathon, although she came back to New York two years later to run the course with Lebow, who was dying of cancer.

"Waitz, hollow-cheeked, running tall, her long, blonde hair pulled in a ponytail behind her head, has carried women's running into the 20th century," wrote Michael Sandrock in his 1996 book "Running with Legends."

"Waitz was a pioneer in all aspects of running: cross country, track and road racing, and her appeal has extended beyond just runners.

"Grete is called a "Norse national treasure" and with her wins came a new enthusiasm for staying in shape, not just in Norway but around the world."

 

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