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Gaby Andersen-Scheiss: Staggering Into History

Nov 29, 2017
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Up until 1984 and the games of the XXIIIrd Olympiad the iconic event of the marathon had been limited to male participation only. There had been one unoffical female runner in the very first modern Olympic marathon in Athens 1896. Greek woman Stamata Revithi was not allowed to compete by the commission in charge of entries, and so her time of approximately five and half hours (slowed by a period watching ships at the Piraeus docks) was completely unofficial (plus run a day after the actual men’s event). It took 88 years before the IAAF and the IOC allowed female athletes to compete in an official Olympic marathon, and the usually smog and car-bound streets of Los Angeles were to serve as the backdrop for the debut of this most torturous of athletic events.

Before the Los Angeles 1984 games there was the usual political problems of the era, with Western and Eastern bloc countries manoeuvering for political and therefore Olympic supremacy. On May 8th 1984 the USSR announced it would not be attending the LA Olympics, citing “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States”. Although this pretext was the official reason for the Soviet led boycott (which eventually encompassed 14 Communist countries), the most popular and reasonable assumption was this was a ‘revenge’ boycott, paying back the US and her supporters who had staged the Moscow 1980 boycott. In some sports and in some events this meant there was going to be a paucity of world record holders or world champions. Swimming and weightlifting for example were dramatically thinned of world ranked entrants. However the women’s marathon was not as drastically effected.

Coming into the LA 1984 Olympics the two lead contenders for debut women’s marathon gold were Greta Waitz (Norway), the then current world champion and Joan Benoit (USA), world record holder. Benoit had been beaten by Waitz over various distances 10 out of 11 times, and had undergone knee surgery 17 days before the US Olympic trials. Yet there was the indefinable factor of Benoit running in a hometown Olympics, with the undoubtedly major assistance of fanatically patriotic American fans. Other less favoured chances for gold were Waitz’s fellow Norwegian Ingrid Kristiansen, the Portuguese runner Rosa Mota and Laura Fogli (Italy).

On the day of the event, the Los Angeles sky was clear, blue and relatively free of the smog that had been a constant threat before the actual games themselves. Fifty entrants lined up for the start at the Los Angeles Colisseum, main stadium for both the 1984 Olympics as well as the 1932 Summer Games. Amongst the competitors was one sole Swiss female runner; Gaby Andersen-Scheiss. A dual US/Swiss citizen and Idaho ski instructor, she was unheralded as a gold medal threat contrasted with Benoit and Waitz. However in a little under three hours later her efforts to reach the finish line, again in the LA Colisseum left a far more indelible image on Olympic history than the eventual medallists.

Benoit took an early lead, with a six second gap between her and the next best runners opening at the 5 km mark. By the 15 km mark this had widened to 51 seconds, with the white capped Benot striding away from Waitz, Lorraine Moller (NZL), Lisa Martin (AUS), Sylvie Ruegger (CAN), Priscilla Welch (GBR), lngrid Kristiansen (NOR), and Rosa Mota (POR). Waitz was expecting Benoit’s physical condition to deteriorate as the marathon lengthened, which didn’t happen. After 25 kilometres Benoit had added another minute on top of her 51 seconds lead. Andersen-Scheiss on the other hand was well back in the pack. The Swiss runner was not in the hunt for Olympic gold, but like so many Olympians before and after her it was not the winning which mattered; it was the completing her own personal goal of finishing the marathon.

Back at the front of the pack, Benoit lost some time to Waitz coming closer to the Colisseum. However she wasn’t to be headed, and whilst the Norwegian got within 400 metres the American was able to finish the marathon in 2 hours 24 minutes 23 seconds, 86 seconds inf ront of the world champion. Rosa Mota who would four years later win gold in this same event at Seoul followed Waitz over the line by 39 seconds, winning bronze. Ingrid Kristiansen was fourth, Lorraine Moller fifth and Priscilla Welch sixth. Remarkably Joyce Smith (GBR) came in eleventh; a 46 year old, she was the oldest competitor in either the men’s or women’s track and field program at the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

As Benoit relaxed from her gold medal winning efforts, mingling with the crowd and searching for stamps for her collection, the rest of the field gradually came in. Then roughly 24 minutes after Benoit had entered the final lap the Swiss runner Andersen-Scheiss staggered into the tunnel leading to the main stadium’s track. Cap in hand and drenched in perspiration she began a painfully cruel yet truly Olympic final 400 metres, cheered by the crowds as she lurched towards the finish line.

With the final straight and finish line ahead she kept slowly limping on, her white cap back shading her drawn and anguished face. Officials beside the track stood back as doctors observed her sweating, noting she wasn’t actually in heat stroke. In 1908 a similar scene had played out when Dorando Pietri from Italy staggered over the line of the first London Olympic marathon, but his efforts had been left unrewarded because he received assistance. This time there was to be no helping hands to carry the brave Swiss runner over the line. Waving away offers of assistance Andersen-Scheiss wavered from one lane to the next, veering close to the orange cones marking the outer side of the race track, then almost hunched over veering back again to the inner side. The distance narrowed, five metres…four…three..two…then with a final stagger into lane two she crossed the finish line, to be greeted by first one then three white uniformed Olympic officials. In coming 37th Gaby Andersen-Scheiss had not won any medal, but she had conquered the 42,195 metres of the first women’s Olympic marathon. Plus she had marked this particularly event for history with her brave efforts to not just start but also to finish the race.

As the women’s marathon closed and the last of the runners was brought back to the athlete’s village, Andersen-Scheiss accepted medical assistance. Amazingly after two hours she was back in the Olympic Village as well, eating and recuperating. Ten hours later she was interviewed on television. It was a welcome physical achievement considering how tortured she had appeared as she had finished the marathon. Long term, not only did she arguably define the agonies and the challenges for the marathon runner in the Olympics, no matter the gender, she also made the International Amateur Athletic Federation revise their rules for the marathon, making medical assistance available to those runners during the event without fear of disqualification. Gaby Andersen-Scheiss had demonstrated the most enviable of attributes displayed by an Olympian; the will to meet a challenge and complete it, no matter the result.

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