Saturday 24 June 2017

Athletics: The days when 400m was deemed too far for women

Saturday view

Sean Diffley

All the signs suggest that Ireland's best chance for a gold medal at the London Olympics lodge somewhat lethally in the sophisticated gloves of Katie Taylor.

Katie is a bit of an enigma, isn't she? She combines her deep religious faith with a talent for peppering her boxing opponents with a rapid fusillade of rights and lefts with all the deadly accuracy of an AK47.

Sure, our civilisation has advanced dramatically.

Women were barred from even watching the ancient Olympics; now they are involved in every sport, every activity.

Not that everybody is happy with that. Ogden Nash, for instance. The famous poet of yesteryear gave it as his opinion that "progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on for far too long" -- he was probably thinking about women being allowed to drive cars or something silly of that sort (I have female relatives and one cannot be too careful).

Anyway, back in 1928, following the women's Olympic 800m, when some of the competitors collapsed in exhaustion, a sizeable majority felt that the situation called for a ban on women running such a distance -- or anything longer than 200m.

And the president of the International Olympic Committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour, suggested that all women's sports be eliminated from the Olympic programme. There was a bit of an uproar, but it was accepted that nothing longer than 200m be allowed.

And so, for 32 years, until the Rome Games in 1960, there was no 800m. However, those Games ushered in many of the longer distances that would so have disgusted De Baillet-Latour had he been around then.

Swimming and gymnastics are other sports that found themselves a bit less than acceptable for women and many years and many Games passed with bare toleration. The first woman gymnast to capture international fame was a 17-year-old from Belarus -- then part of the Soviet Union -- the 4ft 11ins Olga Korbut in the 1972 Games in Munich.

Suddenly, millions tuned in to her performances and in her home village of Grodno the local post office had to employ one individual to sort her mail from all over the world. When she later toured in the USA with her Russian team-mates, thousands turned out to greet the Munchkin of Munich.

Four years later at Montreal came the remarkable Romanian, Nadia Comaneci, an even better gymnast, but not quite with the charisma of Korbut. But Comaneci was much younger when she hit the high spots.

Asked at a media conference when she planned to retire, she replied: "I'm only 14."

Hopefully, the reporter had the grace to make his excuses and leave.

Irish Independent

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