Longer distances and more field events for women athletes were a topic of much discussion throughout the twentieth century. From the outset WAAA competitions included 440yds (400m) and 880yds (800m). The mile was introduced in 1936 and cross country races several miles in distance were permitted.
The 800m was run at the Monte Carlo games in 1921 and was subsequently included in the women’s programme at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. However, after several competitors appeared to collapse on the line, a sight not uncommon after a men’s race either, the IOC deemed that 800m was too much and limited distances over 100m for women. Women’s 200m was introduced in 1948 but the ban on distances above a sprint would not be overturned until the 800m was reintroduction at the 1960 Olympics.
When considering attitudes towards women’s middle distances, the reaction to Diane Leather breaking the women’s five minute mile mark to Roger Bannister breaking the men’s four minute mile are poles apart, even though the records came within weeks of one another. Only one so far has been immortalized in film….
This restriction of distance at international competition directly impacted women athletes over multiple generations, Jill Lindsay, successful 200m sprinter in the 1950s and active WAAA member, Official, and England Team manager: women were not allowed to run 400m internationally so I was confined to competing at 200m…I really wished that I could have competed at 400m Hurdles – I was born a bit too early!
The slowness with which distances were introduced for women impacted later generations too.
Wendy Sly, Olympic silver medallist at 3000m in 1984 recalls racing 1500m in 1980, and it just “not being long enough”. Women’s 3000m had been introduced at the European Championships in 1974 but there were still few international opportunities in the calendar to race this distance in the early 1980s.
The WAAA took the welfare of their athletes seriously. Juniors, (11-15 years) were initially not permitted to race farther than 150yds, but rather than banning events outright the WAAA actively reviewed and assessed events and continued to include longer distances in their domestic competition than were sanctioned at international level.
New field events too were trialled before being included in WAAA competition. Jan Febery, WAAA member recalls:
before a new event was introduced ‘trial events’ were held. I felt very honoured to be asked to be the Official Observer at the first triple jump trial to be held…I was required to speak to each athlete both before and after the competition and record their feelings and views on the event. John Crotty, National Triple Jump Coach was in attendance, also John Bailey Sprints Coach, and the National Long Jump Coach…I spoke to each of them and recorded their comments… Any new discipline was monitored before being approved for competition by WAAA.
This was in 1986, although as Jan rightly points out, these trials were held many years after they were initially considered, and some athletes had already tried them out!
The pioneers of women’s marathon running go right back to the early days of the WAAA. Violet Piercy ran several marathon distances in the 1920s, but without official competition recognition they were not ratified. Scottish cross-country champion Dale Greig ran the Isle of White marathon in 1964. Competing unofficially she set off 4 minutes before the men and completed the race in 3:27:25 setting a British record which would stand for the next 11 years and making the front page of the Sunday Express. She was followed the entire way round the course by an ambulance. The marathon was trialled by the WAAA in 1975 and brought into WAAA competition from 1978, it’s inclusion in the Olympic programme for women coming in 1984.