The Boston Marathon is one of the greatest racing events in the world. The idea for the Marathon began in the late nineteenth century when United States Olympic team manager, John Graham, wanted to establish a counterpart to the Olympic Marathon held in Greece in 1896. He wanted to do this in his adopted city of Boston, Massachusetts. Graham drove his horse carriage outside of Boston to try to find a place that resembled the Grecian terrain. He found it in Ashland and began making plans for laying out the course that would stretch to Boston. The Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) was the official organizer of the event. The running of the inaugural Boston Marathon occurred on April 19, 1897, Patriot's Day in Massachusetts. There were only eighteen competitors. The Boston Marathon helped bring distance running to the forefront of the American sports world. Equally important, the race has grown into a legitimate event that tests the waters of Olympic and international competition. Even though women were initially banned from the event the Marathon paved the way for the impressive expansion of women's distance running, as well as wheelchair racing, beginning in the 1970s.
In the 1920s the official start of the Marathon would be moved to Hopkington. That town and the surrounding area became quickly absorbed into the marathon world and residents became captivated by the popularity of the event. One negative trait during the first seven decades of the Boston Marathon was that women were not allowed to compete. There were "reports," however, over the years about women running incognito. The Boston Marathon would ultimately have its share of winners, losers, legends, and notorious individuals. Americans like champion-runner Clarence DeMar dominated the Marathon during the race's early period in the 1910s and 1920s. Americans made their mark as sufficient competitors in the world's athletic stage. Yet, some people criticized the Marathon for the lack of foreigners participating in it. But even as early as 1900 the Boston Marathon had an international flavor to it as Canadians competed along with Americans and did extremely well, winning the event.
The 1920s were significant years for the Boston Marathon. The race, for example, witnessed its first European-born winner as Greek national Peter Trivouldas crossed the finish line ahead of everyone else. In 1920 a radio station began broadcasting live coverage of the Marathon. People could now tune-in and receive up to the minute reports and results of the race. It was also announced in that decade that the Boston Marathon would be accepted as the American Olympic Trials to see which American distance runner earned the right to compete in the Olympic Marathon. The "foreign invasion" really began in earnest during the post-World War II era. In fact, from 1946 to 1957 Americans would not win the Marathon. Over the next several decades Boston Marathon winners would include Asians, Europeans, Africans, and Latin Americans making it a true international competitive race.
The groundbreaking years for the Boston Marathon were the 1970s. In 1972, the 76th running of the Boston Marathon, women were officially allowed to compete. Women ran the Boston Marathon during the previous decade but they were not officially acknowledged as entrants or competitors. In 1966, for instance, 23 year-old Roberta Gibb became the first woman to complete the distance. She had applied for entry during that year but was denied so she decided to take matters into her own hands. Before the race she stood on the curb with her hood over her head and patiently waited for the start. When the race started she began running with the hood still over her head. Several miles into the race she took the hood off and felt more comfortable as the crowds acknowledged her and even cheered her on. She finished in under three and a half hours. The Marathon reached another milestone in the 1970s. In 1975, it became the first significant marathon in the country to allow wheelchair athletes to compete. As the number of wheelchair entrants increased in the succeeding years so did the quality of competition and the equipment which the wheelchair racers used. During these years the Marathon became home to the National Wheelchair Marathon Championships and, soon after, wheelchair athletes achieved a tremendous feat by breaking the two-hour barrier. Ever since the 1970s both women and wheelchair racing at the Boston Marathon has grown in popularity and have received tremendous support.
Yet, the Boston Marathon is also filled with controversy. Take, for instance, the infamous Rosie Ruiz episode in 1980. Ruiz is considered a villain of the Marathon. She jumped into the race with about a mile to go and claimed victory despite the fact that no one had seen her at the mile markers and the water stations, nor had the cameras picked her up as well. Ruiz was ultimately stripped of her title a week after she "won" the event because of cheating. She was disqualified from the B.A.A. Her case though was not an isolated one in the history of the race. Cheating had been attempted twice before during the early twentieth century and, in both instances, the men were promptly caught and suspended or disqualified by the B.A.A.
In the late twentieth century the Boston Marathon opened the door for many foreign athletes to display their athletic talents in front of America and the world. It has become common for foreigners to do well at Boston. This trend can be seen in other American marathons such as the New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles Marathons. The Marathon has become a major trendsetter in American society, helping advance distance running in the wake of the physical fitness craze.
To understand the growth of American road racing over the years one only has to look at the gradual but sure emergence of the popularity of the Boston Marathon in the United States. The two run parallel to each other and, naturally, complement one another. The Boston Marathon itself is an institutional icon in the sports world. No other race is representative of the overall trends, both positive and negative, that have occurred in American society. The Marathon shaped women's running allowing them to compete in a distance event that draws females from around the world in what one hopes to be "friendly," yet very intense, competition. Similarly, wheelchair athletes also enjoy the spotlight that is cast upon the people who run in the Marathon. Both women and wheelchair racing, as a consequence, have grown into legitimate forms of racing divisions that have Olympic ramifications. With regard to the men, the Marathon showcases the best the world has to offer in the sport of running and racing. Winning times seem to get lower which each passing year. The greatest influence the Marathon has on American society is that it inspires many individuals, both young and old, to enter the race. It has become a personal challenge to Americans to enter and finish the event, with a little hard work along the way of course, not necessarily to win it. The identity and lure of the Marathon, then, permeates throughout society and satisfies America's free-spirited fascination with self-gratification.
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Derderian, Tom. Boston Marathon: The First Century of the World's Premier Running Event. Champaign, Illinois, Human Kinetics, 1996.
Falls, Joe. The Boston Marathon. New York, Macmillan, 1977.
Higdon, Hal. Boston: A Century of Running: Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Boston Athletic Association Marathon. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Hosler, Ray, ed. Boston, America's Oldest Marathon. Mountain View, California, Anderson World, 1980.
Krise, Raymond, and Bill Squires. Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running since 884 B.C. Brattleboro, Vermont, The Stephen Greene Press, 1982.