Melpomene (fl. 1896)
Melpomene (fl. 1896)
One of the first female marathon runners. Flourished around 1896.
The original Olympic Games were first recorded in 776 bce, although they may have begun as early as 1350 bce, and were held in honor of the god Zeus in Olympia, western Greece, every four years until the emperor Theodosius the Great ended the custom in 393 ce. Women were forbidden from participating or watching. In 1896, the modern Olympic Games were revived in Athens as an international competition for amateur athletes. Times had changed sufficiently in the intervening 15 centuries for the organizers to allow women to watch the games, but they were still forbidden from participating. One young woman, a Greek athlete known as Melpomene, decided to compete anyway.
The name by which she is known to history was not her real one (Melpomene was the muse of tragedy in Greek mythology, and the athlete most likely assumed the alias because her family disapproved of her plans), and nothing of her origins or later life has been traced. What is known is that prior to the start of the games she petitioned Olympic authorities for permission to compete in the marathon, which was to start in Marathon, Greece, and end with a final lap in the stadium in Athens. Denied entry because of her gender, she went to the competition dressed as a man and managed to blend in among the 24-odd male runners as the race began. Although it became evident early on that a woman had entered the race (in part because she ran slower than the men), she was not prevented from continuing. Some of the runners dropped out along the way. Melpomene was occasionally jeered by spectators, but kept going. Officials barred her from entering the stadium for the final lap, so she completed the marathon by circling the outside of the stadium, finishing in four and a half hours. The first women's athletic events were introduced at the 1928 summer Olympics in Amsterdam. Now, over a hundred years after she ran, women marathon runners regularly post times several hours faster than Melpomene's.
Grace and Glory: A Century of Women in the Olympics. Chicago: Triumph Books, 1996.
Randall, David. Great Sporting Eccentrics. NY: Richardson Steirman & Black, 1988.
Grant Eldridge , freelance writer, Pontiac, Michigan