Athletics News – News – Backstage With Untold Track and Field History: Mary Knisely And The Origins Of The Women’s 10,000m - News - Backstage With Untold Track and Field History: Mary Knisely And The Origins Of The Women's 10,000m

It Took Visionaries Such As Mary Knisely To Take Up

The 10,000 And Push The Fight For Running Equality

 By Marc Bloom for DyeStat

How did a high school point guard and collegiate field hockey player from Delaware go on to defeat an Olympic champion at 3,000 meters, set a world road record for 5,000 meters and wind up on the starting line of an historic women’s 10,000 meters in Australia?

In the 1970s, running for girls and women was still a back-of-the-bus phenomenon. The federal Title IX legislation of ’72 created new opportunities, but true equality moved at a slow pace. Most of the back-room politicking involved the marathon, which drew publicity and sponsorship, and cast a certain glamour; and with that had a keen history behind it.

It was asked time and again: When would women get an Olympic marathon? When would women be allowed to run the ultimate test of stamina and show their athletic virtuosity?

It’s easy to forget now that when women did finally have a marathon in the Olympics, at Los Angeles in 1984, there was still no Olympic 5,000 or 10,000 for women. Instead, women had a 3,000 for the first time in the Games in ’84, just as they’d been granted a 3,000 the previous year at the first World Championships in Helsinki.

Mary Decker figured prominently in both 3,000s. She won the world title as part of the Double Decker — she also captured the 1,500. In L.A., Decker was tripped up in the infamous Zola Budd collision, as victory went to Maricica Puica of Romania.

Wasn’t this 5-and-10 oversight in favor of the marathon like putting the cart before the running horse? If women were considered fully capable of running 26 miles, 385 yards, what reasons could there be for denying them the “5” and “10”?

The paradox was all about administrative fine print. The Olympic Charter required that women’s events show evidence of widespread participation in at least 25 countries in order to be considered as an addition to the Olympic program. 

By the time a girl named Mary Schilly was running for Concord High in Wilmington, Del., in the mid-70s, women’s distance running was moving toward that mandate — in the marathon. By then, women were allowed into the Boston and New York City Marathons, and new, women’s-only marathons were taking center stage. 

Like most schoolgirls of the era, Schilly came to running through other sports, in her case, basketball and field hockey. Many states still lacked girls cross country, and even full…

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