At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, women were allowed to run the 800m for the first time. Up until that point, women were restricted to the short sprints, while men had a full plate of events to contest, ranging all the way up to the marathon.
Lina Radke-Batschauer of Germany captured the Olympic gold in a world record time of 2:16.8. But what happened behind her set women’s sports back decades.
Knut Rockne, yes the famed football coach, reported for the Pittsburgh Press that five women collapsed, and that, “It was not a very edifying spectacle to see a group of fine girls running themselves into a state of exhaustion.” John Tunis reported for the New York Evening Post, “Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape.”
Just about every headline about the race was that it was a disaster. Women collapsing everywhere. Soon after, came calls for elimination of the event. As was the norm for the time, newspapers repeated claims of danger, injury, and permanent damage for women who dared to try to run two laps around the track.
But here’s the thing. The collapsing women, the utter exhaustion, even the dropping out? None of that happened. The top three women all broke the world record. All nine women who started the race finished it. And according to contemporary video, none of the women displayed any undue signs of fatigue or collapse. The newspaper reports were wrong, outright lies that painted a picture that didn’t happen.
The narrative stuck though. The 800m was eliminated and women were restricted to sprint races all the way until the 1960 Olympics. A false narrative fueled the elimination of opportunities for women for over three decades. The same line of thinking prevented women from having an Olympic marathon until 1984.
Narratives have power. Stories paint a picture, convincing us far more easily than facts or data. This story is one of caution. Women lost a generation of opportunities and potential stories, all thanks to a few men pushing a demonstrably false narrative. We need to be cognizant and aware of the stories we tell. Both to society and to ourselves. We all have that responsibility.