A Bridge, a Fox, and a Tie-in to Running

Unless one were lost in the woods these last couple of weeks, it would be impossible to miss the uproar over the George Washington Bridge closures.  Last September 9-13, lanes were closed on the Fort Lee side of the bridge, which is the busiest bridge connecting New Jersey to Manhattan, in a sudden and unexplained move, later brushed aside by port authority officials as a “traffic study”.  On Dec. 16, 2013, John D. Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote to the chairman and vice chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey requesting answers to very direct questions regarding the lane closures.  Answers were provided in a letter written by the Port Authority Board Secretary which were filled with standard protocol type language.  It was not until a subpoena from state legislators demanded emails and text messages from various people involved with the closures, specifically Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, that it became evident that the lane closings were political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, a man of Croat heritage mistakenly referred to as a Serb in one of the emails, perhaps the biggest insult of all.  The people who instigated the lane closures were all close allies and working for Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.  While the governor has claimed he knew nothing of the involvement of his team in the closure of the lanes, he has a reputation of being a bully, and taking retribution on a political foe is consistent with his character.  He is known for his bullish, bullying style, making fun or yelling at opponents who have the temerity to speak against him.

It was time for the television pundits and posturers to take a stand, generally, as one would guess, along political lines.  There was one comment that really stood out, though, as being a strange, and utterly outdated way to see this debacle for Governor Christie.  After all, he is positioning himself to be the spokesperson for the republican party, and possibly to run for president in 2016.  He should be preparing the big tent, to attract conservatives and near-conservatives, libertarians and tea-partiers, whites and off-whites, men and, yes, even……women.

Brit Hume, senior political analyst at Fox News, on a Sunday talk show called “Media Buzz”, had this to say:  “Well, I would have to say that in this sort of feminized atmosphere in which we exist today, guys who are masculine and muscular like that in their private conduct, kind of old-fashioned tough guys, run some risk.”  He went on to explain that the governor is an old-fashioned guy’s guy, a masculine and muscular guy, in constant danger of looking thuggish or sexist.  He got a quizzical look from a co-commentator on the program, Lauren Ashburn, but later was supported in his contention by another Fox star, Bill O’Reilly, who said that real men who are rough around the edges, maybe rude or blunt, get a raw deal from the public.  Another way to look at this, though, is that real men, manly men, have a right to their own way of behaving, and women are trying, and now succeeding in ruining it for them.

Has running “suffered” from feminization?  The Olympic Marathon of 1896, held during the first modern day Olympics in Athens, Greece was a men-only event, as were all the events at that time.  Initially, women were probably not considered for competition, since they were not felt physically capable of participating.  They were also excluded based on a men’s club mentality.  But, a woman did run the first Olympic marathon, just not as an official competitor.  Her name was Stamata Rivithi, and she completed the 40 kilometer course in 5 hours and 30 minutes.  The winner that year, a Greek named Spyridon Louis won the men’s event in 2:58:50.  Violet Percy, an English woman, was the first officially timed woman marathon winner with a time of 3:40:22 at the Polytechnic Marathon in London in 1926.  These women broke barriers, but the premier marathon event, the Boston Marathon, had yet to be tainted by the presence of women.  It was not until 1966 that a woman named Bobbi Gibb (co-alumnus(a) of mine from Revelle College, UCSD), ran the Boston Marathon as a non-registered runner.  It being an AAU sanctioned male event, women were not permitted to officially run it.  Bobbi Gibb’s story is nicely told in an interview she did which is posted on the Bill Rodgers Running Center website.  She reports she applied for an entry to the race, but got a reply from the race director, Will Cloney, stating that women were not physiologically able to run a marathon, and furthermore, were not allowed to.  She had to hide in the bushes at the start, wearing her brother’s shorts and a hooded sweatshirt.  She joined the race after about a third of the runners had started.  She reports that she was recognized as female, as she put it, by the men studying her anatomy from the rear. The men around her were very supportive.  She says they told her they would not allow anyone to remove her from the race.  She finished with a very respectable time of 3:21:40.  While unofficial at the time, she has since been recognized by the Boston Athletic Association as the first female winner, and she won three years in a row.  Ironically, at the time she ran her first Boston, the longest sanctioned race for women on the AAU calendar was 1.5 miles.

Since then, the number of women participants in running races has grown dramatically.  In a Wikipedia article, a graph of women’s participation (not just runners) in the summer Olympics has grown dramatically from the early 1900’s to the present:

Women as a percent of participants in the Summer Olympics

Women as a percent of participants in the Summer Olympics

In one of our major races in the Philadelphia area, the 10 mile Broad Street Run, held the first Sunday in May, the number of women participating has grown steadily since the race began in 1980.  This past year, 2013, the total number of women finishers was 17,269.  There were 14,773 male finishers.

For major marathons, women have not yet reached parity with the men, but are not far behind.  For 2013, at Chicago, there were 17,395 women and 21,488 men finishers.  For New York, 19,567 women and 30,699 men completed the race.  In Europe, at the Berlin Marathon, 8,946 women and 27,528 men finished.  And in Los Angeles, 7,773 women and 11,761 men crossed the finish line.  In Boston in 2012, 9,006 women and 12,666 men got to run that last stretch down Boyleston Street to the iconic finishing banner.

Women have also become leaders in the world of running organizations.  Mary Wittenberg, the president and CEO of the New York Road Runners, is responsible for the business and operations of the club, including the production of the New York City Marathon.  Stephanie Hightower is president of the USATF, the national governing body for track and field, long distance running, and race walking in the U.S.

Every Sunday morning, I meet with a group from my running club at 7:30, to run a 13 mile loop.  Sometimes we go farther, if we are in the midst of training for an upcoming marathon.  We’ll start out earlier, get the extra miles in, and then meet the group at 7:30 to start together.  We have a balance of men and women in the group.  I’m sure not one of the guys feels put upon, inhibited or less manly because women are participating in the sport.  Likewise, the thought that women are not capable of participating, the thought held 30 years ago and earlier, has been proven to be bunk.  It is true, that when men and women mix together in a social setting, men behave more civilly, less crudely.  At least, they should.  There really is no excuse, in my mind, for bullying and being obnoxious, and it certainly is not the fault of women if someone who behaves that way is brought down.  I would say, yes, running has been feminized, in that women have been able to participate in this great sport which was once closed to them.  They have shown their mettle, and taken on the challenges of the toughest of races, the marathon.  They have contributed greatly to the organization and running of the sport, and their participation keeps growing.  Far from making us guys unmanly, less of a man’s man, they have joined our ranks, and made it better.  What a bunch of “bushwa” (got that from a NYTimes crossword puzzle) coming from Brit Hume and Bill O’Reilly.

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