This stretch of public shoreline—a part of the Washington State Capitol Campus—is named in honor of the first U.S. Women's Olympic Marathon Trials, which took place in Olympia on May 12, 1984. Competitors in that historic race ran 26.2 miles on roads throughout Thurston County, starting from the top of the hill that rises to the southwest and ending on Deschutes Parkway just north of Marathon Park. The top three finishers at the trials went on to represent the United States at the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles, the first Olympic Games ever to include a women's marathon.
The Fight to Run the Race
The distance race known as the marathon made its debut at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Like all Olympic events of the time, it was a contest open only to men—although that didn't stop two women from giving it a try. A month before the scheduled Games, a woman named Stamatis Rovithi successfully ran the full racecourse from the small Greek village of Marathon to the host city of Athens. On race day a woman known as Melpomene was turned away by officials when she tried to enter the marathon. Undaunted, she warmed up in secret, joined the race from the sidelines and finished at the back of the pack after passing several exhausted men who had dropped out along the way.
While some women's
track events were added to the Olympic Games in 1928, it would take nearly half a century before women were allowed to compete in any Olympic running race longer than 800 meters. Even after women were admitted to the famous Boston Marathon in 1972, even after West Germany hosted the world's first all-women's marathon in 1973, Olympic organizers clung to the notion that women were simply too fragile to run a full marathon course.
In the meantime, women kept running. Throughout the 1970s, as a broadening feminist movement fought for women's equal rights, female runners pushed for the chance to compete in worldwide events. Corporate sponsorship helped. So did the official support of the American and International Amateur Athletic Unions. Finally in 1981—a full 85 years after Melpomene ran her renegade race, the International Olympic Committee agreed to add a Women's Olympic Marathon, starting with the Los Angeles Games in 1984.
Olympia Hosts the Trials
Olympia competed against Los Angeles, Buffalo and New York City for the privilege of hosting the first U.S. Women's Olympic Marathon Trials. New York newspapers howled when The Big Apple lost to Olympia, but the site selection committee stood firm. Washington's capital city offered a scenic racecourse, mild temperatures, clean air and minimal traffic. It was a small town willing to make a big fuss
over getting to host the trials. And the name "Olympia" didn't hurt—a name it shared with the site in Greece where the ancient Olympic Games were staged for more than a thousand years.
On the morning of May 12, 1984, some 50,000 spectators lined the marathon route, along with reporters and television crews from as far away as Japan. More than 3,000 volunteers had pitched in to make the race happen: marking the course, staffing aid stations, sprucing up college dorm rooms where the marathon athletes were housed. From a pancake breakfast for thousands to school bands performing along the route, the community's day in sports history came off exactly as planned. Two hundred and thirty-eight powerful women, ages 16 to 54, surged out onto the racecourse as soon as the starting gun sounded. All but forty-one of the runners succeeded in reaching the finish, including two pregnant runners who came in last but won the hearts of the wildly cheering crowd.
Joan Benoit, who had set a world record the year before, was first across the finish line with a time of 2:31:04. When second-place finisher Julie Brown and third-place runner Julie Isphording followed within the next 82 seconds, America had its very first women's Olympic Marathon team.