A Look Back at Title IX with Joan Benoit Samuelson
Title IX, an Amendment to the Civil Rights Act, was established 35 years ago. Tremendous progress has been made in athletics and education since 1972. We talked to marathon legend Joan Benoit Samuelson who believes, “There is probably more equality in running than in any other sport.”
Posted Wednesday, 13 June, 2007
Joan Benoit Samuelson is one of the all-time great distance runners in the world. Best known for her Olympic Gold Medal in the Women’s Marathon in 1984, the first women’s Olympic Marathon, she also set world records and many American records. She twice won the Boston Marathon, setting course records both times along with a world best in 1983. Tremendously personable, she remains one of the most popular and highly recognized distance athletes in the world.
Joan began running in 1972, the year Title IX was passed. She was passionate about athletics throughout high school, and had many pickup “opportunities” to play sports along with her three brothers. However, there were few organized sports available to girls in the schools of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, as with most schools throughout the country. Interscholastic running was not among them.
“I really was not aware of inequities in high school. We never really thought about it. Although it did often cross my mind that my brothers had opportunities to play organized soccer, baseball, and so on, and I did not,” Samuelson recalled.
Joan Benoit, born May 16, 1957, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine has always been and athlete. Early on, she chose skiing, as did many in her home state, given the lengthy winters and proximity to slopes. She had a bad fall while skiing in 1972, breaking her leg. As part of her rehabilitation she took up running. And she developed a passion, and she was also exceptionally good at it. When Title IX was passed her school started a “club” running program for girls, and her competitive running career began.
The Title IX Amendment, also known as the Equal Opportunity in Education Act: No Person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal assistance. (Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
After graduating in 1975, Benoit enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Bowdoin is a remarkable, historic, venerable institution with a storied past and an impressive list of alumni. It is Maine’s oldest college, established in 1794 when Maine was part of Massachusetts. Significantly, however, it did not admit women until 1971, just a year before Title IX went into effect. During Benoit’s four years at Bowdoin, 1975 to 1979, sports for women were added and expanded. In addition to her collegiate athletic career, Benoit was also training with the Liberty Athletic Club in Boston. Coaching was available with this running club for women, with many of the best female runners in New England as members.
As a senior at Bowdoin, Joan Benoit entered the Boston Marathon as a complete unknown. There were few women marathon runners in 1979, only seven years after Boston officially admitted women (1972, the year Title IX was passed). Stuck in traffic, Benoit had to get out and run a 2-mile fast-paced “warm-up” just to get to the Boston starting line. Despite starting well back in the pack, she picked off woman after woman and took the lead between miles 19 and 20. And she went on to set a Boston course record of 2:35:15 at age 21, wearing her Boston Red Sox baseball cap throughout. This victory came only five years after Benoit began running competitively.
Was Title IX a factor in the rapid growth of women’s competitive running?
“Actually I had little awareness of it when I was a college student. It was a definite issue for administrators and coaches, I’m sure”, she said. It could have played a role in the admission of women to the Boston Marathon, and certainly contributed to the number of women distance runners entering road races of all types. There were more women training in expanded high school and collegiate track and cross country programs and then taking their sport to the next level.
In 1983 Benoit returned to Boston; this time she was a known elite athlete and started in the front. That year she ran the marathon distance faster than any woman in history, setting a world best of 2:22:43 on one of the most difficult courses. (Her time would have won 12 of the last 13 Bostons—only two women have ever run it faster.)
Title IX was the first comprehensive federal law to prohibit discrimination based on sex against students and employees of educational institutions. It is most visible in terms of athletic endeavors, but covers all aspects of education, benefiting both male and female students.
Benoit became women’s distance coach at Boston University in 1981, a post she held for three years. As a coach, Title IX was much discussed and by fellow coaches and by administrators. This was a different perspective. And she led by example, as evidenced by her victory at Boston and the world-wide recognition of her amazing record. Her Boston victory also qualified her for the 1984 US Olympic Trials.
Twelve years after Title IX went into effect, the women’s marathon was added to Olympic Track and Field for the Games in Los Angeles, although the decision was made as early as 1977.
Joan Benoit trained relentlessly for the Olympic Trails Marathon, held in Olympia, Washington. But on one 20-mile training run she injured her right knee. This was only a few weeks before the trials, and most people wrote her off, despite her impressive win at Boston the year before. Seventeen days before the trials she had arthroscopic knee surgery, and was not expected to compete. But, as she has many times, she defied the odds and expectations and toed the starting line. Her goal was beyond simply finishing, beyond limping in as a top three qualifier; her goal was to win. She did, zipping to 2:31:04!
Once again Joan trained doggedly for the Olympic Marathon. Greta Waitz of Norway was favored, having never lost a marathon. Rosa Mota of Portugal was near the top of the marathon world, and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway was favored to medal. Competitors and media expectations were that Joan Benoit could have had an outside shot, but not with her bad knee. Heat and smog in Los Angeles in August were expected to take their toll, and they certainly did.
But no one could stay with Joan Benoit in the Olympic Marathon. By mile three she was running alone, and she remained well in front throughout, entering the Coliseum a minute and a half ahead of Waitz (Silver) and two minutes up on Mota (Bronze). Joan Benoit was then, and will always be the first women’s Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist, as she ran through the broiling heat and pollution to record the third best time in the world—2:24:52.
Title IX was signed into law June 23, 1972, prohibiting discrimination in all areas of education, including recruitment, admissions, programs and activities, course offerings, access, counseling, financial aid, employment assistance, facilities, housing, health benefits, athletics, and scholarships.
In 1985 she set an American marathon record, only a few seconds off the world record, with a run of 2:21:21 at Chicago, still among the best in the world. Her American record stood for 21 years, now second American all time (Deena Kastor ran 2:19:36 in London in 2006). Joan was 13th in the 1996 US Olympic Trials, despite injury problems, and she was ninth in the 2000 trials as a master.
She plans to run the Olympic Trials Marathon in 2008. Her goal is to run a sub-three hour marathon at age 51 on her “home course”, the Boston Olympic Marathon Trials set for April 20, 2008. The elite women running with her in those trials will be testimony to the impact of Title IX. More than that, many of them will be at the starting line of the Olympic Trials because of one distance running pioneer, Joan Benoit Samuelson.
Joan Benoit married college sweetheart Scott Samuelson in September of 1984. As a mother of a girl and a boy, Abby, a college student, and Anders, soon to graduate from high school, she has a comprehensive perspective on Title IX and its impact on education and sports. She has been a student athlete, coach, elite athlete, race organizer, commentator, and mother of two.
“In our sport I think we are close to where we should be, although there needs to be a lot more progress in other areas”, she observed. “Organizationally, and with sponsorships we are doing well. Running is a natural equalizer—the runner against the clock, the distance. It lends itself to equality. But in many other areas we are not there yet.”
In regard to athletic programs at educational institutions, all aspects are covered by Title IX: Scholarships must be proportionate; participation must be proportionate—not equal or identical (different sports may be offered) but proportionate with equivalent opportunities; all other aspects must be equivalent or comparable: coaching, recruitment, practice times and availability, tutoring, training, facilities (locker rooms, fields), equipment, publicity, travel and allowances.
In addition to maintaining a very high level of training, Joan is still coaching, and travels the country as a motivational speaker and television commentator. She has authored two books, Running Tide, an autobiography (Knopf, 1987), and Running for Women (Rodale Press, 1995). She founded the famous Beach to Beacon 10K, one of the largest races in New England (August 4, Freeport, Maine), and she participates in races throughout the country. The Samualsons reside in Freeport, Maine.
Her Gold Medal victory in Los Angeles was an inspiration to countless women who may never have run long distance without her example. She largely inspired a women’s running boom—especially in the marathon—fueled by hundreds of running programs initiated and enhanced by the impact of Title IX, and the changes it set in motion in 1972. Title IX has been with us for 35 years. Joan Benoit Samuelson has been running for 35 years. Neither should be taken for granted. The sport has changed dramatically because of both.