When Keshia Roberson hears anybody call running an “escape from politics,” she has some mixed emotions.
As a running coach and wellness advocate based in Washington, D.C., she understands that running can serve as stress relief and personal solace, a way to bond with friends or improve your mental health. But her identity itself makes politics unavoidable in any space she occupies.
“I am a Black woman,” Roberson says. “I don’t get the privilege of saying, ‘I’m going to go for a run, and my Blackness or my woman-ness aren’t going to come into play.’ Nothing in this world is not related to politics in some kind of way.”
This year has delivered a never-ending barrage of tough challenges: the novel coronavirus pandemic (and the abrupt cancellation of plans and jobs and schools that came with it); protests over racial justice and police brutality; raging wildfires across the western states; and an exceedingly contentious and divisive presidential election. And while each of these issues has seemed to amplify activism efforts among many runners throughout the country (and world), others have pleaded for a respite from it all—for running to be apolitical.
The plea is likely a wish for a moment without the emotionally taxing noise that has, in many ways, become relentless. But what some runners may not realize is that the sport has always been political; running has been used as a critical platform for social change for decades. If not for the runners who came before us, women wouldn’t be allowed to race farther than 200 meters. Black people wouldn’t be able to represent the United States at the Olympics. Title IX wouldn’t have opened up equal opportunities for female athletes.
“I think when someone’s gut reaction is, ‘Keep your politics out of my sport,’ it’s an unawareness of the politics already embedded in the system,” says Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and assistant professor at Arizona State University, who was the 2006 NCAA 10,000-meter champion. “I think it’s actually an opportunity for learning. If we move beyond that gut reaction of opposition and actually listen, that’s the opportunity for growth.”
To be sure, running has never been as democratic as it may appear. It requires money to buy gear, enough time to do it free from other obligations (such as work and childcare), safe places to go, unpolluted air to breathe, clean water to drink, and an invitation to belong to the community, as Gene Demby explained in a widely circulated “Code Switch” episode on NPR. When you can check these boxes without second thought, it is easier to separate politics from the activity.
“Those people tend to be the people with more privilege,” says Alison Désir, founder of Harlem Run and Run 4 All Women. Désir is also a mental health coach and activist based in New York. “The reason why running can appear apolitical to you is because your movement outside isn’t legislated by anybody. It takes a bit of reflection for people to make those connections … while we may want to go seek refuge while running, we have to understand that for many of us, where we can run, what time of day, what property we can go on, what we wear, that stuff is legislated to us.”
Running will remain a powerful agent for social change long after 2020 ends. But by gaining an understanding of the sport’s history and how it has collided with politics, we also gain an appreciation for how that’s led to progress not just for runners, but society at large. And maybe that will put more meaning into our miles. Because the simple truth is, you wouldn’t be lacing up today—or reading this article—if running hadn’t gotten political.
A Woman’s Right to Run
Every step of the way, women have had to defy the rules and push the powers-that-be just for the simple permission to lace up. Until 1960, when the women’s 800 meters was reintroduced at the Olympics, female runners weren’t allowed to race farther than 200 meters. (Fun fact: The 800 meters was first allowed in 1928, but men thought the women appeared too winded and taxed from the effort at the finish line, so they eliminated the event for 32 years.) Back then it was assumed (mostly by men who governed the sport) that running long distances would harm reproductive health and some fear that women’s uteruses would fall out.
Nonetheless, women pushed ahead and fought for the equal opportunity to compete. Arlene Pieper Stine quietly became the first American woman to complete a sanctioned marathon at the 1959 Pikes Peak race in Colorado, which never barred women from entering. But it wasn’t until road-racing pioneers like Bobbi Gibb, who ran the Boston Marathon unofficially in 1966, and Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to finish Boston as a registered runner in 1967 (she entered under her initials), endured the brunt of the backlash, helped to prove these theories wrong.
In 1984, the first women’s Olympic marathon was finally held in Los Angeles, won by American Joan Benoit Samuelson. And in case you were worried: She went on to have a fully functioning uterus that produced two children. She even ran six miles the day her son was born in 1990 and she continues to run competitively in masters divisions today.
Women have long recognized that joining forces often leads to progress. In 1972, the same year Title IX was passed, the Amateur Athletic Union (then the sport’s governing body), allowed female entrants in long-distance road races for the first time. But the organization refused to sanction events in which women competed at the same time as men. They were only allowed to run separately. At the starting line of the New York City Marathon that year, women protested the rule by sitting down when the gun went off, waiting 10 minutes until the men’s start to begin running. Soon after, the AAU lifted its separate-but-equal rule.
That might sound extreme, but if you take a look at the throngs of people on any (pre-pandemic) race course today, you’ll see them running for all sorts of causes, from cancer research to youth fitness programs, homeless shelters to food banks. Events are used to raise funds and awareness for countless issues. Including equality.
In 1977, about 3,000 women championed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by running a 2,600-mile relay from Seneca Falls, New York, to Houston, where the National Women’s Convention was taking place. The distance symbolized the ground women had covered in the fight for equal rights since the first Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848.
This concept remains today, as 10,000 participants registered for the Womxn Run the Vote virtual relay in September this year. The event sought to be more inclusive to Black, Indigenous, and people of color than previous women’s movements. The virtual course from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., was marked by important locations in Civil Rights history. Désir, who helped organize the event on behalf of the women’s apparel company Oiselle and Run 4 All Women, says the relay symbolized collective action to help protect voting rights in marginalized communities.
“It’s about building power and about showing that when we come together, we can tackle these really massive, scary issues,” she says.
Standing for Something
Wyomia Tyus was the first athlete (man or woman) to win gold medals in the 100-meters in consecutive Olympics. At the 1968 Games in Mexico City, she wore black shorts instead of the official team uniform in a show of support for the Olympic Project for Human rights, an organization that opposed racial segregation. The group also encouraged an athlete boycott of the 1968 Millrose Games, then sponsored by the New York Athletic Club, which at that time didn’t allow Black or Jewish athletes in as members, while still profiting off their athletic performances.
Tyus’s black-shorts protest was upstaged by the podium protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously raised their fists during the national anthem. But she was still one in a generation of Black female runners who used their athletic ability to draw attention to issues surrounding racial equality.
In her upcoming book, Can’t Eat a Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow, Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University, details the story of Rose Robinson, a high jumper who refused to stand during the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1959 Pan American Games.