...in 1980 Rosie Ruiz tried to steal the Boston Marathon. Crowned the women's champion when she crossed the finish line, Ruiz looked surprisingly well-rested for someone who had just run 26 miles in record time. Jackie Gareau, whom the crowd had cheered on as the women's leader for the last half of the race, arrived at the finish line just in time to see officials bestow the traditional laurel wreath on Ruiz. Doubts surfaced immediately. In the thousands of photos and extensive film shot at the event, Ruiz appeared only in the last half-mile. After eight days of controversy, Rosie Ruiz was stripped of her title, but she maintained her innocence and refused to return her medal.
The Boston Marathon, the world's oldest annual marathon foot race, draws runners and media attention from all over the world. In 1980, the story stayed on the front page long after the racers crossed the finish line. Rosie Ruiz, an unknown 26-year-old runner from New York City, had claimed the women's crown. The problem was, no one could remember having seen her in the race.
Ruiz was a Cuban émigré who had begun running only 18 months earlier. She admitted that she did not have a rigorous training schedule; she prepared for Boston by running around Central Park. She had only competed in one other marathon, in New York, where she finished 23rd with a considerably slower time than she ran in Boston.
When she crossed the finish line in Copley Square at 2:31:56, officials placed the traditional laurel ring on her head and awarded her the champion's medal and a place in the record books. Ruiz's time broke famed female marathoner Joan Benoit's record by over three minutes and was the third fastest ever run by a woman.
But questions about Ruiz arose immediately. Veteran runner Jackie Gareau, a petite Canadian, was the acknowledged women's leader from the mid-point in Wellesley, and the front-runner at the 21- and 24-mile marks. She and everyone around her assumed she would be first. She was shocked when she arrived at the finish line just in time to see Ruiz being crowned.
When Gareau was asked, "Can a woman improve from 2:56 to 2:31 in one race?" she raised her eyebrows doubtfully and replied, "She must have very good training."
Observers at the finish line questioned Ruiz's appearance on the victory stand. She appeared fresh and buoyant and was barely perspiring hardly like a woman who had just finished a grueling 26-mile race on a 70-degree day. New York marathon director Fred Lebow wondered, "Her hair in place? Her sides dry?" One, veteran marathoner looked at Ruiz and said it was obvious "she hadn't run a marathon …. Her face was not even flushed."
In the end, Ruiz's undoing was the heavy media coverage of the race. Observers at various checkpoints along the way had not seen her in the first group of women to pass by. She insisted that they might have mistaken her for a male, or missed the "W" (for "woman") on her number. But the race officials did not have to rely on the checkers. Thousands of news photographers, TV cameras, and official photographers had captured the race on film, and Rosie Ruiz did not appear in a single image.
Finally, spectators came forward to say they had seen Ruiz join the race less than a mile from the finish. At the same time, officials began to question her time in the New York Marathon, where she had qualified to run Boston. Witnesses said that they had spoken with her during that race riding on the subway. Ruiz was eventually disqualified from the New York Marathon.
Given the overwhelming evidence, the board of the Boston Athletic Association voted unanimously to strike Ruiz's name from the record books and declare Jackie Gareau as the winner of the women's division. Ruiz continued to insist that she had won fairly and refused to give up her medal.
The Rosie Ruiz controversy did no permanent damage to the illustrious reputation of the Boston Marathon, the world's most famous long-distance race. The Boston Marathon was established in 1897, one year after a marathon was run at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. The race reenacts the Greek legend of the foot-soldier Pheidippides who ran 24 miles from the plains of Marathon to inform Athens of the Greek army's astonishing victory over a superior Persian force. According to the legend, he staggered into the city, announced, "Rejoice, we conquer!" and then collapsed and died.
When the modern marathon was run at the first Olympics, it proved to be one of the most exciting and popular events. The Boston Athletic Association's team manager, John Graham, was there, and came home resolved to establish a marathon in Boston. He chose as a running date April 19th, in honor of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775.
The B.A.A. set up a 24.8-mile course the same length as the Athens course. It began at Metcalf's Mill in Ashland and ended at the Irvington Oval, near Copley Square in Boston. The first winner, John J. McDermott of New York, took the race from a 15-member field. His time was 2:55:10 despite the fact that he had to stop and wait several minutes for a funeral procession to pass. In the 1908 Olympics in London, the marathon course was extended so that the runners could go from Windsor Castle to the Olympic stadium to accommodate the Royal Family. The next year, the B.A.A. lengthened its course to 26 miles 385 yards and moved the starting point to Hopkinton.
Boston was the world's only annual marathon until the 1920s. It regularly attracted between 150 and 200 runners. Participation didn't increase much until jogging became popular in the 1960s and 70s. After a 1963 Sports Illustrated issue featured the race, the number of runners rose dramatically. So did the number of spectators.
For more than 75 years, the Boston Marathon was open only to men. The prohibition against women did not keep them from trying to run. In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid in the bushes near the starting line until the race began, then joined the runners. When she completed the race, she became the first woman to run the full distance. Gibb ran without a number. The next year, Katherine Switzter did not identify herself as a woman on her application and was issued a bib number. On the day of the race, officials tried to remove her from the field, but she ran anyway, finishing in 3:10:26. The first official female winner of the Boston Marathon was Nina Kuscsik in 1972. Three years later, the event became even more inclusive with the addition of a wheelchair division.
In 1996, the Marathon's centennial year, the race attracted a record 38,708 runners.
Boston Globe, April 22, 25 and 30, 1980.
New York Times, April 30, 1980.
"Rosie Ruiz Tries to Steal the Boston Marathon," Running Times July, 1980.
"History of the Boston Marathon," Boston Athletic Association web page