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Joan Ullyot (1940–2021), convinced Olympics to add women’s marathon

by Linnea Crowther

Joan Ullyot was a physician and runner whose research and advocacy helped persuade the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to add a women’s marathon to the Summer Olympics.

Women’s Running

Until the mid- to late 20th century, conventional wisdom said that women should not run long distances or engage in vigorous activity. Some said they were simply unable to complete athletic feats like a marathon, while others held that the exercise would cause irreversible damage to their bodies. Ullyot was among the women who proved this theory wrong, running marathons regularly. And her research showed that she was no outlier: Women could and did run long distances without harming their health.

Ullyot’s 1976 book, “Women’s Running,” made the case for distance running for women, and it became an inspiration to other female runners. And she helped the International Runners’ Committee make its case to the IOC for a women’s marathon to be added to the Olympics. When they first lobbied for the women’s marathon in 1977, the IOC refused. But in 1984, the women’s marathon was added to the Los Angeles Olympics. Ullyot continued running marathons herself, competing until age 56 and running for pleasure later. Her personal best marathon time was 2:47:39, achieved at age 48.

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Ullyot on her childhood

“Girls didn’t run. I don’t know why, but they just didn’t. I grew up in the 1950s mostly and at school I was on the swim team. A lot of other girls were playing volleyball and sports like that. There was no running team for girls. There were some girls in Pennsylvania that I heard about later who were good runners but were not allowed to run competitively because they were girls.” —from a 2017 interview for Gary Cohen Running

Tributes to Joan Ullyot

Full obituary: The New York Times

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