IT is a half-century-old image that has become iconic within running circles and symbolic of the need to challenge ignorance. The knowledge that Jock Semple was a native Scot only added to the impression of a prototype “Groundsman Willie” bull-headedly laying down the law while ignoring common sense at the 1967 Boston Marathon.
Face contorted in a snarl as he ran down the road in his sports jacket and flannels, he might as well have been yelling “Keep off my grass” as “Get out of my race and give me back those numbers” while pursuing the sole female entrant, Kathrine Switzer, before trying to rip them off the front and back of her shirt before he was shoulder-charged out of the way by one of her fellow runners.
The number 261 has since become emblematic in its own right Assessed by modern, Western standards, it is almost impossible to understand why officials would seek to prevent rather than encourage participation in sport. Yet, just days after Iranian women were lauded for responding to a ban on them taking part in the Tehran Marathon by staging their own race over the same distance, the golden anniversary of the incident marked by this weekend’s latest staging of the Boston Marathon, serves as a vivid reminder that it is not so long since such sexism was embedded in major sport across the globe.
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For all that it is often claimed the camera never lies, though, those who knew Semple feel the images that proliferate when searching the name of a man who died long before the internet age presents a profoundly unfair image.
Among them Brian McAusland, one of Scottish athletics’ most respected historians, can offer personal testimony to the kindness and generosity of the Glaswegian who emigrated to the USA on a one-way ticket given to him by his father amid the recession of the 1920s. While he became an influential figure in American athletics, at no point died he forget his roots in the sport at Clydesdale Harriers.
“Every time he came home he gave us £200 for the club and one year he gave £200 to the men’s section, £200 to the women’s and £200 to the young athletes. He used to send back medals to the club that he’d won as prizes, to be given out as awards to our runners,” McAusland noted.
That generalised impression of his generosity was personalised when McAusland travelled with fellow Clydesdale Harrier Phil Dolan in 1977 to take part in the Boston Marathon and remembers Semple – who had become a wealthy man as a physiotherapist to the great and the good including the likes of the Kennedy family, Wimbledon champion Stan Smith and heavyweight boxing world champion Rocky Marciano – arranging free accommodation, meals and transport for them.
“He did the crusty Scot routine, but lots of folk came in to see him. I think it was an act,” laughed McAusland. “It comes through in all the books you read about him that he was a very nice person.”
However, he was a man who could be riled, as demonstrated by an episode in early life when an altercation with an official at a Harriers club dinner over seating arrangements led to Semple offering his resignation to the club and subsequently having to be talked into withdrawing it, such was his embarrassment at his own behaviour.
His nature and the circumstances proved a combustible combination when, then, Switzer made her ground-breaking run into history.
“Women running in marathons only became legal in America in 1972. This was 1967. It was the oldest American marathon, one of the oldest in the world and they had visions of losing their permit for allowing a woman to race,” McAusland explained.
His view, then, is that Semple’s fury was not as much about a woman running in the Boston Marathon, as what he interpreted as the deceptive means used to allow her to acquire an official number and the threat to the world’s longest established, continuously run marathon.
“She enters as KW Switzer, puts her ponytail under her cap, collects her number, goes out on the start line then, when the race starts, off comes the cap and the hair comes down and it’s the press bus he was on that dots up and down the field during the marathon. A whole series of photographs were taken,” McAusland explained.
“She said, ‘I always entered races as KW Switzer’, which is fine when she was entering women’s races, but she was entering a man’s race. Jock was the one who issued the numbers and dealt with the athletes. It was about protecting the race.”
In many ways McAusland sees Semple as having been as much a victim of attitudes of the time as Switzer and, for context, it should be recalled that, while the men’s marathon had been part of the modern Olympics from inception in the 19th century, the first women’s 1500m at the Olympics did not take place until 1972 – the year women were first allowed to compete in marathons in the USA – while the first women’s Olympic marathon did not take place until the eighties.
This was the pre “Gregory’s Girl” era in which male sports administrators would absolutely straight-faced claim women were physically unsuited to the physical demands of football, beliefs many of us were still encountering in rugby in the nineties, while McAusland was recently reminded of the speed at which what was once seen as deeply unusual has become standard practice.
“I had a squad in the eighties at Coatbridge with 10 senior Scottish internationals when Susan Crawford, who ran with Kilbarchan, asked if she could join in,” McAusland recalled.
“I put a picture of that squad up on a Facebook page and her dad Jim put up a comment saying it was the first time he’d ever seen a woman training with men . . . and you’re talking about 1984.”
The Jock Semple he remembers was, meanwhile, the forward thinker who, as McAusland drove them to an event at Meadowbank in the eighties, engaged in feisty debate with a fellow official and was the one championing the need for athletics to go open.
Well read on his subject, he is convinced there is sufficient evidence to support his assertion that the man he got to know was actually a supporter of women’s rights. “They didn’t even have an 800m for women at the Olympics up until Ann Packer in the 1960s,” McAusland noted. “Jock’s own belief was that women should be allowed to run, but it wasn’t legal.”
It can obviously be argued that, as the race manager, Semple could and should have done much more, but it is easy to be judgmental and, at this distance, feels profoundly unfair.
Demonstrating that he had a sense of humour and perspective, Semple would subsequently observe: “I was just a stickler for the rules. I still have a postcard from Kathy thanking me after they got the women’s marathon, because I was the catalyst that started focusing attention on women’s long-distance running ... I always say that, by doing that, I made Kathy famous and I made myself infamous.”
For her part, Switzer was to write that: “Jock gave the world one of the most galvanizing photos in the women’s rights movement. ‘The Great Shove’ on the Boston course in 1967 was the spark that ignited the women’s running revolution. Jock was a complex mix of irascible, funny, hot-tempered and lovable. He changed my life in an instant and, as a consequence, changed millions of women’s lives.”
Was he the villain of the piece or an accidental hero, then? Probably neither, but McAusland believes that, while the camera may not have lied, it fell horribly short of presenting things fairly.
“When it became legal for women to run the marathon in 1972 there was a picture of Jock kissing Kathy on the cheek, but that’s not as prominent,” he pointed out.
“They are good action photographs, you can see him pushing the girl, you can see him being pushed, but this is a man who was good for athletics. He wasn’t a bigot.
“If you read biographies of Jock and what other people have written about him in athletics publications you’ll get a proper picture, but not many people have access to that. It’s not distortion of the truth, it’s the bit of the truth they select to show people that annoys me.”
Perhaps so, but, for all that the negatives of that famous day back in 1967 are what they are, the positives that emerged as a result of the development and publication of those photographs heavily outweighed them, forcing issues as they did.