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The Athens Marathon, and three tips on how to get more female runners to join the fun 

TAGS: Letter to the editor, Athens Marathon, Society

The joy of running is contagious. Greece has caught the bug. More runners are signing up for marathons, and Greece is no exception. Sunday November 13 was an important day for running, Greece and myself. I participated in the historic running event together with almost 50,000 other runners. However, as I was entering the shuttle bus from Evangelismos Sunday morning, I found myself wondering about the whereabouts of all the women. 

It is 120 years since the first Modern Olympic Games of 1896 and the first ever Olympic marathon finished in the Kallimarmaro (Panathenaic) stadium. Most Greeks are familiar with the first marathon winner, Spyridon Louis, fewer know of Stamata Revithi – the Greek woman who was not allowed to participate in the race, but ran it anyway. 

According to several sources, Revithi ran one day after the men had completed the official race, and although she finished the marathon and found witnesses to sign their names and verify the running time, she was not allowed to enter the Panathenaic Stadium at the end of the race. The idea that women were unfit to run marathons stayed with the Olympic Committee, and women were excluded from participating in Olympic marathons until the 1980s. 

Today, it should be common knowledge that women are highly capable of running a marathon. I may not be a fast runner, but I finished my second marathon with a smile on my face. The world average is still low, with only one in three marathon runners being female. In the United States, however, the gender ratio in marathons is close to equal, with more than 45% female marathon participants. This tells us that countries and races can do more, and better, to include women in the lanes. Greece has a job to do here. Running the iconic Marathon route last Sunday, I and the other female runners only comprised 17% of the total. I noticed this gender inequality early as we were boarding the shuttle buses. I also noticed that few of the women I spotted looked Greek. My observations were confirmed by the online results published after the race: Only 1,003 Greek women participated in the race, compared to almost 7,000 Greek men.

As a Scandinavian woman, I believe gender equality in all areas is important. I am obviously not interested in equality by forcing unwilling women to run the 41.195 km distance, I am not cruel. However, the American numbers show us that the race organizers simply aren’t trying their hardest to include women. I wish I were able to cite the Norwegian statistics as an example of what Greece could achieve but with a ratio just over the European average, my nation is in the same boat as the Greeks. We need to improve, for the benefit of all.

I am only one voice and one woman who has had the marathon experience, and to improve the running balance, communities need to hear from more women. I hope more women will raise their voices and share their stories. Below I share three tips, based on my experience, on how to improve the female participation numbers: 

• Be conscious of the visuals 

Women tend to be more self-conscious than men, even though in many cases they are better trained than their male counterparts. Based on my own experience, I find it much easier to convince a man of medium fitness to join a race than a well-trained woman. By seeing images of women like themselves, the entry bar may be lowered for women. Based on the website and Facebook page of the Athens Marathon today, there are definitely more men than women portrayed. This tip may seem unnecessary, but it is simple and visuals are powerful. 

• Content for women

Sometimes organizers will include stereotypically “female” content to attract women; basically anything pink. I beg you, Athens Marathon, please don’t go there. However, do provide articles with advice for female runners. Gender specific running guides are available all over the web, with scientific reasoning and further reading to be found for those interested. Perhaps the Athens Marathon could start a cooperation with a university interested in doing research on the subject? 

Women store fat differently, we train on average more than our male counterparts before a race, we get our periods. Don’t be afraid to post content made specifically for women.  

• Clean toilets for women (disclaimer: not for the faint hearted)

The most important, and most disgusting, I saved for last: I truly believe the most important thing the Athens Authentic Marathon should do is to provide women with sanitary toilet options. 

After stepping off the hour-long shuttle bus ride from Athens, hundreds of men ran out into the open field and peed. As a woman, there was no chance of privacy and I had to keep walking. Toilets were not be found before we entered the Marathon stadium, a 15-minute walk through thousands of marathoners. I eventually found the row of portable toilets, but as I opened the door I was struck with the urge to throw up. There was literally poop everywhere. In the toilet, on the toilet seat and on the floor. I left the toilet and tried the next one. Also here – poop in and outside the toilet, but this one only with drops of pee on the toilet seat. No toilet paper. No water or antibacterial gel to clean your hands afterwards. 

For those who don’t know how women urinate – we have to squat down. And we use toilet paper. It is not as easy for us as it is for you guys. 

I did find a solution to the peeing problem, but I am excited to return to what will hopefully be an even better organized marathon next year. I am confident more women would enjoy reading articles about female running, female runners and the history of the women, like Revithi, who completed the distance before them. Working in Athens for the last four months, I have fallen in love with Greece. I hope to bring my loved ones to this amazing city, and crazy race, for the rest of my life. Thank you for an incredible day.

Marie Skjervold,
Norwegian living in Athens

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