More than Lipstick: How Avon Brought the Women’s Marathon to the Olympics

If our foremothers could have seen the future, they would have been pretty impressed.Early last Sunday morning, we huddled around our computers and TVs to spectate the ultimate in women’s running: the 2016 Olympic Marathon. We watched amazing athletes from across the globe run 26.2 miles at paces many of us can’t even hold for one. The race culminated with a stunning finish, Kenyan Jemima Sumgong crushing Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa with her finishing kick. In the team showings, for the first time ever, three members of Team USA finished in the top ten, the only nation other than Japan to have ever achieved that feat.

Watching these runners is awe inspiring, but, with this being the ninth Olympic women’s marathon, I’m reminded that it wasn’t so long ago that there wasn’t a women’s Olympic Marathon at all.  In fact, not that long ago women couldn’t even enter any marathon. But thanks to the unlikely champion of women’s running, the makeup company Avon, women the world over run marathons, including the 133 world-class athletes who finished the 2016 Olympic Marathon in Rio. 

The journey from the first women marathoners to this year’s Olympic marathon was one long haul. I learned about this legacy first from my coach, Ken Parker, a legend in the Canadian coaching and running world, who told me about the Avon International Women’s Marathon and its impact on the history of women’s marathon running. That story was eye-opening and shows that the women marathoners in Rio owe a lot to the ground-breakers behind the Avon International Women’s Marathon.

Stick figure of a woman running in a pre-women's marathon marathon
Women had to insert themselves into the marathon. Like this, but in real life.

It Started with Kathrine Switzer

This story of women and the marathon begins with Kathrine Switzer, who became the first official woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, where she registered as K.V. Switzer and finished in 4:20. She had to register with her initials to avoid being detected as a female participant, but successfully completed the marathon. However, it wasn’t until 1972 that women were officially allowed to run the Boston Marathon. Up until that point, including 70 years since the first running of the Boston Marathon, it was widely believed that women were not physically able to complete the marathon distance. We raise our eyebrows now at the misconceptions back then, but the belief was held that distance running was not only impossible, but also that pursuing it would negatively impact the health of women (read: make us unable to have babies). *Rolls eyes*

The media frenzy surrounding Kathrine’s Boston Marathon performance changed her life course, as she realized the impact she could have on women through running. She went on to pursue a career in writing and marketing, and eventually Avon Products, Inc. hired her as Director of Sports and Public Relations. There, she was responsible for all of Avon’s sports sponsorships, including Women’s Championship Tennis and the World Figure Skating Championship. Also in her role at Avon, Kathrine was given the mandate to establish the Avon International Racing Circuit. This circuit went on for eight years, took place in 25 countries, and included 200 women-only races of various distances, beginning with the Avon International Women’s Marathon in 1978 in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Avon International Running Circuit

The 1978 Avon Marathon was the first of seven Avon Marathons that occurred throughout the years leading up to the first Olympic Marathon in 1984. This series of marathons was called the Avon International Running Circuit. The other Avon Marathons were held in international cities including Ottawa and London and invited women from all over the world to run the 26.2 mile distance. As women successfully competed in the Avon Marathons, the world began to see that women could not only run the marathon, but be strong and competitive at that distance as well.

Marathons in the Avon International Running Circuit Leading up to the 1984 Olympics

  • 1978 Atlanta, USA
  • 1979 Waldneil, Germany
  • 1980 London, UK
  • 1981 Ottawa, Canada
  • 1982 San Francisco, USA
  • 1983 Los Angeles, USA

The Women’s Marathon Becomes an Olympic Event

By 1981, the momentum of women’s running events was growing. That year, the fourth annual Avon International Women’s Marathon was held in Ottawa, Canada. Two American greats, Nancy Conz and Joan Benoit Samuelson, placed first and second respectively. Up until this time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had resisted including the women’s marathon event in the Olympic lineup, but with these successful performances, the IOC was facing pressure from coaches, sponsors and athletes alike to include the event in the 1984 Olympic Games.

With the shift in public opinion and facing pressure on all fronts, the IOC decided in an 8-1 vote – Russia cast the lone opposing vote – that the women’s marathon would be included in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. This would be the first Olympics at which women could compete in the marathon event. American Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first women’s marathon gold with a time of 2:24:52.

Watching the Women’s Olympic Marathon

Avon’s Lasting Impact on Women’s Running 

While we don’t tend to think of cosmetic companies as pioneers in the world of women’s sports, it was Avon’s investment and Kathrine Switzer’s involvement in women’s running that laid the foundation for women’s marathoning as it is today. The success of the Avon Marathons showed not just Olympic organizers, but women everywhere that they were capable of not simply running, but competing in long distance races. As we continue to see female marathon participants increase in numbers and watch women smash world records in running, I smile to think that all those Avon Ladies helped make it happen. It reminds me that progress is possible.

Thank you, Avon!

Have you heard of the Avon Marathons? Are you surprised at Avon’s part in women’s running growth? What can we learn from the history of women’s running? 

I'm a Canadian runner with a knack for training in frigid temperatures and completing 20 milers on the treadmill. I'm currently training for a spring marathon, with the goal of Boston Qualifying. Outside of running, I work in public policy and can often be found cross-stitching or being talked out of adopting another cat.

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  1. Women were officially running the full NYC marathon as soon as 1971 though, which beats Boston by a year:

    There is an interesting side story in the middle of the NYC Marathon documentary about how they got more women to run by creating a so called “mini-marathon” (6 miles) – they got 1000 entries!

    Caution, 1970s attitudes are like right of out madmen but stick with it for a couple minutes for some interesting footage. Also, Grete Waitz appears repeatedly later in the documentary which is nice, also pre-doping Salazar.

    Imagine running a sub-3 hour marathon in 1970 shoes and clothes (and nutrition, etc) wow.

    1. Thanks for sharing this! There were definitely some rockstar women trailblazing back then.

      I’ve thought a lot about the advances in technology/nutrition since then. I guess you make do, but it really is amazing to think how much more support we have now.

  2. This is such a great post Maple, and really appreciated it as a female…an athlete…and a nerd 🙂

    I knew a little about this prior to the post because I had read Katherine’s Book and also listened to a podcast about her more recently. But it was great to read more about it, and the timing is obviously good coming off of the Olympics. I think that we have so much to learn from the pioneers of women’s running, like Katherine, Joanie, et al. We are able to do so much more today because of the actions they took, and the paths that they blazed for us. I think the biggest thing we can learn though is that we have barely scratched the surface with what we can do individually and as women in general.

  3. Great article! I loved Kathrine’s book – and I think in part it did such a good job at opening the eyes of women runners today, many of whom didn’t realize just how recently what they take for granted was not allowed!

    Another great listen is this recent interview with Bobbi Gibb, who completed the Boston marathon before Kathrine Switzer though not as an official registrant, and got a lot of good attention. It was interesting to hear her side of events, and how they differed from the story in “Marathon Woman”. The BAA actually honoured Bobbi more recently, which makes me really happy.

  4. I’d suggest reading Amby Burfoot’s “First Ladies of Running.” He gives credit to some known and unknown women pioneer marathon runners who ran quietly but with determination in marathons before K.V. Switzer’s 1967 BM marathon debut. BTW: Switzer says she didn’t use her initials to hide her identity as a woman but that she always listed her name by initials because it was often misspelled (it’s “Kathrine” without an “e)). Avon was definitely more than a company whose perfume bottles were saved by our grandmothers!

    1. Good call, Patricia! There you are being all Sage again! 😉 I had that on my reading list from back when you recommended it to us, but I simply haven’t gotten to it yet. I need to bump it to the top!

  5. I’m shocked at how shocked we are by Avon’s involvement! The company grew by empowering women to be business owners and it makes sense that they would have found other avenues to empower women outside of direct sales. I sometimes feel there is a line drawn between females empowered because of their athletic endeavors and females empowered because of their self care in regards to beauty. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and we should probably stop viewing them as such.

    1. When we were looking for photo ideas, we looked at Avon ads from the 70s which included many diverse models and many had a very ballsy tone as they sold their perfume or cosmetics. I think from our 2016 perspective, it’s easy to not see Avon in this light – Avon’s role in today’s society is far less ground-breaking than its role historically and I think it’s interesting to explore how and what businesses catered to women runners in the past and how that’s changed throughout the years. I’m personally for women empowering themselves … period. Whatever that means to each!

    2. Thanks Colleena! I completely agree with you. Empowerment comes in all forms, including self care! What surprised me the most was how little I knew about this fascinating piece of women’s running history and Avon’s involvement! Major props to the company.

  6. Hi Maple, it was great to come across this blog post, as I’ve written a post on my blog about the Avon International Women’s Marathon which was the third in the series, held in 1980 – the year before what we now call the London Marathon. Of course hardly anyone knows about the Avon Marathon although Switzer says it was televised by the BBC. Katie