First world champion of women’s marathon | Sunday Observer
Norway’s Grete Waitz:

First world champion of women’s marathon

7 August, 2022
First Olympic Marathon progressing with Waitz (289) leading the pack

Norway’s Grete Waitz was best known as a marathon runner for winning the inaugural Helsinki 1983 World Championships’ women marathon gold and the 1984 Summer Olympic Games inaugural marathon silver medal in Los Angeles. Her efforts as a pioneering female long-distance runner have had a major impact on the development of women’s sports.

Waitz, a Norwegian track and field athlete, long-distance runner and marathon runner dominated women’s long distance running for more than a decade, recording nine victories in the prestigious New York City Marathon between 1978 and 1988. She was the first non-American inducted (2000) into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame.

Los Angeles 1984 Summer Olympic Games was a landmark for female participation. The Olympic Games changed the way women are perceived in sport, with the realization that they can achieve the same levels of excellence as men by including marathon for women for the first time. Waitz was the first Norwegian to be inducted to the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) “Hall of Fame” in 2013.

The inaugural women’s Olympic marathon was a breakthrough moment for female distance running, serving as a springboard to elevate the sport. It led to the development of a new industry in women’s running apparel and female-only running events. The increased emphasis on women’s participation led to a record 23% of female participation at 1984 Olympic Games.

Birth and Career

Grete Waitz was born as Grete Andersen on October 1, 1953, in Oslo. She grew up in Keyserlokka and went to Hasle school. Waitz began as a middle-distance runner and at age 17, setting a 1500-metre European junior record (4:17.0). She also has two bronze medals from the European Championships, in the 1500 meters in Rome 1974, and in the 3000 meters in Prague 1978.

She married Jack Henry Nilsen on June 27, 1975, and they then both took the surname ‘Waitz.’ Grete’s husband, Jack became her coach. In addition, Johan Kaggestad was also dominant as a coach throughout her career. Until the early 1980s, she worked as a teacher whilst developing her running.

At the beginning of her career, she was a middle-distance runner, participating in the 1500 meters. At the Munich 1972 Olympics, she was sixth in Heat 2, clocking 4:16.0. At the Montreal 1976 Olympics, running in Heat 2, clocking 4:07.2, she progressed to Semi Finals. Despite her improved performance of 4:04.8, she didn’t qualify for the Finals.

She missed the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games because of the American-led boycott. She twice set new world records for the 3000 metres on June 24, 1975 (8:46.6) and again on June 21, 1976 (8:45.4) in Oslo.

In 1977, she won the 3000 meters during the World Cup final, while in 1979 she was number 2. Her personal best achievements of 1500 and 3000 metres of 4:00.55 and 8:31.75, set in 1978 and 1979 respectively, are still Norwegian records.

Although Waitz was reluctant to attempt her first New York City Marathon in 1978, she won the event in a time of 2:32:30, more than two minutes under the previous best finish.

In Glasgow 1978, she captured her first of five titles in the IAAF, now World Athletics, women’s cross-country world championships. She also won gold medals at Lumerick 1979, Paris 1980, Madrid 1981, Gateshead 1983 and secured bronze medals at Rome 1982 and East Rutherford 1984.

Waitz won 33 Norwegian championships, six in 800 metres (1971, 1973 - 1977), eight in 1500 metres (1971 and 1973 - 1979) and five in 3000 meters (1973 and 1978 - 1981). She won fourteen Norwegian championships in cross- country running (1.5 km cross-country races from 1972 - 1975; 4 km cross-country races from 1976 - 1981 and 1983; 10 km cross-country races in 1976, 1977 and 1982. She also won four silver medals at Norwegian championships (800 meters - 1970, 1972; 1500 meters – 1972; 6 km cross-country race – 1984).

The Marathon Runner

Marathon, commemorates the legendary feat of a Greek soldier who, in 490 BC, is supposed to have run from Marathon to Athens, about 40 km (25 miles), to bring news of the Athenian victory over the Persians and then expired.

The story of this messenger from the Battle of Marathon was later conflated with the story of another Greek soldier, Pheidippides, who ran from Athens to Sparta in advance of the fighting. Appropriately, in 1896 the first modern marathon winner was a Greek, Spyridon Louis.

In 1924, the Olympic marathon distance was standardized at 42,195 metres (26 miles 385 yards). This was based on a decision of the British Olympic Committee to start the 1908 Olympic marathon from Windsor Castle and finish it in front of the royal box in the stadium at London.

The first New York City Marathon was held in 1970, and the route consisted of a series of laps through Manhattan’s Central Park. The course took on its current shape, which begins on Staten Island and ends in Manhattan, in 1976. Norway’s Grete Waitz won the women’s New York City Marathon a record nine times, and American Bill Rogers holds the men’s record with four wins.

New York City Marathon, 26.2-mile footrace held every November through the five boroughs of New York City. The New York City Marathon often draws the largest number of participants of all annual marathons, and it is along with the Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, and Tokyo marathons, one of the world’s six major marathons.

Towards the end of the 1970s, she chose to invest in increasingly longer distances. In addition to the annual New York City Marathon triumphs (which she won in 1978–80, 1982–86 and 1988), Waitz had never run a marathon before the New York City race in 1978.

After it, her name and New York would be forever linked. The lean Norwegian middle-distance runner, who had set two world-records in the 3000 meters, was invited to the race as a “rabbit,” someone brought in to set a fast early pace for the favourite runners.

Two-thirds through that first marathon, she suffered so hard that she cursed her husband, Jack Waitz, for talking her into it. “I was hurting. I was mad. I was angry. I told Jack: “Never again!” she recalled, after 30 years in 2008.

But in all that rage she found strength. Not only did she win the race, but she also set three world records – 1978, 1979 and 1980. And “Never again” turned into eight more wins in the New York City Marathon, a world championships gold, an Olympic silver, and a place among the greatest marathon runners of all time.

In 1979, she became the first woman to finish the New York City Marathon under 2.5 hours (2:27:33) and broke that time by almost two minutes in 1980 (2:25:41). Waitz also raced in the London Marathon, winning in 1983 and 1986; her personal best race was at the latter event (2:24:54).

Helsinki 1983 World Championships

The women’s marathon was not an established event at an international level. It had not featured in the World Championships or Olympic Games and had only become popular during the 1970s. Historically, some experts claimed that running the marathon distance, 26 miles 385 yards, was dangerous for women’s health.

The governing body for athletics, the IAAF, announced that it would be added to the programme for the inaugural World Championships Helsinki 1983, making it the first global championships to feature a women’s marathon.

The inaugural women’s marathon took place in Helsinki, Finland on August 7, 1983, starting and finishing at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. The race started at 1505 local time, the opening day of the Championships, in clear, dry conditions, with temperatures of around 21°C.

Rumiko Kaneko of Japan and Carey May of Ireland led in the early stages. Ireland’s Regina Joyce took the lead by the 12-mile point and opened a gap of around 30 sec ahead of the chasing group. After 19 miles, she was caught by a group led by Waitz, who was increasing the pace of the race. Gradually those running with her dropped back, leaving Waitz to win the race.

Waitz who was running her first female-only marathon, said that the makeup of the race changed her tactics significantly, as the idea was to win the Championship. The race was won by Waitz in 2:28:09, ahead of the silver medallist Marianne Dickerson of the United States and the bronze medallist Soviet Union’s Raisa Smekhnova. Waitz’s 3-minute gap enabled her to complete a victory lap before other medallists entered the stadium.

Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games

It was the first time a women’s marathon had been held at the Olympic Games and the event took place on August 5, 1984.

There were 50 competitors from 28 countries. The world record prior to the 1984 Olympic Games was to the credit of Joan Benoit of the United States for her 2:22:43 in Boston, United States on April 18, 1983. Joan Benoit won the gold clocking 2:24:52, with 1983 World champion Grete Waitz of Norway winning the silver, and Rosa Mota of Portugal, the bronze.

Strategically, the race was notable for Benoit making a bold move in only the third mile of the race, despite the August heat. The rest of the field did not try to keep pace with her, and Benoit maintained her lead all the way to finish. Waitz was the Norwegian flag bearer at the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics.

Death and Tributes

Waitz died on April 19, 2011, at 57 in a hospital in her native Oslo after a six-year battle with cancer. Her husband Jack was by her side. There was no word on what type of cancer felled the marathon legend, who remained silent about her condition after being diagnosed in 2005. Waitz is survived by her husband and two brothers, Jan and Arild. She was accorded a private funeral.

Rob de Castella, a world champion marathon runner from Australia who had trained with Waitz said: “She was the first lady of the marathon. She was such a wonderful lady, such a wonderful ambassador for women’s marathon running back when it was just starting to be recognized as a serious event.”

At a time when many still felt that women didn’t belong in long-distance running, Waitz proved them wrong with her outstanding performances. “It was Grete who proved that it was possible for women to compete in the longer distances,” said Svein Arne Hansen, President of the Norwegian Athletics Federation.

When she finished fourth in New York in 1990, at 37, no runner got more cheers from the crowd than Waitz, easily spotted by her graceful running style and blonde hair. She retired from competition after that but returned to the New York City Marathon in 1992, crossing the finish line next to legendary race director Fred Lebow, who had been suffering from cancer and died two years later. Waitz said that run with Lebow was her most memorable New York City Marathon next to her first win in 1978.

“She will be remembered as one of the best marathon runners of her time,” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said. In a Twitter posting, marathon world record-holder Paula Radcliffe of Britain remembered Waitz as “an amazing champion and more amazing person.”

In 2007, Waitz and Aanesen established the Active Against Cancer foundation in Norway. “Her aim was to inspire other cancer patients to be physically active, and she worked to establish training centres at cancer hospitals,” Aanesen said. “She didn’t wish to put too much focus on herself and her disease but hoped she could contribute in some way to help others.”

Born in Oslo, she trained and raced in her youth at Oslo’s Bislett stadium, which raised a bronze statue in her honour in 1984. “If Bislett was her cradle, then New York City was her Broadway stage,” Mary Wittenberg, the President of the New York Road Runners Club, said at an event honouring Waitz in Oslo in 2008.

Wittenberg said: “When Grete stepped into the marathon, she changed the game. She made it a serious sport for women. The road runners were sad to lose a dear friend and our most decorated champion.” Wittenberg also praised Waitz’s strength and grace: “When so many people would have crumbled, she stood strong and positive.”


She is the record holder for World Major Marathons. In Norway, she is a sporting legend, with an annual race named after her in her honour. The New York Road Runners club annually sponsors “Grete’s Great Gallop,” formerly a half-marathon and now a 10km, in her honour. This is in connection with the annual “Norwegian Festival” at the beginning of October, which promotes Norwegian food, culture, and design.

There is a statue of her in the Norway pavilion in EPCOT at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. There is also a statue of her outside outside the “Maratonporten” (entrance 3 in the south) to Bislett Stadium in Oslo. In 2016, the space outside the gate was named Grete Waitz’ plass.

She has been featured on a set of stamps. In addition, her portrait is featured on the tail of a Norwegian Air Shuttle 787 Dreamliner aircraft (a plane, coincidentally, manufactured in North Charleston, South Carolina, a market where she won the Charleston-area 10km race in 1989). In November 2008, Waitz was appointed a Knight 1st Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav, bestowed by King Harald V of Norway at a ceremony in Oslo “for her importance as a role model.” Waitz received the St. Olav’s Medal in 1981 and Medal of St. Hallvard in 1989.

No one has received the Sports Journalists’ statuette for “Sports Name of the Year” more times than Waitz. She received her four statuettes in 1975, 1977, 1979 and after the World Championships gold in 1983. Grete Waitz was modeled by Nils Aas in 1992 and is part of the collection Nils Aas Kunstverksted at Inderoy.

In 1984, Waitz was the first athlete to receive Fearnley’s Olympic Honorary Award without winning the Olympics but based on her silver from 1984 Olympics. In 2010, she received the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sport Award for Europe.

In 2011, Google marked what would have been her 58th birthday by replacing the usual logo on the search engine with a search for “Grete Waitz.” This is also known as Google Doodle. In 2021, Waitz was honoured as part of the mural “Romsas Wall of Fame” at Romsas centre, together with 12 other well-known local heroes.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])