Friday, June 26, 2015

Will Andrew Messick be the new Jock Semple?

Photo: Harry Trask
The question came up over dinner the other night, will Andrew Messick be remembered as the modern day Jock Semple of Ironman?
To answer that we have to look at who was Jock Semple - truth and myth.
You may already know – or think you know – but one thing's for sure, you know the photograph.
In 1967 Semple tried to take the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon, Katherine Switzer, off the course when he spotted her racing amongst the men. Right? His fame was solidified when Katherine's hammer throwing boyfriend, who was jogging along with her at the time, tackled the old man to the ground. The entire event was caught on camera. The whole world bore witness to his actions. Semple went to his grave in 1988 and will forever be remembered as the bigoted bully who tried to keep women in the kitchen and far away from the hollowed streets of Boston. Most of you already know that – but is there more to the story? How much of that is true and how much isn't?
Semple was born in Glasgow Scotland in 1903 and emigrated to the United States in 1921, after running in his first marathon.
Records aren't perfect but it looks like he was the 29th finisher at Boston in 1929 with a time of 2:58:54
The depression was in full swing and Semple was sleeping on a cot in his brother's home in Boston. He couldn't afford rent but managed to get a few hours work each week as a changing room attendant for the YMCA. It got him by. He dedicated himself to the pursuit of excellence in marathon running, and one marathon in particular – the Boston Marathon. He loved that race.
In 1932 a class clown named Jimmy “Cigars” Connors led the race a mile from the finish – while puffing on a cigar. He'd gotten to the front by jumping onto a car's running board. Everyone had a good laugh over the prank except Semple. After the race Semple was heard saying he'd be “Punching that fellow right in the jaw.” Luckily for Connors the two did not cross paths. Boston was sacred to Semple and he held zero favor for anyone who flaunted the rules – even in the spirit of fun.
In 1937 Semple lost his number before the gun went off. He was greatly upset and felt he was disrespecting the race if he ran without a number. Officials convinced him it would be okay to run. He did but finished miserable.
The last result I could find for him at Boston came in 1950. He ran a 3:03:22 and came 22nd. In all I found six top 10 finishes.
He may have stopped running in the race but he would continue to dedicate his life to the event. By 1953 he'd become co-director of the race with Will Cloney.
In 1959, while riding in the press bus Semple spotted a man joining the race from a side street. He was wearing a white suit, huge floppy shoes and a clown mask. Semple was enraged. He leaped off the bus, tackled the man, tore off his mask and proceeded to throttle the shocked fellow. Only police intervention saved the man from serious harm. It seems the Scotsman had a temper where his race was concerned.
Now it's the 60's and the Boston Marathon had a single sponsor – the Boston Athletics Association and the BAA was flat broke. It was only through the bull dog determination of Semple and Cloney that it survived.
The first women to ever compete the Boston marathon was in 1966 – Katherine Switzer!!! Wrong. It was a shy young lady named Bobbi Gibb. She had no coach and was part of no team or club. She simply loved to run. When she tried to sign up for the race she didn't know it was against the rules for women to enter. She was outraged and jumped into the race none the less. Of that first race she reported being welcomed by the male runners around her and did not report a single negative comment. What did Semple have to say about her effort that day? “As long as she didn't interfere with the numbered runners or make mockery of the event he had no intention of tossing her off the course.”
Bobbi ran a 3:21:40 and would have been 126th. Semple was impressed.
Katherine Switzer attended Syracuse University where she earned a bachelors degree and eventually a masters degree in journalism. She also ran with the Syracuse Harriers Running club and was one of the only women in the club. Along the way she became determined to run the marathon and had to twist the coach's arm to train her to do it.
In 1967 Katherine Switzer entered the race. As the years go by there have been many tellings of this tail and the most popular one states that she “accidentally” ended up with the official entry and was just as shocked as anyone that such a fuss was made. She filled out the entry form as K.V. Switzer. She mailed in her medical examination and had her coach pick up her number before the race. Katherine wanted to change the world – a world that needed changing and she chose the Boston Marathon to make her statement. Good for her I say but it was no accident.
So there we are – K.V. Switzer is running along and she's spotted by race directors Cloney and Semple. Cloney implored her to hand over the number as she was breaking the rules. She wouldn't. And the rest is history. Semple made a lunge for the number (it was reported that he lunged for her but he always denied it) He got a tiny piece of it but then the hammer thrower got all of him. Now an old man in his 60's, he went down in a humiliating pile and the world saw it. Katherine finished the race in an estimated time of 4:20. The good guy (or girl in this case) won and the bad guy got his.
Semple got back on the bus and drove to the front of the race. On the way they passed, without incident, Bobbi Gibb taking her 2nd stab at Boston. She finished almost an hour in front of Switzer – after sitting on the sidelines for more than 10 minutes with a leg cramp that eventually let up.
It's easily arguable that without Semple the Boston Marathon would exist only in the history books. It's also arguable that he was a bullying Neanderthal but few people know that the guy was so impressed with Gibb's run the previous year that he arranged for a private change room and shower for her and that when the board finally convened to discuss opening the race to women, his was the loudest voice to say yes. It may have taken him a while to realize that women could be great runners but once he did he became one of their loudest supporters. The man loved runners.
The evidence that Jock Semple was an opponent of women running is contradicted by his life's work but it's not how he'll be remembered.
And now it's hard to listen to those who stand in opposition to equality for the professional women in Kona without thinking of Jock Semple and that humiliating photograph.
For centuries sport has been created by men, for men and controlled by men.  For a less than a finger count of decades women have been invited to play and now they're told they need to "step it up".  The "World" Ironman Championships in Kona allows 50 men to compete while limiting the women to 35.  They're told they don't have the numbers - they're not good enough yet.  It's all statistical noise designed to keep things the way they are and have always been.  By supporting the initiative for equality in Kona, you are not just supporting 15 women - you are supporting women.
In 1967 two uninvited women ran in Boston. Last year 45% of the field were women. Equality will come to Kona. It's inevitable and while there may not be a photograph of him pulling a woman off a bike, Andrew Messick's repeated "No" will become that photograph.
I know and like him. I think his work with Ironman has been outstanding. He's a fan and a participator and he's raised the profile of the race but sadly I fear his stubbornness on this issue will also be his legacy.

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