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Never Done Breaking Barriers

Department of Nike Archives

Joan Benoit Samuelson's incredible marathon win in 1984 shattered the world's assumptions about what female athletes were capable of. Dive into the moment, and learn how it was built upon the contributions of many.

Last updated: June 29, 2022
4 min read

For many years, it was thought by some that the longest distance a woman could safely run was 1,500 metres. An unsubstantiated assumption that unbelievably was a reality as recently as 40 years ago—until Joan Benoit and many others changed the landscape of sport forever.

Incredibly, into the early 1980s, though women had been running marathons for many years, they were prevented from running any further than three and three-quarter laps at the Games. Told they were too weak for longer track races, let alone 26.2 miles of road, their potential was restricted by misogyny.

Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy
Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy

But supported by Nike, a female two-time marathon world record holder founded a committee to lobby for the chance for women to go for gold at long distances. She was joined in leading this by good friend and training partner Joan Benoit, who—owing to the stages each was at in their career—would likely be the one to ultimately make history by running the race when the time came.

Backed by Nike's funding, advertising, connection of top-ranked runners and drafting and translation of correspondence, Benoit and the committee's efforts paid off as the 3000m and marathon were added for women for 1984 in LA. However, many still held on to their outdated beliefs as the 50 competitors toed the starting line on 5th August.

Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy
Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy

Custom shoe made exclusively for, and worn by, Joan Benoit at the 1984 Games.

Two hours, twenty-four minutes and fifty-two seconds later, Joan Benoit had ensured nobody would ever again question women's ability to take on a race of any distance.

Her performance wasn't just dominant for a woman, but any runner; her time was better than 13 of the previous 20 men's winners. Attacking from as early as the third mile of the race despite the searing Southern California heat, Benoit finished around a minute and a half faster than the field, despite arthroscopic knee surgery three months before.

The impact of her race lasted far beyond that summer. Along with previous leaps forwards in women's marathon times, it opened up opportunities for female athletes around the world—a direct response to anyone who said they couldn't. Though the defiance of many women since has broken barriers, without Joan's brave, bold run it would have been a very different journey.

Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy
Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy

Women are still excluded from competing in some events at the highest level based on ridiculous assumptions, or face unfair prejudices and double standards in decisions about eligibility. While Joan's '84 win ushered in a new wave of opportunities for female runners around the world, the fight is far from over.

Want to follow Joan?

Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy
Never Done Breaking Barriers: Joan Benoit Samuelson's Legacy

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