Twenty-eight years ago, in spring 1973, this novel of mine was bought by William Morrow. A year later, in 1974, it was finally published and hit the bestseller lists. Today it is wonderful to see that people are still reading this book as much as they ever did in the 1970s, when it was a bestseller. No doubt it's because the challenges are still out there for gay people in the sports world, and the collision of gay athletes with the straight establishment still fascinates.
I wrote The Front Runner to tell a kind of gay story that had never been told -- about love, but also about commitment and victory against all odds. The story of a young gay athlete and his coach, who are trying to get to the 1976 Olympics, and paying a high price to hate and bigotry, came out of my own experience and observations as an amateur distance runner and AAU official.
At age 32 in 1968, my short distance-running career started out as an interest in health and jogging, then a personal female challenge about how far I could run. In a couple of years I was up to serious training, running 100 miles a week. Indeed, the runner's need to reach deep inside and "find more" spurred my self-discovery as a woman and my consciousness-raising concerning women's rights. Only then, through running, could I finally catch up with those long-festering questions about sexual orientation. It dawned on me that sports are a major arena in which American society hard-wires "traditional" notions about gender roles and orientation into its citizens.
In the words of Bob Dylan, change was "blowing in the wind" of an America convulsed with all kinds of rights of issues. I was in the middle of it -- one of a number of women outlaw runners trying to break into the 26.2-mile male-owned marathon. As an adjunct to the civil-rights movement, the "athletes' rights movement" was battling the antiquated and hypocritical rules that still ran U.S. athletics. The U.S. denied their amateur athletes any opportunity to profit from sport -- and sent them into competition with countries that openly subsidized their Olympic teams. A minor infraction of the rules could ruin an athlete's career. Women could not make an overnight athletic trip without a chaperone. In running, they were still limited to 2 1/2 miles. There were few women's track teams -- indeed, women were still barred from all high- stress sports, including long-distance running, which was viewed as the No. 1 "extreme sport" of the day. Athletes of color were demanding equal recognition. In 1968 a black gold-medallist dared to raise a fist of black power as he stood on the victory stand at the Olympic Games.
Already the occasional gay and lesbian athlete was public ally rumored to be gay or lesbian -- as was golf champion Babe Didrickson (my big teen idol!). In the equestrian world, where I showed hunters and jumpers on the A circuit for a few years, a few wealthy amateur riders and horse-owners dared to be discreetly out. One gay male rider discreetly advertised his different orientation by wearing a rat-catcher that was impeccably tailored from sheared mink. But riders hoping to make the Olympic team kept a rigid heterosexual profile.
In 1969, the first year that 11 other women and I crashed the Boston Marathon and ran without numbers, another fist was being raised -- more quietly. It was the year of Stonewall, and many closeted university students were electrified by a dual challenge -- coming out and doing long-distance running. Students came flooding into the big road races. Here, in the relatively liberal atmosphere of this new and unconventional sport, several years before the first public rumors about gay hanky-panky in baseball, several years before pro football player David Kopay came out, some of these young gay and lesbian runners in their hippie headbands and Adidas shoes dared to be more socially visible. The Front Runner story screamed to be told -- homosexual athletes defying the sexual conformity enforced through sports.
So writing and publishing the book was part of my personal coming out. After running the Boston, I ran other races and became one of a coalition of women marathoners who pressured the AAU to change its rules. We threatened litigation (the AAU took federal money to run their Olympics program, so they were in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.) I was national publicity director for the Roadrunners Club of America, served on the Metropolitan AAU Long Distance Committee, and did publicity for the New York City Marathon, which was originally conceived as a showcase for women marathoners. I also wrote fiery editorials in the track and distance running press about women's rights! In the 1974 New York City Marathon, the year that TFR was published, I finally competed as an out gay woman. About a year later, the AAU finally caved in and changed the rules.
About that time, I was forced to quit running because of bad knees.
Today, at 65, with gardening and walking my sports of choice, I can sit at my TV and watch women run their own Olympic marathon. The frontiers of extreme sport have moved on to sky surfing, skateboarding and such. Women are now busy invading surfing and other relics of male-dominated sport. Gay athletes have achieved a certain level of visibility and tolerance -- but mainly in the sports based on individual performance. Yes, we've had Martina Navratilova and Greg Louganis. Rudy Galindo is still out there in figure skating. The city of Palm Springs has finally publicly admitted that 10 million lesbians come to town for the Dinah Shore. FrontRunner Clubs help sponsor big mainstream distance races like the Chicago Marathon. We have our own international Gay Games -- though legally we are still barred from calling them "Olympics."
But in team sports, whether pro or amateur, openly gay athletes and coaches still face overweening hostility. In high school and college athletics, the old shower-room and pedophile issues are still wielded like baseball bats. Openly gay coaches Eric "Gumby" Anderson and Dan Woog are among the few victorious male survivors in this bloody arena. Women's basketball, finally a popular TV spectator sport, is in constant uproar over the "L" issue.
As I write this, mainstream sports are pressing ever forward to find new frontiers -- the first amputee has just climbed Mount Everest. But we non-straights are still struggling to get that fist of power higher in the air. Nevertheless, despite the recent far-right reactions in U.S. society, the gales of change from the '60s are still blowing. Women and people of color will not likely surrender the sports ground we took -- neither will gay and lesbian athletes.
Copyright © 2001 by Patricia Nell Warren All rights Reserved