Mary Slaney discusses the roadblocks she faced as an amateur, female track athlete in the 70’s and 80’s.
by Bob Babbitt
Bob Babbitt: What a lot of people don’t realize is that the first time women could compete in the Olympics in the 1500 wasn’t until 1972; the 10,000 wasn’t until 1988; and the 5000 wasn’t until 1996, and the 3000 and marathon were in 1984. There weren’t a lot of Olympic options for women, even though I know you were injured in 1976 and in 1980 we didn’t go. Your only options then were 800 or 1500. Even though you had such great range and you were dominant from the 1500 all through 10,000 meters, the opportunities at the Olympics were missing.
Mary Slaney: I remember in 1983, we as women athletes were trying to get the marathon added to the Olympic schedule for 1984. Through the years, we had to prove that we weren’t going to disintegrate, fall apart or melt if we tried to run a marathon.
BB: When I look back again at what you accomplished in 1974: three world records, and you were 16 years old. That’s a lot of success for someone so young. Were you allowed to receive prize money and allowed to be under contract to sponsors back then?
MS: Oh, no. You weren’t allowed to get paid for anything. Back then, I didn’t receive any money for anything. In the 1980s we started getting some money, but it was controlled by the Federation.
BB: I remember talking to Rod Dixon and some of the other guys, and they would go to these track meets in Europe and people would be lined up in the hallway to get their money. And they would go to the American guys and say, ‘Hey are you going to come get your money?’ And they would say, ‘What money?’
MS: Yeah. No kidding, I had no clue. Everything was under the table. There were athletes by the end of the season walking around with tens of thousands of dollars in cash with them.
BB: Athletes whom you were beating.
BB: If you look at 1982, you set six world records ranging from the mile to the 10,000. Then in 1983 you won the 1500 and 3000 in Helsinki, the Sullivan Award, Sports Illustrated’s Sports Person of the Year. If someone had two years like that now – oh my god. It would be multi-million dollar bonuses. It would be basically what Michael Phelps just did.
MS: Yeah, well it would be up there. But I think I have to look at it from a different perspective. I think I helped open doors and prove that women should be respected athletes as well as men. And it’s – I remember going to meets all through my career and through the late 1970s and 1980s, the men’s events were always spotlighted, bigger, better – and it was almost as if we were…
BB: Second-class citizens?
MS: Well, like we were the opening act.
BB: You were the warm-up band.
MS: Yeah. And my mental goal was, it didn’t matter whom I was racing against or not racing against, I always wanted to be better within myself. I ran against my own times quite frequently in those countries, because I wanted to run faster and be better each time. I also thought that we would get recognized more as women if we were running faster and breaking more records. If we ran slow… you know, it was kind of like we wouldn’t even get a mention.
BB: You wanted to put on a show.
MS: I didn’t want to go to an event and just go through the motions, and I’ve been criticized frequently over the years when I was racing. Why do you go out and run hard when there is no one challenging you? The reason is because I want to make a mark on the sport and I want it to be exciting for people.