When the 1981 World Cross Country Championships were held in Madrid’s Zarzuela hippodrome, it was possible to enter the infield and run from one side of the circuit to the other. As Grete Waitz took off in her usual fashion and immediately put daylight between herself and the rest of the world, the Spanish public surged to and fro across the grass chanting her name, “Grete, Grete.” No need for formalities, she was one of the most famous female athletes in the world.
There have been many accolades in the ensuing years and this Thursday, 29 September, in New York, Waitz will pick up one more, a Lifetime Achievement award at a gala dinner in the Palace hotel.
The prize will be given by the Norwegian-American Chambers of Commerce and there could scarcely be a more appropriate place to celebrate Waitz’s achievements for it was round New York’s streets that she racked up no fewer than nine marathon titles.
Add to those, two London crowns, the inaugural World Championship title in Helsinki 1983 and Olympic silver in 1984 and you start to realise that any discussion of who is the greatest female distance runner in the world is not to be embarked on lightly. Then of course there is cross country, a discipline that she was undefeated in for 12 years, taking the World title no fewer than five times.
A World record first
And that is just on the international plane because in her home country she totted up no fewer than 33 national titles, 24 Norwegian records ranging from 800m to the marathon and in 1975 became the first Norwegian woman to set a World record. She had run 3000m only once before in an ordinary 9:34.2 but the 1952 Bislett Olympic stadium was about to sprinkle its stardust over the 22-year-old when she set off in the Norway/Sweden/GDR triangular. A little less than eight minutes 47 seconds later she had won by the length of the straight, hacking more than 45sec off her best and in passing sliced a generous six seconds off the previous world mark held by Soviet Lyudmila Bragina. Three days later the then Grete Andersen married her coach, Jack Nilsen, taking his mother’s name Waitz as their married name. One year later she was to revise the 3000m figures yet again for her second track World record.
By 1978 she had converted to the marathon, setting about the record books with missionary zeal and turning the eighth New York marathon into a world best course with 2:32:29.8. She returned the following year to become the first woman to dip under the magic benchmark of 2:30 and came back for more a year later for her third world best. Her fourth and final global record came in the 1983 London marathon when she reduced the figures to 2:25:28.7.
Three minute victory in Helsinki
That same summer came the high-water mark of her career when she took gold in the first World Championships in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium and it is hard to imagine a more popular winner. By this time she was a seasoned marathoner and refused to be drawn when Ireland’s Regina Joyce established a 30-sec lead at 20km. In hot conditions Waitz gradually increased the pace until she took charge at around the 33km mark and proceeded to turn it on. Her final 5km split up to 40km was covered in 16:22 and she entered the stadium three minutes clear.
A statue in her honour
No surprise then that she is hailed as Norway’s greatest sportswoman and that in 1984 she received the ultimate accolade of a statue outside Norway’s cathedral of athletics, Bislett, sculpted by one of the country’s most famous artists, Nils Aas. It is a measure of the respect the country has for her that she shares this honour with Hjalmar Andersen, one of Norway’s great speed skaters who won three Olympic golds in the same stadium in 1952.
A fighter - public fitness and personal health
But Waitz’s achievements have been just as far reaching off the track and over time she has become an ambassador for women’s health. It was in 1984 that the Grete Waitz Run was born and for many years it was the biggest female race in the world with over 40,000 participants at its height. The event was to become the flagship for Waitz’s nationwide health campaign that was to extend beyond Norway’s borders.
By a cruel twist of fate, Waitz was struck down by cancer earlier this year and imagined that she would never travel to the States again. Never one to duck a challenge, she is upbeat about her illness and goes on the treadmill each day. Still under treatment she has been allowed to return to the scene of her many triumphs and will arrive in time for the Norway Festival in Central Park on Sunday. Three special races have been arranged by New York Road Runners, the Norway Run over 1.7miles, Grete’s Great Gallop (half marathon) and the Troll Stroll for 2-10 year-olds.
Michael Butcher for the IAAF