On October 19, 1974, Zozo Christodoulou did something that no other Greek woman had done before: She ran in the original Marathon race, making history for Greek women.
At the time, the race was called the “Open Marathon” or “The People’s Marathon”. There were female runners, of course, but they were all foreigners. Greece was a bit behind at the time regarding female empowerment. Christodoulou said in an later interview that when she was training for the race, men would often shout at her to “go wash the dishes”. Even her female friends would tell her to stop running because it would ruin her figure.
All that was not enough to stop her. She wanted to keep training, and keep running, just waiting for the big day. As she said, she didn’t care to be the first Greek woman to run the Marathon. She just wanted to run it.
At the time, Christodoulou was 23 years old. She ran the race wearing number 606 and crossed the finish line at Panathenaic Stadium in 5 hours, 1 minute and 20 seconds, finishing sixth among women and leaving about 200 male athletes trailing behind her. At that particular Marathon there were 44 women athletes besides Christodoulou, competing in a field of 650 men.
“I had to finish, to convince women that they could do it,” she said in an interview years later. “Otherwise, I would confirm that those who have the opposite opinion are right.”
Christodoulou was born in 1951 in Cairo, Egypt and at age 16 she moved with her family to Athens. She began her athletic career at the Athletic Club of Filothei and for a long time was the only woman on the team. In 1968, as she was beginning her studies in psychology, she joined Ethnikos athletics club where she trained to run the 100 and 200 meters.
Christodoulou then joined the group of women competing in the 1,500 meters, which was the maximum distance allowed for women at the time. In fact women were not allowed to exercise as many times as they wanted because there was a general belief that they didn’t have the stamina for it. They were not even allowed to have their own locker rooms.
In October 1974, just days before the “Open” Marathon, Christodoulou read in the newspaper that 44 female athletes from Germany would be coming to participate in the race. Although she had not trained properly for a marathon, she requested permission from the Athletics Federation to participate, and after receiving a special certificate from a cardiologist, she was allowed to run. Four days before the race, she completed her biggest run, covering 21.5 km, almost half the distance of a marathon.
Christodoulou said that she recalls that the day of the race, along the route people shouted at her, “Are you Greek? You will finish first!” People’s perception had totally changed when they saw her running and covering a large portion of the distance. When she entered the stadium she said she could not describe the feeling of joy and pride as people cheered for her.
The first female Marathon runner had made her dream come true. “I wanted to run in the 1974 Marathon. I did not want to prove anything. I just wanted to run. I was going to finish the route. Many thought I wanted to prove that women can do it. But I was not interested in this. I just wanted to run.”