Sometimes Progress Needs A Little Shove

During a number of recent conversations about technology and the rate of progress (general thrust: technologists underestimate – and the general public overestimate – how long adoption will take), I’ve been thinking about tipping points. In most cases, these appear obvious only in retrospect after a little time has passed to firmly place events in some kind of perspective.

However some events clearly have more impact than others. I read a great article today about Kathrine Switzer who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967. So far, so unremarkable you might think. Nothing unusual there Р unless you realise that women were banned from running marathons 50 years ago.

It gets better though. Not only did Switzer run in and complete the race (in a very creditable 4 hours 20), one of the organisers was so affronted when he spied the interloper, he took it upon himself to physically launch himself at her in an attempt to shove her off the road, before a male running companion removed him.

The drama was caught by a photographer whose three pictures were shared far and wide in the press, starting that same evening. As the article says, “her run, and the photos, changed the lives of all female runners”.

Only 6 years later, Switzer’s would-be assailant, Jock Semple, opened up the Boston Marathon to women (Switzer came third) and the 1984 Olympics saw the introduction of the woman’s Marathon for the first time. And today, almost half of all entrants in marathons around the world are female.

I guess sometimes rules have to be broken in order to allow widescale progress to take place. Rules that, by definition, have after all been designed for the purpose of protecting the status quo. And ironically it’s often the very people who are most opposed to progress that inadvertently lay the foundations for it to take place.