Perhaps the most dramatic image from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles did not involve a gold medalist -- or a medalist of any type.
It featured an athlete in distress, Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, whose tortured push to the finish line in the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon drew anguished gasps from a crowd of more than 70,000 in the Coliseum but transformed the Swiss runner into an international symbol of courage and determination.
Anyone who has seen it probably has never forgotten it.
The Idaho-based Andersen-Scheiss, a 39-year-old ski instructor who grew up in Switzerland, cut a ghostly figure as she entered the stadium.
Suffering from heat prostration at the end of a 26.2-mile race that started in Santa Monica on a muggy August morning, she limped and lurched around the track, holding her head and alternately stopping and restarting as the crowd groaned. Her left arm flailing at her side, her right leg unbending at the knee, she nevertheless waved off medical assistance, which would have meant her immediate disqualification.
Finally, after navigating the final 400 meters in an agonizing 5 minutes 44 seconds, Andersen-Scheiss fell into the waiting arms of three medical staffers as she reached the finish line in 37th place, 24 minutes behind winner Joan Benoit.
Two hours later, after being cooled with ice and hydrated intravenously, she was released from medical care and on her way back to the Olympic village at UCLA. Ten hours later she was being interviewed on television, stunned to realize she had garnered so much attention and wondering: Why all the fuss?
“Generally, I wasn’t happy about all this press,” Andersen-Scheiss, 62, says from Sun Valley, Idaho, where she lives with her husband (Richard Andersen) of 32 years, works as a part-time hotel florist and is still competitive in cross-country skiing and mountain biking. “I thought it was not appropriate. I didn’t think it was that special, and I couldn’t understand why the press was so fascinated by it.”
After all, she notes, “You try to at least finish your event.”
Over time, though, Andersen-Scheiss has come to better understand why her unrelenting fight to the finish so captivated a worldwide audience.
“I think people are always fascinated with something out of the ordinary,” she says. “If they see that it’s not that easy but still we fight through it, even if we don’t win, it shows the spirit of the Olympics. It’s not all about just winning. It’s also about being able to compete against the best in the world.”
When that happens, she adds, “Anything can happen.”
What happened with Andersen-Scheiss is that her body overheated, in part because she missed the last aid station, she says, when she needed water the most. She won a marathon in Sacramento nine months before the Olympics but says she usually did not fare well in hot weather. In fact, she was unable to finish a 10K in Phoenix five months before the Olympics, collapsing midway through.
But on the day that female marathoners were finally welcomed at the Olympics, it was not hot, with temperatures ranging from 66 at the 8 a.m. start to 76 at the finish. But the humidity was high -- between 70% and 95% during the race.
The last few miles, Andersen-Scheiss says, “I just got really hot and thirsty,” and her pace slowed. “But the trouble really came when I ran out of the tunnel into the stadium, where it was several degrees hotter. You’re coming down through the tunnel, where it’s cool and shady, but then you come out and it hits you....
“But at that point I also knew I only had to go around the track and I thought, ‘Well, I should be able to do that.’ Then I just fell apart.”
Afterward, medical opinion was divided. Some experts said that Andersen-Scheiss should not have been allowed to continue. Silver medalist Grete Waitz called the incident a tragedy. But Dr. Richard Greenspun, an Olympic medical official, said, “It’s our policy not to stop the athlete unless we feel her health is in danger.” Said Red Hunter, one of three medical officials who ran the last 400 meters with Andersen-Scheiss: “It had to be most courageous thing I’ve ever seen.”
Almost a quarter-century later, Benoit lauds the Swiss runner’s “gutsy effort,” but history’s first Olympic women’s marathon gold medalist is reluctant to reveal much more, noting, “All I can say is, I’m glad it had a happy ending.”
In Idaho, Andersen-Scheiss still believes that her effort was no big deal because, “I know there are other people that would have done the same thing.”
She stopped running after knee surgery in 1991 but competed in masters world championships in cross-country skiing in Switzerland in 1999 and in Italy two years ago. Her mountain biking competition, she says, is limited to more local events.
Recently, though, she was slowed by a knee replacement.
“Sometimes I say I should quit,” Andersen-Scheiss says of her still-competitive lifestyle, “but it just doesn’t seem to be in my nature.”