Empowering women to #PressforProgress is the theme of International Women’s Day 2018 but for Olympian Brenda Carr, 81, it describes her lifelong attitude and trailblazing athletics career.
Now retired and enjoying life at Bolton Clarke’s Galleon Gardens Retirement Village on the Gold Coast, Brenda retains the determination that paved the way for her work to open opportunities for female long distance runners.
It was the Summer of 1956 when the Olympics came to Brenda’s home town – Melbourne.
She had been training hard under the watchful eye of her husband and coach and was ready to race, but was dismayed that the 800-metre women’s race was excluded from the Games.
The event had a difficult start in Amsterdam in 1928, with a number of women collapsing after the race. At the time only about 10 per cent of Olympic competitors were women.
The then IOC President argued for women to be banned from all events, but ultimately they were allowed to run in races up to 200-metres until the reinstatement of the 800-metre in 1960.
For Brenda, a medal in the 800-metres was always her goal.
“I used to compete for my club at other events,” she said.
“When the whistle blew I’d run the 800m with the men to prove it didn’t affect me.”
Brenda said situations like this weren’t foreign to female athletes.
“Back then the rule book said shorts had to be five inches above the knees,” she said.
“We were also banned from wearing satin as it was too revealing.
“We pioneered through all of that.”
Inspired by female Olympian Marjorie Jackson she watched on TV as a 12-year-old, Brenda didn’t let her country upbringing and lack of access to high end training facilities stop her from winning her own medal.
“I was 17 before I started running at a club level,” she said.
“I always loved the sport through school, so I told the sports mistress advised me to find a club.
“She took me to Melbourne and I joined an athletics club.”
This was when Brenda realised the reality of the divide between male and female athletes, and began her quest for equality on the track.
“We were training at Caulfield Racecourse where I saw the men running around the track,” she said.
“I said to one of the girls I was with that we should go run as well and she told me ‘women don’t do that’.”
But there was no stopping Brenda and the next time the men lapped the track of course she joined in.
Fast forward to 1960, past the tireless campaigning to get her beloved sport into the Games – it was the year of the Rome Olympics and it was Brenda’s time to shine.
The 800m for women had been restored as an event, and Brenda went on to win the silver medal in the race.
After her win, she continued campaigning to get more long distance events for women into the Games as well as furthering her career in the United Kingdom, where her husband was coaching.
Upon their return to Australia, the dedicated pair started the Cross Country running club for women which Brenda believes also had an important impact on the development of the sport.
Today while her training regime isn’t quite as intense, she continues to follow her roots of giving back to her community in her new home on the Gold Coast.
“If you’ve got gifts you should share them,” she said.
And will she be attending the Commonwealth Games when they arrive in her home town in April? She has tickets to the women’s athletics finals, which she hopes to attend with fellow members of her old running club.