CAMBRIDGE — A single tear streaked down Eleonora Mendonça’s right cheek. She was mid-flashback, finishing the women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Once again, she felt the fatigue of 26.2 miles in her muscles and the searing heat of that historic day. She heard the roar of 77,000 race fans as she entered the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. She crossed the line, beaming with pioneering pride, and waved to the crowd.
She had not only completed the course but fought all the sexist sports officials in her native Brazil and beyond to help make the first Olympic women’s marathon happen. For her and for the 49 other women in the field.
When Mendonça runs through the streets of Rio de Janeiro on Friday, hours before the Opening Ceremony of this year’s Summer Games, she will carry a lifetime of athletic memories along with the Olympic torch.
There will be the years as co-president of the International Runners Committee, fighting to put the marathon and other distance running events on the women’s Olympic program. There will be the embrace of the Cambridge running community and the reverence for the Boston Marathon that turned a tennis player and sometime smoker into an elite marathoner. There will be the running movement she helped ignite in Brazil in the 1970s by organizing long-distance races in Rio and Sao Paulo, encouraging women to compete alongside men.
If all goes as planned during her leg of the torch relay, Mendonça will be trailed by fellow Brazilians wearing specially designed T-shirts that read, “I am part of this history,” in Portuguese. Those runners will be some of the participants in the first road races Mendonça organized.
“To be chosen for the relay and run my leg in Rio is a feeling you can’t put into words,” said Mendonça. “It’s incredible. It’s unbelievable. It’s a beautiful emotion.
“Rio is my birth town and where the Brazilian trials were held for the first women’s Olympic marathon, where I was selected to run in LA.”
Despite all that her torch-relay leg will symbolize, the 67-year-old Mendonça is not as well-known as other barrier breakers in women’s sports. The American names come quickly to mind: Billie Jean King, Althea Gibson, Pat Summitt, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Bobbi Gibb, Gertrude Ederle, Ann Meyers Drysdale, Michelle Akers, and Mia Hamm, for starters.
But the contribution Mendonça made to women’s sports, particularly in Brazil, is no less valuable and no less remarkable than any of theirs. And the first Olympics held in South America offer an opportunity to recognize that.
Barriers in Brazil
While Americans enjoyed the benefits of Title IX, a 1972 law that required federally funded schools to provide girls and women with equal opportunity to compete in sports, Brazilian girls and women found their participation limited by law.
From 1941 until 1979, there was a decree in place stating that female athletes in Brazil “will not be allowed to practice sports incompatible with the conditions of their nature.” Government officials used the tired, false, and sexist argument that they were simply looking out for the reproductive health of women.
Even after Mendonça won the 1984 Olympic marathon trials in Rio, the president of Brazil’s track and field federation refused to submit her name to the International Olympic Committee as the country’s representative in the first women’s Olympic marathon. Threats of lawsuits followed, and the federation ultimately relented.
“I was on the black list for them because I was opening opportunities for everybody, and it was their responsibility to do that,” said Mendonça. “It was almost like jealously.
“The first time they had to get back at me was after the trials. They used their power to get back at me. Also, at that time, we were going through a dictatorship, and that was the culture of those days. But I refused to give in.”
When Mendonça became serious about running in her mid 20s, she found a scarcity of opportunities for women who wanted to compete in the 5,000 meters, the 10,000, and the marathon. She also experienced the prejudice against female distance runners that existed among sports officials.
Before the IOC considered placing a women’s marathon on the Olympic program, Mendonça and others engaged in the fight had to demonstrate that women could run the distance and run it fast. And they had to prove that interest in women’s marathon running was spreading.
Mendonça gathered data to present to the IOC, notably the number of women running sub-three-hour marathons. As a Brazilian, she offered proof that interest in the women’s marathon went beyond the US and a handful of European countries.
“The top female marathoners, long-distance runners, including myself, didn’t have a goal like the men had to run the 5,000, 10,000, and the marathon in the Olympic Games,” said Mendonça. “So we started talking about it.
“We said, ‘Listen, we’re posting great times here. We need those events in the Olympic Games.’
“So different organizations, including the International Runners Committee, formed and started lobbying, convincing the IOC that we were physically capable of doing long distances. And we were trying to prove that women were running long distances all over the world.”
Still going strong
The 32 years since the Los Angeles Olympics have done nothing to diminish Mendonça’s passion for running and for women’s causes.
Still lithe and fit from daily runs of 3-4 miles, she looks little different from the days when she set 10 Brazilian national records in distances ranging from the 1,500 to the marathon. Her marathon personal best is 2:48:45, good enough for fifth in the 1978 New York City Marathon.
And while gray hair has replaced the jet black of her youth, her irrepressible energy and unguarded enthusiasm for the Olympics, for Brazilian food, and for fast cars only add to the impression of someone much younger.
She also dashes around Cambridge and Cape Cod in a BMW convertible with a custom Massachusetts license plate that reads, “LA 84.”
“I got it soon after the Olympics,” said Mendonça. “Let me get it before somebody else gets it. I’ve got to have it.”
Mendonça traveled to the US for graduate school in 1972, studying for a master’s in science at Cortland State in New York. With the weather making it tough to play tennis there, she starting running. She moved to Cambridge in 1974 to work, joined the Cambridge Sports Union, and found herself inspired by teammates such as Sara Mae Berman, a three-time winner of the Boston Marathon.
Starting in 1976, Mendonça would go on to complete Boston 10 times, finishing in the top 25 on multiple occasions.
With a master’s, a law degree, a world-class running résumé, 17 years spent teaching French, Spanish, and Portuguese in the Cambridge public school system, and decades of doing battle with powerful sports organizations, it’s clear that Mendonça can multi-task and get things done.
Not surprisingly, she voiced disappointment with Rio’s lack of readiness for the Games.
“I’ve heard from people in Brazil and they’re very disturbed,” said Mendonça. “They don’t think the city is prepared the way they should be prepared to host an Olympic Games. I don’t think it is.
“Those things that we hear now — the water being polluted and the social problems — that should have been eliminated way, way before.
“I don’t know how it’s going to come out. I worry because it’s my city. I want everything to work out and I hope it will. But I’ve been spending quite a bit of time this past year in Brazil and I know it’s not just bad publicity. This is actually happening.”
When asked what would have happened if organizers put her in charge of the Rio Games, if she would have solved the biggest problems long ago, Mendonça said, “Oh, oh yes. No question about it. I’d be way ahead.”
It’s easy to believe. She spoke with the hard-won confidence that comes from a life of big accomplishments.