SI Vault
Myron Cope
April 22, 1968
Jock Semple, the colorful Scot who manages Boston's epic event, wages a passionate battle for his race and against those who mock it
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 22, 1968

Angry Overseer Of The Marathon

Jock Semple, the colorful Scot who manages Boston's epic event, wages a passionate battle for his race and against those who mock it

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Certainly you've heard of Jock Semple. One year ago, to be exact, you saw his picture in the sports pages. Hardly a newspaper in the nation failed to publish the wirephotos (below) that flashed out of Boston on April 19, Patriot's Day.

Here is this girl named Kathy Switzer from Syracuse University. Jogging along, she wears a trackman's sweat suit and the number 261. She has crashed the Boston Marathon, an event for men only, having obtained an entry number through chicanery. Miss Switzer's dark hair swirls as she looks apprehensively over her left shoulder. Behind her, clutching wildly at her back, is this stocky old guy in a sports jacket. His fringe of gray hair blows in the cold wind, and you can see him grinding his teeth as though he were a pint-size King Kong on a rampage. He seems to want to hurl Kathy Switzer off the course and clear into Boston Bay.

The old guy is Jock Semple, of course. "That fearsome picture!" he still exclaims. "That awful, fierce expression!"

Immediately to Semple's left in the picture is a runner named Tom Miller, Kathy Switzer's boy friend, and Miller piles into Semple with a shoulder block. "That guy's a hammer thrower, for cripes' sake!" Semple shouts, studying a dog-eared copy of the picture. Crash goes the hammer thrower's shoulder. Out of the race goes Semple. And on goes Kathy Switzer.

This Friday—another April 19—an army of 600 runners crowds into a sort of giant corral on a side street in Hopkinton, Mass. for the start of the 72nd annual Boston Athletic Association Marathon—a 26-mile 385-yard jog to Prudential Center in Boston. The handful of distance enthusiasts who administer the race, tending to a zillion details without pay, regard the Boston Marathon as the world's second biggest international sports event—second only to the Olympic Games. But lately the great event has been fighting for its dignity. Although the best marathoners from every continent still flock to Boston, the race has become something of a field day for jokers and oddballs. In among the serious runners, fast and not so fast, are the characters: college freshmen groaning along as a part of their fraternity hazing; fat men who look as though they might have trouble climbing a flight of steps; saloon braggarts trying to win a bet; and, of course, women, who trot along as unofficial entrants, denied numbers for their chests. All of these poseurs, few of whom come close to finishing the race, send a shudder up the spine of John Duncan Semple, the irascible, 64-year-old Scot who is Mr. Boston Marathon himself.

"I'm not o'poozed t' women's athletics," says Jock, whose burr remains almost as thick as it was the day in 1923 when he left Clydebank for America. Indeed, he has donated trophies to women's races. "But we're taught t' respect laws—t' respect rules. The amateur rules here say a woman can't run more th'n a mile and a half. I'm in favor of makin' their races longer, but they doon't belong with men. They doon't belong runnin' with Jim Ryun. You wouldn't like to see a woman runnin' with Jim Ryun, wouldya?"

Jock happens to be the unpaid coach and trainer of the Boston AAA, an organization that has not owned a building since the 1930s but lives on in the minds of the men who run under its banner. Nearly indispensable to the marathon, Semple processes close to 1,000 applications, responds to a flood of correspondence from around the globe and on race day herds the runners to order like a sweaty cowboy on the Chisholm Trail. Yet, because last year he lit out after Miss Switzer, he has emerged as the marathon's heavy.

Actually, as much as Jock appeared to want to paddle her behind, he was only trying to pull the number off her back. She had applied for entry as " K. Switzer," and in order to have the physical exam waived she had sent in a doctor's certificate attesting that K. Switzer was fit to run. A male friend claimed her number for her at the scene. Miss Switzer pleads that she was ignorant of the rule barring women but that, uhm, uh, well, she resorted to a conspiracy just in case. It was the deception that outraged Jock. Nevertheless, Columnist Bud Collins of The Boston Globe landed on him in print, reminding him that American women had been emancipated. Jock stuffed the Collins column into a drawer where he keeps memorabilia, but each time he reread it his teeth began to gnash. His capacity for rage builds relentlessly, like a volcano's. Eight months and countless expletives later he erupted, tearing the column to shreds.

Then there was the neat-looking, blue-eyed blonde whom Jock refers to as "the Gibb dame." Roberta Gibb doesn't bother with a number. She simply pops onto the course and begins to run and, admittedly, she runs very well. She came on last year in a Paisley blouse with mandarin collar, as if she were modeling at a Ritz-Carlton luncheon. One marathoner confessed that he trailed her for eight miles, unable to tear away from the sight of "those lovely, lovely legs."

"Who's she kiddin'?" Jock bellows, unswayed by Miss Gibb's charms. "She runs in leotards and all that. Why doon't she run in women's events? She never does. This Gibb dame doon't run in anythin'!"

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5