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Gayle Olinekova, 50; Changed Perceptions About Allure, Athleticism

December 04, 2003|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Gayle Olinekova, a marathon runner and fitness guru whose chiseled, muscular legs helped change cultural views about beauty in female athletes in the 1980s, has died. She was 50.

Olinekova, who also wrote five books to promote healthy lifestyles and became a doctor of chiropractic in Westlake Village, died of cancer Nov. 26 at the City of Hope in Duarte.

Once a sprinter on the Canadian national track team, Olinekova made the unorthodox transition to marathon running in the 1970s.

In 1979, she won the New Orleans Marathon in 2 hours, 35 minutes and 12 seconds, then the third-fastest recorded time for a woman.

But after moving to Venice, she became less known for her running accomplishments than for her appearance.

On her daily runs in the early 1980s, she would draw astonished looks from the locals -- no mean feat in the circus atmosphere of Venice -- who were impressed by her chiseled, muscular legs.

In January 1981, she was featured in a lavishly photographed Sports Illustrated magazine profile headlined "Greatest Legs to Ever Stride on the Earth."

That was followed two months later by a photograph of her on the cover of the now-defunct magazine New West. The photograph, by art photographer Helmut Newton, was one of several that the magazine ran under the heading "Strong Women: A Portfolio of California's Super Athletes."

The photographs of Olinekova, as well as an earlier poster that was popular among bodybuilding devotees in Venice, did much to change perceptions of what women athletes could look like.

"Strength is beauty," Olinekova told a Los Angeles Times reporter some years ago. "I grew up in the '60s when it wasn't cool [for a female] to be athletic. The Twiggy look was in. Nobody wanted to have muscular legs in miniskirts. I was running even then."

In Olinekova's view, women runners didn't have to have the thin, gaunt look that was traditional for those competing in distance events. She said she developed her legs by doing weight work in the gym and extensive hill running. She maintained that the running was the key and would later encourage bodybuilders who wanted to develop their legs to get out of the gym, put on their running shoes and head for the hills.

And while most top-level women distance runners have maintained a traditional thin appearance, Olinekova's legacy may be that it was appropriate for women athletes to determine their own look.

Kate Schmidt, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist in the javelin who was also featured in the New West portfolio, remembered that Olinekova was "very exuberant about her look. It was completely different."

"[Today's] generation of women athletes owe everything to women like Gayle and Lisa Lyons for them to never have to think about how they developed their bodies, how they look and how they lived their lives," Schmidt told The Times this week. Lyons, a bodybuilder, became a subject for the art photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Born Gayle Olinek in Toronto, the budding athlete eventually adopted the spelling Olinekova. She began running at an early age and, at 16, broke a Toronto girls highschool record in the quartermile. In June 1969, she was named to the Canadian national team.

But from then on, her athletic accomplishments were offset by health crises, accidents and injuries that hampered her ultimate goal to compete in the Olympics.

She finished second in the 800 meters at the Pan American Games in 1971, but the next year she suffered a fractured skull and whiplash during a collision while she was sprinting on a track in Toronto.

She won an 800-meter race at an invitational track meet in Zurich in 1974, but contracted what was believed to be cholera while visiting Morocco.

Still recovering from that illness, she returned to Canada to compete for a spot on the 1976 Olympic team but failed to qualify.

By 1980, Olinekova had relocated to California and was living and training in Venice.

She had also changed her running focus from sprints to distance running and hoped to compete in the Olympics, but the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Summer Games, which Canada joined, foiled that effort.

In 1981, she suffered another setback when she ruptured a tendon while running in the Jordache Marathon in Los Angeles, which she was helped organize. Three years later she was injured when she was hit by a car while training for the 1984 Olympics. She recovered from those injuries as well, but her Olympic dreams were finished. But she was amazing to behold in her prime.

"She's running a sub-6-minute-mile pace, faster than such calves and thighs seem capable of carrying her, and as she hurries by, a sea of heads keeps turning, eyes cast down, mouths ajar," the article in Sports Illustrated noted.

"Does everyone in your family look like that?" one onlooker shouted at her? "No," she replied, "some of us have two heads."

She is survived by her parents, Nestor and Lucy Olinek of Toronto; a brother, Gary Olinek, of Trenton, Mich., and a sister, Susan P. Olinek, of New Market, Ontario.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at the United Methodist Church of Westlake Village, 1049 Westlake Blvd., Westlake Village, Calif.

The family suggests that donations be made to Cancer Research, City of Hope, 1500 E. Duarte Road, Duarte, CA 91010.

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