Women at the Olympics; a long roadBy Paula Ward | Jul 30, 12 09:33 AM
The London Olympics this year is the first time each national delegation includes women, but it's been a long road to get this far.
Women competing in sport are “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect”. These are the words of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder and organiser of the first Modern Olympics in 1896 and the result was no woman was permitted to compete.
We have come a long way since then but it has been slow progress. It has taken 116 years to see women competing in all Olympic sports. It is only this year at the London Olympic Games with the inclusion of women’s boxing that we will have no remaining sports that do not enable the participation of women.
It’s has been a long road…
The Ancient Olympic Games were the exclusive domain of men. Married women were not permitted to attend although, strangely, prostitutes and virgins were able to spectate. The only way a woman was able to officially take part was to enter a horse in an equestrian event. As the owner of the horse, the woman would be credited with the victory. Although, it was most likely she did not attend the actual event and she certainly did not participate as a rider. Kynisca, a Spartan princess was the first woman to achieve this feat when her horse won a chariot race.
Although unable to compete in the first modern Olympics, a Greek woman ran unofficially in the marathon. Not allowed to compete with the men, on the following day she ran the same course on her own. She was not permitted access to the arena for the final lap so instead ran around the outside of the stadium. Afterwards, officials could not recall her name – Stamata Revithi – so they labeled her ‘Melpomene’ the Greek muse of tragedy. It is indeed a misfortune that when they looked at her all they could see was tragedy and not her extraordinary feat.
The Paris Games in 1900 was the first time women were able to directly compete with the inclusion of women’s events in lawn tennis and golf. Records also show there was at least one woman competing in a team sailing event, three French women competing in croquet and a woman participating in a ballooning team.
Women’s boxing was included in 1904 as a demonstration sport although it will only be this year that it becomes a competitive inclusion.
The involvement of women in swimming was sanctioned in 1912 and the first gold medal was won by Australian, Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack in the 100m freestyle. Interestingly, women from America were not included in these initial swimming events due to a uniform requirement for all women to wear long skirts when competing.
In the same year, 1912, a 15-year-old British schoolgirl entered the modern pentathlon only to have her entry rejected. It took until 2000 for the first modern pentathlon for women to be contested.
Athletics and gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Olympics. However, so many women collapsed at the end of the 800m track event that this race was then banned until 1960.
Gender verification testing had been routine for all athletes for many years, when in 1976, the only female competitor not to have to submit to the test was Princess Anne. Although a member of the UK equestrian team, as the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II such a test was seen as inappropriate.
In 1981 the first woman was co-opted as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It took until 1990 for a woman to be elected to their Executive Board – Flor Isava Fonseca. Thirty years of committee participation by women has resulted in 19 women being active IOC members (out of 110) with four as honorary members.
The Sydney 2000 Olympics saw the introduction of women’s weightlifting.
Today, there are only two Olympic sports where men and women compete directly against each other - equestrian and sailing - although in sailing it is now only in one event. In addition, tennis and badminton have mixed double events.
Equality in the available sports is one thing, but in many countries women do not have an equal right to participate in sport or the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games. While the goal of gender equity is enshrined in the Olympic Charter, it has been difficult to achieve.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 26 countries competed without female representation. By the Beijing Olympics in 2008, only three countries had never before sent a female athlete. These three Muslim countries were Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. Pleasingly, all three countries plan to send female athletes to London. Brunei is sending a hurdler and Qatar is sending four athletes to compete in shooting, swimming, table tennis and track events. Most significantly, despite the Saudi Olympic Committee President, Prince Nawaf Bin-Faisal announcing he did “not approve” of sending female athletes to London, two Saudi women will be competing – one in the 800m track event and the other in judo. Interestingly, neither qualified to compete in the Olympics but received special invitations from the IOC “based on the quality of the athletes”.
This means the 2012 London Olympics will be the first time in history that every competing nation has both male and female representatives. This is a significant achievement.
Forty years ago in Munich there were 1,058 female athletes participating in the games, which represented only 14% of all athletes. This has increased substantially to a participation rate of 42% at the Beijing Olympics four years ago where there were 4,746 women of the 11,196 athletes.
It is evident that women’s inclusion in sport at an elite level has been contentious, long-fought and ongoing. It mirrors the same challenges corporate women face in entering our boardrooms, executive ranks and non-traditional roles. It is through persistence, determination and resilience that gender equality has any chance of being a reality.
Pierre de Coubertin‘s words no longer resonate with the wider community as we now see women in elite sport as inspirational role models, a high water mark for health and fitness and a source of admiration.
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Paula Ward is founder and director of Know The Game, a consultancy focused on enabling people to know enough about Australian sports so they can engage and network with senior executives, colleagues and clients. To stay across the latest sporting news subscribe to Paula's e-newsletter "From The Sidelines" by emailing email@example.com