Participation in the Modern Olympic Games was limited to male athletes only. The only way women were able to take part was to enter horses in the equestrian events, but only as owners – they couldn’t compete themselves. The Games’ founder, Pierre de Coubertin, said the inclusion of women would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.”
Even in the early years of the modern Olympics, women were not well represented. Women participated for the first time at the 1900 Paris Games with the inclusion of women’s events in lawn tennis and golf. Women’s athletics and gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Olympics. Over time, more women’s events were added. In 2012, women’s boxing was introduced, resulting in no remaining sports that do not include events for women.
Equality in the available sports is one thing, but in many countries women do not have equal rights to participate in sports and therefore the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games. Prior to the London 2012 Olympics, three Muslim countries had never before sent a female athlete: Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. However, they bowed to pressure from the Olympic committee and sent female athletes to the London Games in 2012. Now every country in the Games has sent women athletes to compete.
What the ladies wore during the events were like to gather as much attention as their athletic performances. In the 116 years since then, spectators are still fascinated by the Olympic uniforms. Sometimes the game attire can spark just as many headlines as the scores they win. In the beginning, the uniforms followed the traditional Victorian dress standards of corsets and long white day dresses, with high collared tops and long sleeves. Since then, the number of sporting events women participate in during the Olympics has grown from 5 to 50, and their uniforms have changed just as dramatically. Hemlines rose and arms were bared, developing into the lightweight and high-tech uniforms that we see today.
However, despite progress in female participation, inequalities in treatment between genders continued. In 2012, the International Boxing Association (IBA) suggested women should wear skirts to help ‘distinguish’ them from the males, since all the fighters were headgear. The Olympic Committee decided that skirts were optional, but Poland Boxing made skirts compulsory, saying they are more ‘elegant’.
FIRST GOLD MEDAL WINNERS
Tennis – Charlotte Cooper, 1900 (England)
Sailing – Hélène de Pourtalès, 1900 (Switzerland)
Golf – Margaret Abbott, 1900 (USA)
Swimming – Sarah Durack, 1912 (Australia)
High & Long Jump – Fanny Blankers-Koan, 1948 (Holland)
Marathon – Joan Benoit, 1984 (USA)
MOST MEDALS AWARDED
Until 2012, Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina held the record for having won the most medals of any athlete (male or female) in Olympic history. Between 1956 and 1964 she won medals in 18 gymnastics events. When Michael Phelps broke the 48-year record at the London Games, Latynina quipped that “it was about time for a man to be able to do what a woman had done long ago“.
British Equestrian, Lorna Johnston, was 70 years old when she rode at the 1972 Games, being the oldest woman to ever compete at an Olympic Games, a record which still stands today.
The London 2012 Olympic Games signified a new gender milestone with the debut of Women’s Boxing, and it was also the first Games in Olympic history with female athletes from every competing country.
GENDER & RACE
At this years’ games in Rio, Simone Manuel became the first African-American female swimmer to win gold in an individual event when she completed the women’s 100m freestyle in 52:70, setting an Olympic record.