The London Olympics are in full swing, and this year is the first time that every participating nation has sent women competitors. In another first, the USA has more women in their Olympic team than men. Overall, female athletes still only make up 40% of contestants, and it has been a long, hard road to get that close to equality.
Women were not allowed to participate in the first Olympics back in 1896. Games chief Baron de Coubertin was emphatic that the modern Olympic Games were a men-only affair, just like the ancient Games. It was widely believed that, not only was sport unfeminine, but also women were too weak for such strenuous exercise. As far as the Baron was concerned when it came to sport, ‘women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands’.
Sportswomen had a different idea. The second and third Games were mixed in with International Exhibitions. The Baron lost control of these Games. That meant that a few women could quietly compete without anyone objecting. Two women won medals in 1900 — British tennis player Charlotte Cooper and Swiss sailor Helen, Countess of Portales.
‘A regrettable impurity’
Women officially competed for the first time in 1912 at the Stockholm Games. The Baron was not happy. To him it was ‘a regrettable impurity’, even though women only made up 2% of the athletes. It was in Stockholm that Fanny Durack won Australia’s first gold medal in a women’s swimming event.
Women were limited to competing in ‘ladylike’ events such as swimming, tennis and equestrian. The USA only permitted women to play Olympic sports that could be played while wearing a long skirt.
In Amsterdam in 1928, there were women’s athletic events for the first time. It was still considered scandalous for women to wear shorts. Such garments weren’t readily available and the Dutch women competing had to knit their own!
The women’s 800-metre race was fiercely competitive, so much so that several competitors collapsed from exhaustion as they crossed the finishing line. Officials were appalled by this spectacle. After that, Olympic women’s athletic events were limited to 200-metres for more than 30 years, until 1960. Men collapsed after races too, one male Olympian had died after a race, but there were no limitations on the men’s races.
A Long Haul
There was a medical myth that women who had given birth couldn’t compete in sports. They would die young. Dutch runner and mother-of-two Fanny Koen, shocked the world by not only running, but winning four gold medals. She may well have won more, but women were limited to just four Olympic events.
It wasn’t until 2004 in Athens, that women were permitted to compete in all sports. The women’s shot-put took place at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games. That was the first time women had ever competed on that site.
Aussie Girls Go
Australian female athletes’ achievements have been disproportionate to their numbers throughout Olympic history. Of the 25 swimming gold medals won by Australia between 1912 and 2008, women won 15. Though women comprised an average of 23% of the Australian Olympic team from 1948–1996, they won 38% of the medals.
Our female athletes look set to continue that trend in 2012.
The Games: the extraordinary history of the Modern Olympics. For more about the history of the Olympics.