It has been a long road to equality for women at the Olympic Games, and it is still continuing.
Participation in the Ancient 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. There are records of several winning women horse owners. As the owner of the horse teams, they were credited with the victory, though they were most likely not present at the events.
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 right to participate in sports and the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games. Prior to the 2012 Olympic in London, three Muslim countries have never before sent a female athlete: Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia. However, they are reportedly planning to send female athletes to London but we will have to wait and see.
At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, no women competed, as de Coubertin felt that their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”
Women first competed at the 1900 Paris Games. Women were allowed to compete in lawn tennis and golf, though there were three French women competing in croquet and there was at least one woman sailor as part of mixed crews. It is commonly believed that first woman to win an Olympic event was England’s Charlotte Cooper, who won the tennis singles title, however Swiss sailor Hélène de Pourtalès won a gold medal as part of a team in sailing earlier than this.
Here are the first women competitors in the Modern Olympic Games of 1900, in chronological order were
May 22 – Helen de Pourtales, Switzerland (Yachting)
May 31 – Elvira Guerra, France (Equestrian). There may have been another woman also competing in the equestrian events.
Jun 28 – Mme Ohnier, Madame Depres, and Mme.Filleaul Brohy, France (Croquet)
July 11 – winner Charlotte Cooper, Great Britain (Tennis) plus other female competitors
Oct 3 – winner Margaret Abbott, USA (Golf) plus other female competitors
- Women competed in swimming events for the first time in 1912, but none of them were from America, which did not allow its female athletes to compete in events without long skirts. The first women’s swimming gold medal was won by the Australian Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack, who won the 100m freestyle in 1912.
- In 1928, women competed in track and field events for the first time; however, so many collapsed at the end of the 800-meter race that the event was banned until 1960.
- Women’s shooting events were first included in the Olympics in 1984. There were three events, three position rifle, air rifle and sport pistol.
- The 2000 Olympics was the first time that women were allowed to compete in the Olympics in weightlifting.
- There are only two Olympic sports where men and women compete directly against each other; equestrian and sailing, though in sailing it is only now one event. Tennis (in early Games in since 2012) and Badminton (since 1996) have mixed doubles events.
Great Female Olympic Achievements
- In 1948, Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, the equivalents of the ones Jesse Owens had won twelve years earlier. She holds the world records in the high and long jumps, but does not compete in those, as rules prohibit women from competing in more than three individual events.
- British Equestrian, Lorna Johnstone was 70 years and 5 days old when she rode at the 1972 Games, thus being the oldest woman ever to compete at an Olympic Games.
- Joan Benoit of the USA won the first women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984.
- Soviet Maria Gorokhovskaya – unhindered by the limits set on female competitors at earlier Games – in 1952 sets a record for most medals won by a woman in one Olympics, with two golds and five silvers.
- US Shooter Margaret Murdock won a silver medal in rifle competition (which at that time included men and women) at the 1976 Olympics. She was the first woman to win a medal in shooting at the Olympic Games.