The long road to gender equality
Today, female athletes are icons and adored by millions all over the world – but just under a century ago, they would not have been allowed to compete. Over the years, they have fought for their rightful place in the spotlight. That combat can be seen in the number of women who participate in the Games, which remained low for far too long. As time went on and attitudes changed, a balance was gradually established; the Games in Paris in 2024 will host 10,500 athletes, with just as many women as men. (source)
An epic journey
Women’s race to the Olympic Games has been a marathon, not a sprint. They were banned from stadiums and stands alike at the ancient Games, absent from the first Games of the modern era in 1896 and numbered just 22 at the Paris Games in 1900, where they could only participate in a handful of events. It is a story that goes back 30 centuries, starring battles, victories, heroines and vanquished foes.
But women wanted to compete and seized their moment at the Paris Games. In 1900, the IOC quietly ushered them in with two individual events for female athletes, tennis and golf. They could also participate in three mixed sports: sailing, croquet and equestrian events. A total of 22 women took part – a tiny number compared with the 975 men who competed. Charlotte Cooper made history as the first woman to win an Olympic medal in an individual event (tennis).
At the Games in Stockholm, women were finally given a proper Olympic welcome. In June 1910, despite raging debate and numerous critics, the IOC voted to allow women to participate at the Games in two swimming events and one diving competition. Women made up 2% of participants at the Games in Sweden two years later, numbering 48 compared to 2,359 men.
Despite strong opposition from Pierre de Coubertin, the IOC authorised women to take part in athletics and gymnastics events at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928. Their inclusion in athletics in particular was a controversial decision, and the idea of women taking part in the 800 m race inspired so much fear that the IOC later banned women in all races over 200 m – a decision that would not be reversed until 1960.
Three years after World War II, London hosted the Olympic Games. Despite the restrictions still in place, 4,104 athletes travelled to the event – including 390 women. But women could take part in no more than three individual events. Thirty¬ year old Dutch housewife, Fanny Blankers-Koen, took home gold in all three of hers – plus the team 4×100 m relay.
At the Winter Games at Squaw Valley in the US in 1960, the number of women participating exceeded 20% for the first time, with 144 out of a total of 655 athletes.
Cycling has a longstanding presence at the Olympics and has featured on the programme since the first Games of the modern era in 1896. But until 1894, cycling events were still only open to male athletes. Women’s cycling events would not be organised until the LA Games in the form of road cycling, with track coming four years later at Seoul in 1988.
In 1991, the IOC took another big step towards gender equality in terms of the number of athletes present at the Games by changing the way sports were added to the Olympic programme. Since then, any sport included at the Olympic Games must include women’s events.
The aims of the IOC took shape in 1994, when it formally included the principle of gender equality in the Olympic Charter, making clear its commitment to promote women in sport. From then on, the Organising Committees have been encouraged to do all they can to ensure an equal number of male and female athletes.
Certain sports were men-only for longer than others, like boxing, for example. Up until London 2012, the sport was exclusively practised by men for 108 years, since its debut at the Games in St Louis. The introduction of women’s boxing at the Games in London came as a reward for the popular discipline and its athletes, who deserve their time in the Olympic spotlight.
Combat sports were not the only Olympic disciplines that took their time to open up to female athletes. Ski jumping, judged too dangerous for women according to some questionable criteria, was men-only for the first 90 years of the Games. The first ever women’s Olympic ski jumping event took place at Sochi in 2014.
These women were pioneers of their age. Their success accelerated progress in the world of sport and society in general, legitimising women’s right to exist, be seen, raise the bar and win. They leave behind an enduring legacy, which includes a woman’s right to victory. We owe them a debt of gratitude for what they have done, because it is as a result of their efforts that we all have an opportunity to strive for greatness.
The British tennis player Charlotte Cooper holds the distinction of being the first woman ever to become an Olympic champion by winning the women’s singles at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. It was the first time women were allowed to compete at the Olympic Games. Across the board, 22 women took part in just five so-called feminine sports, the former leisure activities of the aristocracy – tennis, golf, sailing, croquet and horse riding.
La première star internationale du tennis, c’est elle. Elle révolutionne le jeu de tennis, remporte six fois le tournoi de Wimbledon, trois fois celui de Roland Garros et ouvre la voie aux femmes en portant des jupes au-dessus des genoux afin de faciliter les mouvements. Née en 1899, à 15 ans seulement, elle se voit couronnée championne du monde sur terre battue. Elle éblouie le public aux Jeux d’Anvers en 1920, remportant deux médailles d’or en simple et en double mixte et une de bronze en double dames.
Until the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952, dressage was a sport reserved for commissioned male officers. One of the first women to compete was Lis Hartel from Denmark, despite having contracted polio eight years earlier. This left her paralysed below the knees, but that didn’t stop her from winning the silver medal. Lis was not able to mount or dismount her horse Jubilee without assistance, and spectators and competitors alike looked on astounded as, the gold medallist, Henri Saint Cyr from Sweden, helped her down in an outstanding display of Olympic sportsmanship and respect, and carried her onto the podium to stand side by side with her male counterparts.
Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor. In 1967, women were not allowed to enter the race, despite many being keen to measure themselves against the 26-mile challenge. As a 20-year-old student, Kathrine Switzer got around these rules by signing up as just K. V. Switzer. On 19 April, she set off with all the other runners and all was going well until about mile four, when she was spotted. The race manager tried to rip her bibs off, pull her down, and get her out of the race. She got through that scrape and went on to cross the finish line with a time of four hours and 20 minutes. But the world had to wait until the 1984 Los Angeles Games before women were given the chance to compete in the Olympic marathon.
Women’s sport would not be what it is today without Alice Milliat. A remarkable pioneer and activist, she fought relentlessly for women to be recognised in sport, co-founding and presiding the Federation of French Female Sports Societies (FSFSF). In 1919, after the IOC, which consisted entirely of men, refused to allow women to compete in the showpiece events of track and field at the next Olympic Games in Antwerp, Alice Milliat decided to set up the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI) and organise competitions for women.
Betty Robinson was the first to be crowned ‘the fastest woman on earth’ by winning Olympic gold in the 100-metre sprint at the 1928 Amsterdam Games after the International Olympic Committee finally agreed to allow women to compete in certain track and field events. At the age of just 16, the speedy starlet won the race in 12.2 seconds, setting a new world record. She remains to this day the youngest ever Olympic champion over 100 metres.
Wilma Rudolph led an extraordinary life. She suffered poor health as a child, which included bouts of polio and scarlet fever, and was told she would never walk again. Long-term treatment and unwavering perseverance led Wilma Rudolph to become one of the greatest American athletes of all time, winning three gold medals in track and field at the age of just 20 at the 1960 Rome Olympics and at the same time becoming a role model to young Afro-American girls, as living proof that the potential for greatness lives within each of us.
In 1905, Australian swimming sensation Annette Kellerman created the world’s first one-piece swimsuit for women. Designed to reduce the amount of clothing they had to wear, allowing for freedom of movement in the water, the relatively form-fitting, thigh-bearing garment defied convention. She refused to bow to public pressure, despite being arrested for indecency on a beach in 1907, and the ‘Annette Kellerman’ swimsuit did much to popularise swimming among women.
Two years after she took home three medals from the 1924 Paris Olympic Games (including gold in the women’s 4×100 m freestyle relay), Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Ederle became the first woman to ever swim the English Channel. Freestyle swimming, front crawl in particular, was her thing. On 6 August 1926, arriving in France at 2:39 pm, after having swum for 14 hours and 34 minutes in 16°C waters, she took nearly an hour off the men’s record for the crossing, set three years earlier by Italian swimmer Sebastian Tiraboschi.
Although women were allowed to take part in track and field events in the 1928 Olympic Games, the decision came with its fair share of criticism. After winning the women’s 800 m race, the world’s press lashed out against the German Lina Radke, lambasting her ‘lack of femininity’. The IOC and the media claimed it was ‘distressing’ to watch, arguing that it was ‘dangerous and unbecoming’ for women to run such distances. As a result, the IOC prevented women from competing in any race longer than 200 m and the women’s 800 m was not reinstated into to the official Olympic programme until 1960.
Betty Cuthbert was the ‘Golden Girl’ of the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. At her home Olympics, the 18-year-old Australian won three gold medals in the individual track sprints (100 m and 200 m) and the 4×100 m relay, setting world records in the latter two events She added a fourth gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo in the 400 m, a distance that had never been run by women at the Games. She was the first athlete in history – male or female – to win Olympic titles in the 100 m, 200 m and 400 m.
Billie Jean King
Since 1973, the US Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money to both men and women – and for that, we can thank Billie Jean King. World #1 at the time, she threatened to not take part in the tournament if women were not given financial parity with the men. The organisers gave in, and Margaret Court, who went on to win the tournament that year, took home a cheque for $25,000 just like the men’s champion John Newcombe. The Australian Open held out until 2000 before doing the same, with Wimbledon and the French Open following suit in just 2007. Tennis reintegrated the Olympic programme at the 1988 Games in Seoul, after 64 years’ absence.
American swimmer Trischa Zorn was born in 1964. Blind from birth, she competed in seven Paralympic Games between 1980 and 2004, winning 55 Paralympic medals including 41 gold. She is the athlete with the most Paralympic medals of all time.
American athlete Tatyana McFadden is a sports superstar in many respects. In 2013, the wheelchair racing sensation became the first person ever to win four major marathons in the same year (Boston, Chicago, London and New York). At that stage of her career, she had already competed at the Athens, Beijing and London Games, winning 10 Paralympic medals, including three golds. Having competed in the Summer Paralympic Games, she set her sights on the Winter Paralympic Games. Tatyana took up cross-country skiing and represented team USA at the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympic Games, where she won a silver medal in the 1 km sprint.
Turkish 24-year-old Sevda Altunoluk is the world’s greatest goalball player. She scored a total of 46 goals at the 2018 Goalball World Championships, which proves that global success knows no gender.
The world was not ready for perfection at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. The scoreboard had not even been programmed to display the perfect 10.0 the judges gave Nadia Comăneci for her flawless performance on the uneven bars. The 14-year-old Romanian became the first-ever gymnast in Olympic history to be awarded a perfect score. She went on to score a perfect 10.0 five more times and won three Olympic gold medals in the individual all-round, uneven bars and balance beam.
Jackie Joyner Kersee
Named by Sports Illustrated as the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century, Jackie Joyner set many world records in the heptathlon and the long jump. Aged 59, she still holds the heptathlon world record. Throughout her career, she won six Olympic medals, including three gold medals, as well as four World Champion titles.
In 1988, tennis legend Steffi Graff became the only player in the history of tennis to have completed a Calendar Year Golden Slam, having won all four Grand Slam singles titles and the Olympic gold medal. A model of consistency, the German athlete is the only player to have won each Grand Slam tournament at least four times, with a total of 22 titles to her name.
Louise Sauvage won 9 gold medals at three Paralympic Games: 1992, 1996 and 2000. The long distance racer has competed in numerous marathons, winning the women’s wheelchair division in the Boston marathon four times (1997, 1998, 1999 and 2001). Her successes are celebrated and publicised in her homeland of Australia, helping change society’s perception of people living with disabilities.
Beatrice Vio has always been a fighter. She lost both of her forearms and lower legs when she developed a severe form of meningitis at the age of 11. Following several months in hospital and intensive rehabilitation, she was able to resume fencing. Seven years later, the 19-year-old took home the gold at the Rio Paralympic Games. Her performance was an incredible source of pride for her home country, so much so that she became a spokesperson for parasports in Italy by setting up a charity to support young athletes living with disabilities.
New Zealander archer Neroli Fairhall was the first paraplegic athlete and Paralympian to qualify for the Olympic Games. In 1980, she won a gold medal for archery at the Paralympic Games and, four years later, took part in the archery event at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Flor Isava Fonseca
In 1981, Flor Isava Fonseca and Pirjo Häggman became the first two women to be elected to the IOC. In 1990, Flor Isava Fonseca became the first female member of the IOC Executive Board
Esther Vergeer has one of the longest winning streaks in tennis, having won 470 matches in a row, followed by Martina Navratilova (at 74 matches in a row). She is the greatest wheelchair tennis player of all time and won an impressive four Paralympic singles gold medals in a row between 2000 and 2012.
Mia Hamm became the first female football superstar when she was at the peak of her career at the end of the 20th century. In 2004, she ended her career on a high note, retiring after she won her second Olympic gold medal at the Athens Games. The same year, she was one of two women named to the FIFA 100, a list of the 125 greatest living football players selected by Pelé and commissioned by FIFA.
Sarah Storey is the definition of a versatile athlete. She made her Paralympic debut at the age of 14 as a swimmer. After winning five Paralympic gold medals at the Barcelona 1992 Games and the Atlanta 1996 Games, a chronic ear infection left her unable to continue in the pool after the Athens 2004 Games. She switched from swimming to cycling and achieved even greater success. Between 2008 and 2016, she won nine more gold medals, adding to her incredible gold medal haul.