In the Olympics, today, many fan favorites are women. But this is new – very new. Most of the Olympics have been closed to women for most of the history of the games, and it was only twelve years ago that women had to prove their gender to compete.
It’s common knowledge that the original Olympic games allowed only male competitors, but you probably have no idea just how hard female athletes had to fight to be included in the modern version of the games. When Baron de Coubertin revived the ancient games in the late 1800s, he believed that the spectacle of female competitive athletes would be ‘unattractive’ and ‘incorrect’. In the first modern Olympic games, women’s only role was to place the laurel wreath on the winner’s head.
Off to a Slow Start
The next games, in 1900, saw female athletes included in tennis and golf, although the winners never knew they were Olympic champions. The games were held in Paris that year alongside the World’s Fair, and many events were shared between the two venues. It was only recently discovered that the golf tournament was, in fact, on the Olympics program, making winner Margaret Abbot the first female Olympic champion.
In 1912, the first female swimmers were admitted to the games. America did not send any competitors however, because American women were not allowed to compete in events that did not allow them to wear a long skirt. Fanny Durack of Australia became the world’s first Olympic gold medal swimmer.
In 1928, women were allowed to compete in track and field events, and 16-year old Elizabeth Robinson, the only American competitor, grabbed the gold with a 12.1 second 100 meter dash. A few years later, she became the first female letter-man at Northwestern University. That same year, champion javelin thrower Lillian Copeland was unable to compete in the javelin throw because it was closed to women. So she threw a discus instead and won the gold.
Alice Coachman became a national hero after the 1946 Olympics, where she was the first African-American woman on the Track and Field team. She won the team’s only gold medal that year, and was the first African-American woman to win a gold medal at all. She was awarded a full college scholarship for her efforts.
Gymnastics wasn’t open to women until 1952, but America didn’t reach the gold until 1984 and the debut of Mary Lou Retton. Just 16 at the time, she won her country’s first gymnastics gold, and went on to take an additional four medals that year – more than any other athlete in any sport at the 1984 games.
Chauvinism and Skepticism
As recently as the 1960s, female Olympic-caliber athletes were met with skepticism – officials still didn’t believe that women could perform as well as men athletically. Not a group to take these things lying down, the Olympic Committee required women to ‘prove their sex’ by submitting to naked physical reviews and even gynecologic exams.
In 1968, they starting collecting cheek scrapings to test for male DNA – a test with a 20% false-positive rate, disqualifying many women. As late as the 1976 games, female Olympians had to carry their ‘gender card’, or proof of a negative chromosome test, at all times, even while competing. It wasn’t until 2000 that women could stop proving their gender and focus on winning the medals.
It’s Not Over
Gender discrimination still exists at the Olympic level, even today. The Chinese women’s soccer team, for example, is afforded inferior accommodation than their male counterparts, and the 2012 games marks the first time that all competing countries sent female athletes.
The 1972 introduction of Title IX helped American women gain access to sports programs, but most countries don’t have similar laws. Even within our own country, the differences are still apparent – women have access to sports, sure. But their programs are not funded or publicized as well as the boys’ and men’s programs. Less visibility equals less support, equals fewer opportunities.
Let’s teach our girls to play. Allow them to be competitive. Show them how strong they really are. These are lessons that go well beyond the playing field – these are lessons that carry them into the boardroom, into the cockpit, into the infantry. These lessons carry them through life, and it all starts with a game.