Women at the Olympics

The first connection between women and the Olympic Games can be traced back to the 10th century B.C. when the Herean Games, a sporting and religious festival exclusively for women, were held at Olympia, although not as part of the Ancient Olympic Games. The Herean Games were held quadrennially in honor of Hera, the wife of Zeus. There was only one event, a footrace of about 160 metres, but it was divided into three age categories, allowing young girls to compete. The women were given crowns of olive, similar to the Olympic prizes, and they also received a portion of a heifer that was sacrificed to Hera.

The first recorded Ancient Olympic Games occurred in 776 B.C., although it is considered that their origins date to the 12th century B.C. Discrimination against women in sport is as old as these Games themselves, as women could not take part in the Ancient Olympic Games. In fact, with few exceptions, they were not even allowed as spectators. Strangely, young girls could watch, although the athletes were competing nude. Pausanias noted, “They do not prevent virgins from watching.” Only one adult woman was allowed to witness the Games, that being the Priestess of Demeter Chamyne, who was awarded this honorary office every four years from the Eleans. The penalty for women watching the Olympic Games was severe. Any woman caught watching the Games, or even crossing the River Alpheios on the days the Olympics were held, would be put to death by being tossed from the cliffs of Mount Typaion.

The Olympic boxing crown in 404 B.C. was won by Eukles, who was the son of Akousilaos and the grandson of Diagoras, who won the Olympic boxing championships in 464 and 448 B.C. To this time, legend has it that women were put to death if they were discovered watching the events. However, Eukles’ mother, Kallipateira, attended his matches, disguised as a trainer. When he won, she leaped over the barrier behind the trainer’s station and exposed herself as a woman. The judges withheld the death penalty “out of respect for her father and her brothers and son.” (Finley and Pleket, The Olympic Games: The First Thousand Years, pp. 45-46) A rule was then enacted requiring all trainers to thereafter attend all Olympic contests fully naked, like the athletes.

In 396 B.C. the first female Olympic champion was crowned when Princess Kyniska of Sparta, the daughter of Sparta’s King Archidamos, won the tethrippon, a four-horse chariot race. But it should be mentioned that in the Ancient Olympics, the winners of the chariot races were considered to be the owners of the chariots and horses, not the drivers.

No females officially competed in the first modern Olympics in 1896. There is fairly good evidence, however, that a woman ran the marathon course near the time of the Olympic race after she was not allowed to compete in the actual race. The Greek woman runner’s name was Stamata Revithi, but this has only recently been discovered. For years, she has been known as Melpomene, a name chosen by the Greek media to honor the Greek muse of tragedy. But it is also possible that Melpomene refers to Revithi, historians have been unable to either confirm or deny this.

The 1900 Olympic Games were very odd, as they were held in conjunction with a large world’s fair, the Paris International Exposition. It is not precisely certain which events conducted at the fair should be considered “Olympic” and years later, many athletes did not even know that they had competed in the 1900 Olympic Games. But the Games of 1900 are important for they saw the first official female Olympic participants when a total of 19 competitors from Bohemia, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States took part in croquet, equestrian, golf, sailing, and tennis. The first known woman to compete in the Olympics was a Swiss yachtswoman, Hélène, Countess de Pourtalès, who crewed on her husband’s yacht in the 1-2 ton class. By winning the tennis singles and mixed doubles on 11 July 1900, Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain became the first individual female champion at the modern Olympic Games. There was a women’s golf competition, won by Margaret Abbott of the United States, although in later life, Ms. Abbott did not even know she had competed at the Olympic Games. Women also competed in ballooning competition at the fair, although again, it is uncertain if this was an Olympic event. It is interesting to note that at the 1900 Paris Exposition, there was also a Feminist Congress held within the walls of the Exposition.

Over the next few Olympics, women gradually were allowed to compete in a few Olympic sports. A detailed list of how women’s sports have been added to the Olympic Program is given below. Briefly, in 1904 at St. Louis, there was a women’s archery event. In 1908, women competed at London in figure skating and motorboating. A big step forward occurred in 1912 when women competed in swimming and diving at the Olympic Games, the first true “athletic” events at the summer Olympics.

Through the 1924 Olympics, women were not allowed to compete in track & field athletics, the most well publicized sport at the Olympic Games. In response, women formed their own organization, the Fédération Sportive Feminine Internationale (FSFI) which sponsored the “Women’s Olympics” in Paris in 1922 and the “Second International Ladies’ Games” in Göteborg, Sweden in 1926. Only after these events proved that women could turn in credible athletic performances did the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) agree to allow them to compete in the 1928 Games, albeit only in five events.

All went well except in the 800 metres, when Lina Radke-Batschauer, the German winner, left a field of exhausted runners sprawled in various stages of collapse behind her. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) then banned women from any events beyond 200 metres, on the grounds that they were not physically equipped to run long distances. The ban remained in effect for 32 years, until the 1960 Olympics, when the 800 metres women’s event was reinstated, with longer races to follow, beginning in 1972.

Why was there so much resistance to allowing women to compete at the Olympic Games? Much of the problem can be traced to the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He did not want women to compete on Olympian fields, and his philosophy towards woman and sports is the greatest stain on his remarkable achievement. Although Coubertin has been deified by some followers of the Olympic Movement, others have not treated him so kindly, because of his views on women in sports. Jean-Marie Brohm wrote of him,

It is indeed confusion to declare Coubertin a great humanist when his written texts or his quoted remarks are clearly those of a blind reactionary for anyone who knows how to read them, [consisting of] elitism and sexism …

Coubertin wrote a great deal during his life, and his writings on women in sports, when read in the 21st century, do not reflect well on him. Note the following,

With regard to boys … sporting competition … is vital with all its consequences and all its risks. Feminized it becomes something monstrous.


I still … think that … feminine athletics … are bad and that these athletics should be excluded from the Olympic Program – that the Olympiads have been restored for the rare and solemn glorification of the [male adult].

Since 1928, women have seen their presence in the Olympic stadium increase almost at every Olympic Games, although they do not yet have an equal role with men. Since 1900, it is only in 1920, 1932, 1956, and 1972 that the women’s program at the Olympics has not been enlarged in some way. It is instructive to look at some of the numbers regarding women’s participation at the Olympics. In 1912 there were 15 sports open exclusively to men, three for women, and two mixed sports. Men could compete in 143 events, while women only in 21, 14 of those mixed events. At Beijing in 2008, there were 302 events in 34 sports, with 32 sports open to women, and only 31 open to men. Of these 301 events, there were 166 events for men only, 125 for women only, and 10 mixed events. Women have actually competed at the Olympics in three sports or disciplines not open to men – rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, and formerly competed in softball (removed from the Olympic Program in 2012), and in 2012, women competed in all male sports, as women’s boxing was added to the Olympic Program for the first time.

The Olympic Winter Games are even better for women, and near equality is upon us on the snow and ice. At Vancouver in 2010, there were 86 events in 7 sports and 15 disciplines. Women and men have equal programs in alpine skiing, biathlon, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, short-track speed skating, snowboarding, and speed skating. Women still lag slightly with fewer events than men in bobsledding (1 vs. 2), luge (1 vs. 2), and primarily, Nordic skiing. Women’s ski jumping was added to the Olympic Program at Sochi 2014, leaving Nordic combined as the only discipline in which women do not compete at the Winter Olympics.

There are other roles women may play in the Olympic Movement. In 1956 at Cortina, Italian skier Giuliana Chenal-Minuzzo was the first woman to take the Athletes’ Oath on behalf of the competitors. At Mexico City in 1968, Enriqueta Basilio became the first woman to light the main Olympic Torch in the stadium, although Sweden’s Karin Lindberg had lit one of the torches in 1956 at the Equestrian Olympic Games. Heidi Schüller (FRG) was the first woman to take the Athletes’ Oath at the Summer Olympics in 1972 at Munich.

The IOC resisted female membership for a long time, and it was not until 1981 that the first women became members of the IOC. Two were elected in that year – Flor Isava-Fonseca (VEN) and Pirjo Wilmi-Häggman (FIN). Several women to date have served on the IOC Executive Board, which really has the power within the IOC. One is Anita DeFrantz of the United States, who was elected as a Vice-President in 1997, and in 2000 advanced to 1st Vice-President. Ms. DeFrantz was also an Olympic medallist, winning a bronze medal in rowing eights in 1976. The first female Executive Board member was Ms. Isava-Fonseca, serving from 1990-94. They were joined in 2000 by Sweden’s Gunilla Lindberg, and in 2008 by Morocco’s Nawal El-Moutawakel, who were elected to the Executive Board. The IOC also had a long time female director, Monique Berlioux.

The IOC has publicly stated that it is committed to bringing more and more women into the highest levels of sports administration. In 1996, the IOC mandated that National Olympic Committees (NOCs), International Federations (IFs), and other members of the Olympic Movement should reach a goal of 10 percent of women in administrative positions by the year 2000, with that percentage increasing to 20 percent by 2005. These goals have not been reached by President Thomas Bach recently increased the proposed quotas for all members of the Olympic Movement, hoping to bring more women into positions of power within the Movement.