The real women's Olympic struggle.

Female athletes have, for many years, struggled to be allowed to compete in many of the Olympic Games events. This is a brief history of those struggles.


The first records of the Olympic Games date back as far as 776 B.C. But it is believed the Games were held for centuries before then. In those times women were not allowed to compete in any events

In 394 A.D., the then Roman Emperor, Theodosius 1, abolished the games as part of the Empires reforms against pagan practices. It was not until 1894 that a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, called together a meeting of leading sportsmen and the leaders from 9 countries that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was formed. The first modern Olympic Games started as an International event in Athens, Greece in 1896. The then ruler of Greece and his sons were persuaded to lead a fundraising campaign to finance and promote them.

This event was the first of the modern International Olympic games. 14 countries, represented by 245 men, competed in 43 events. No women were allowed to officially compete, as in the words of 'Baron Pierre de Coubertin' "There inclusion would be impractical, uninteresting and incorrect". The Baron felt that "rather than seeking records for herself a woman should encourage her sons to excel".

However, in the first of the modern Olympic Games, there was a woman athlete who did indeed, unofficially, run the marathon. Her name was Stemati Revithi, a Greek lady. Having been denied the opportunity to compete on the course, by the race organisers, Stamati warmed up out of sight. Then, when the starter's pistol fired, she ran alongside the marathon course. Slowly falling behind some of the men, but refusing to give up she began passing the men who had dropped out of the race exhausted. The marathon was won by a man called Spiridon Louis an hour and a half before Stamati arrived at the stadium. Barred from entering the stadium Stamati ran her final lap around the outside of the stadium finishing in approximately four and a half hours. 

Race officials, who did not know her name, labelled her as 'Melpomene, (the Greek muse of tragedy) in an attempt to ridicule her. It would be almost a hundred years before another woman would be allowed to run an Olympic marathon.

The 1900 Paris Olympic Games were incorporated into, and overshadowed by, the Paris Exposition(a world fair, held in Paris to celebrate the achievements of the past century). 1,319 men from 26 countries competed in 75 events, but it is not clear which events were part of the Games and which of the exposition. As the Exposition organisers were less concerned about the rights and wrongs of women in sport than the IOC women's events were not an issue. Old programs show women to have participated in ballooning, croquet, equestrian, golf, tennis and yachting during the 1900 Paris Games.

The 1904 games were held in St. Louis USA where archery made its debut as an Olympic sport for women. Women's boxing was also included but only as a demonstration or exhibition event.

In 1906 Mount Vesuvius erupted in Italy requiring the 1908 Games to be moved to London. It was the first time athletes marched into the stadium behind the flags of their countries. Yachtswoman Francis Clytie-Carnac and her husband win gold, in so doing she became the first woman to win a gold in any event against men.

Women compete in swimming events for the first time in the 1912 Stockholm Games, except the USA, who barred its female athletes from competing in any events witout them wearing long skirts. 57 women from 11 nations competed in these games.

The 1916 Games are cancelled due to WW1.

1920 and the Games are held in Antwerp, Belgium. The Olympic flag and Olympic oath are introduced into the Games. Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey are not invited to compete, being on the wrong side during the Great War. American women are allowed to compete in swimming events for the first time. Ethelda Bleibtrey of the USA entered the only three womens swimming events 100 mtr, 300 mtr and 4x100 mtr relay, winning a gold in each. Suzanne Lenglen of France caused controversy in the womens tennis events by abandoning the customary long skirt and long sleeves for a short, sleeveless, silk blouse and matching sweater. She won two gold and one bronze medals.

The 1924 Games were meant to take place in Amsterdam but were moved to Paris at the urging of Baron de Coubertin, who was about to retire and wanted to see them in his home country. Germany is still banned but the other four countries, banned in 1920, are allowed back. Sybil Bauer(USA) becomes the first woman to break an existing men's world swimming record. Winning the 100 mtr backstroke in 1:32.2.



The real woman's Olympic struggle  continued

1928 and the Games are held in Amsterdam. The Olympic flame is introduced.Germany is invited to compete.Women compete in track and field events for the first time. Several women athletes collapse at the end of the 800-metre run(the first three women to finish beating the world record). The race is declared too dangerous for women to compete in and is banned as a women's event. It is 1960 before the 800-metre race for women is back in the Games.

1932 Los Angeles USA Games. Babe Didrikson(USA) wins gold in hurdles and javelin. Inge Sorenson(Denmark) becomes the youngest person to win a medal in the Games to date. At 12 years and 24 days of age, she wins a bronze in the 200-metre breaststroke.

The 1940 and 1944 Games are called off due to WW2.

1948 Games in London. Germany and Japan are not invited but a record 59 countries compete. Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen( in many opinions the greatest woman athlete of all time) was the first mother to be successful at the Games. She broke the social barrier that previously discouraged women with children from competing in a sport. In those days women were not allowed to compete in any more than 4 Olympic events. Fanny chose to compete in the 100-metre and 200-metre sprints, 80-metre hurdles and the 4x100-metre relay. She won gold in all 4 events.She also, at the same time, held world records in for the high jump and long jump, which she could not enter because of the 4 event ruling. During her 20 year career she set, no fewer than, 20 world records in 7 events ranging from sprints, hurdles, long jump, high jump and the pentathlon. She won more medals than any woman in the history of sport. In 1999 Fanny was named the top athlete of the 20th century by the 'International Amateur Athletic Federation'. An outstanding honour for a truelly outstanding athlete.

At the Helsinki Games in 1952 women are allowed to compete against men in equestrian events for the first time. Lis Hartel(Denmark) wins silver.

1956 Melbourne Games. Tenly Albright, who overcame polio as a child, becomes the first American woman to win gold in figure skating.

1960 Rome Games and Wilma Rudolf(USA), who wore a leg brace as a child, wins 3 gold medals, 100-metres, 200-metres and 4x100-metre relay. She was considered to be the fastast woman in the world at the time.

 1964 Tokyo Games. Dawn Fraser(Australia) became the only swimmer, male or female, to win gold in the same event at 3 successive Olympics. Larissa Latynina(USSR) wins 6 medals for the 3rd time in a row, she remains the athlete with the most Olympic medals(18) and the most medals in individual events(14).

1968 Mexico games sees Enriquetta Basilio become the first woman to light the Olympic flame. Sex tests are introduced for women and the 800-metre event women's event is reinstated. There are 122 men's events, 39 women's events and 11 mixed events.

The 1972 Munich Games are overshadowed when members of the Black September Terrorist group kidnap 11 Israeli athletes from the Olympic village. Two of the athletes are killed and nine held hostage. During a botched rescue attempt, by the German authorities, the nine athletes and all but three terrorists are killed. British equestrian Lorna Johnstone becomes the oldest ever female Olympian at 70 years of age. In 1973 the IOC at long last accept women as IOC members.

Montreal Games 1976. East German women win 11 swimming and 9 athletic gold medals. Margret Murdock(USA) outshoots male rifle shooters to win silver. 14 year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scores 7 perfect 10's on her way to winning 3 golds, a silver and a bronze. Nobody had even achieved one 10 before.

1980 Moscow Games, the first to be held in a communist country. Nadia Comaneci wins 2 more golds.

1984 Los Angeles Games and women's cycling and womens marathon events are added. At last after nearly 100 years women can compete in the marathon officially.

1988 Seoul Games. 159 nations send 9,465 athletes, including 2,186 women athletes to the Games. Tennis returns after a 64 year absense and Steffi Graf wins gold.







The real woman's Olympic struggle contued

1992 Barcelona Games every nation with an Olympic committee shows up. A record 172 nations represented by 10,563 athletes. 

1996 Atlanta Games the 5000-metre and triple jump are added to the womens events. The USA women's teams win the first ever women's soccer and softball events.

Sydney hosts the 2000 Games. 10,651 athletes(4,069 of them women) from 199 nations compete. There are 165 events for men, 135 for women and 12 mixed events.

2004 Athens Games. Our own Kelly Holmes wins gold medals in 800-metre and 1500-metre. Kelly joined the British Army at the age of 18. Starting as a lorry driver in the WRAC and later transfering to the Adjutants General Corps as a physical training instructor(PTI), reaching the rank of sergeant. She became British Army Judo Champion and once competed in the men's 800-metre race, as it was considered too embarrassing for the other competitors if she ran in the womens event.

2008 Games were in Beijing. Out of the 11,196 competitors 43% were women, this compares to just 11.5%  in the 1960 Games.

At the 2012 London Games women will compete in boxing for the first time. One can but admire the persistance of female athletes to compete throughout the history of the Games. There is no doubt that their participation in the Games has enhanced the Olympic spirit and proven to be a great asset.