Women have fought to make great strides in achieving equality in all areas of life: education, profession, politics, and sports. The struggle for equality is ongoing although progress has been made. The area of sports in particular has proven to be difficult for women to break into and earn respect. One indicator of women’s success is the Summer Olympics, created to promote intercultural understanding through sporting events. At the first modern day Olympics competition in Athens, Greece in 1896, women were prohibited from participating. Since then, many challenges have been faced in an attempt to promote female participation. Over the years, women have been limited to only a few select sports and forced to travel with a chaperone. Countries have simply refused to send them, preferring to spend the money on men and the media has practically ignored women’s participation. This article takes a look at the games over the years and how women have gradually gained inclusion in the Olympics.
Increasing Female Participation
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is responsible for organizing and marketing the Olympics and state that they are committed to gender equality, reducing discrimination, and promoting the participation of women. This attitude has not been reflected in the actual games nor in the organizational administration, however. It was not until 1981 that the IOC included women as members (only 2). Today, 20 of the 106 members are women.
History of Male Dominated Olympics
The policy banning women’s participation changed 4 years later at the Paris, France games of 1900. Twenty-two women participated in these competitions. However, they were limited to croquet, golf, sailing, and tennis. During these games, Margaret Abbott registered for the golfing competition. She won the tournament and is remembered as the first woman Olympian winner. Golf was removed from the Olympic program.
Since then, the situation for women has been slowly improving although with many challenges along the way. Societal attitudes at the time encouraged women to marry for security and those that were competitive were less likely to find a husband. Some of the acceptable sports for women in the earlier years were tennis and archery. Archery was discontinued in 1920 due a lack of internationally accepted rules (reinstated in 1972). Tennis was discontinued in 1924 over a dispute concerning line locations (reinstated in 1988). This of course led to a slower than average growth in women’s participation. In 1912, 48 women competed in the Olympics, this increased to 65 in 1920, 135 in 1924, a significant jump to 277 in 1928, and then a drop to 126 in 1932. Even with the leap in numbers in 1928, this still only represented a participation rate of 9.6%.
The year 1928 was the first time track and field events were offered to women and Elizabeth Robinson became its first female gold medalist. She ran the 100 meter race in 12.1 seconds. The 1948 Olympics in London saw another achievement when African American women were granted entry to the US All American Track and Field Team for the first time. Of 390 women, 9 were African American that year. Alice Coachman won the gold medal, becoming the only gold for the team and the first African American woman to win in US history.
Participation continued to increase and in 1952 reached a 10.47% participation rate. In 1964, the Olympics were held in Tokyo, Japan and it was the first year for women’s volleyball. The Japanese team won the gold medal. Women’s enrollment steadily grew and by 1972, women broke the 1,000 mark with 1059 participants representing 14.84% of all athletes at the Munich Olympics. Percentages continued rising during each of the events until finally reaching above 25%. The Olympics of 1988 in Seoul, South Korea hosted 8,391 participants, 2,194 of which were female (26.14%). In this game, swimmer Kristin Otto became the first woman to win 6 gold medals in a single Olympics game. She was also the first woman to do the 100 meter backstroke in less than 60 seconds.
A New Era of Opportunity for Female Athletes
Women participants continued to increase steadily over the years in each Olympics event. The year 2012 saw a record 4,776 female athletes, a 44.35% participation rate. Media outlets referred to this as the "Year of the Woman" because for the first time in history, every country to participate sent women and US women outnumbered men as gold medalists. Saudi Arabia sent women for the first time ever and the US actually sent more women than men athletes.
Women's Empowerment Around The World
If trends continue, more people than ever previously recorded will participate in future Olympics and a higher percentage of them will be women. Saudi Arabia, a country known for its anti-female politics, will once more send women to the 2016 Rio Olympics. Four women will compete, up from 2 in 2012. This is an extremely significant move because women have been prohibited from participating in most daily activities (such as driving) and require male permission to travel, marry, and study. Perhaps this signals the beginning of an attempt by Saudi Arabia to create more gender inclusive policies thereby improving women’s equality status. Increased participation of women in the Olympics has been linked to increased equality in their home country as well as more medal wins at the games.