The 2016 Rio Olympics come with a slate of serious problems, from high costs and false promises to brass-knuckle evictions and the militarisation of public space. But the Games will also feature numerous women athletes who we would likely not otherwise get a chance to see on our television screens, highlighting their extraordinary skill like no other major sport spectacle.
But things were not always this way: Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the plucky French aristocrat who jump-started the Olympics in the 1890s, believed that the Games should be the purview of men, not the many. He thought including women’s competitions was “impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper.” He also said, “Woman’s glory rightfully came through the number and quality of children she produced, and that where sports were concerned, her greatest accomplishment was to encourage her sons to excel rather than to seek records for herself.”
Little surprise that with the Baron at the helm, women’s sports got little traction. But with Coubertin sidelined following internal Olympic squabbles, around 20 women participated at the Paris Games of 1900 in sports like tennis and golf. Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain was the first woman to become an Olympic champion, winning gold in tennis.
Only eight women participated at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. By the Antwerp Games of 1920, this number had leapt to 63. But this wasn’t the great swell it seemed: women’s participation levels had only moved from 2.2 percent to 2.4 percent of overall Olympics participants, not helped by the fact they were barred from track and field events at the 1920 Games.
The first real sign of change came at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, where nearly 300 women competed in athletics. After completing the 800-metre race, some female competitors fell to the ground to collect their strength. Anti-feminists pounced, asserting that women were too frail to run such distances. Shockingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, their views won out. Citing medical “evidence,” the International Olympic Committee ruled that the 800-metre run was too dangerous for female athletes, and women were subsequently excluded from the race until the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Out of sexist exclusion came feminist innovation. In the 1920s and 1930s, activist athletes linked arms with an array of allies to organise an alternative ‘Women’s Olympics,’ featuring competitions rooted in principles of equality. Spearheaded by Alice Milliat, a French athlete and activist, four Women’s Games were staged: in Paris (1922), Gothenburg (1926), Prague (1930), and London (1934). Athletes mostly came from North America, Japan, and western Europe.
Because of the success of the Women’s Games and the relentless pressure of political movements, women were eventually brought back into the Olympic fold, but resistance remained. In 1957, Avery Brundage, then-president of the International Olympic Committee, stated, “Many still believe that events for women should be eliminated from the Games, but this group is now a minority. There is still, however, a well grounded protest against events which are not truly feminine, like putting a shot, or those too strenuous for most of the opposite sex, such as distance runs.”
Thankfully, more enlightened views have since prevailed. This means we’ve been able to see Vera Caslavska, the most successful Czech gymnast in the history of the Olympics, take a courageous political stand on the podium at the 1968 Games in Mexico City by dipping her head in silent protest during the Russian national anthem to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s recent invasion of Czechoslovakia. We’ve marvelled at Jackie Joyner-Kersee as she dominated the Olympic track oval in the 1980s and 1990s.
Only four years ago, Jessica Ennis-Hill won Olympic gold in the heptathlon for Team GB, making her the British female poster girl for that Games’ success just as Kelly Holmes had been in 2008. Still, one ‘gender equality audit’ noted that the London 2012 Games featured 136 events for women, and 166 for men, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.
At the Rio Games, women athletes will be prime protagonists. Will South African runner Caster Semenya be able to best her silver-medal performance in the 800-metre run at the 2012 London Games? Will US fencer Ibtihaj Mohammad, who is set to be the first Olympic participant to wear a hijab, both combat Islamophobia and conquer the competition? Can British boxer Nicola Adams win back-to-back gold medals?
And how can we not cheer for the four female athletes participating on the first ever team of refugee athletes: Yolande Mabika (Democratic Republic of the Congo, judo), Yusra Mardini (Syria, swimming), Rose Nathike Lokonyen (South Sudan, athletics), and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith (South Sudan, athletics)?
Though Rio is facing its share of problems, the Olympics will provide a platform for feminist empowerment. Let those Games begin. […]
Home » Latest News » How women overcame more than 100 years of Olympic controversy to take centre stage at Rio
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