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History of Women in the Olympic Games

Baron Pierre de Coubertin is credited with proposing the modern Olympic Games to inspire peace and camaraderie among nations. Dedicated to reviving the Olympic Games that originated in ancient Greece about 3,000 years ago, the Frenchman began the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens. Coubertin envisioned the games as an outlet for aggression, and since women were supposed to be neither aggressive nor competitive, women were strictly prohibited from any sort of participation: “Women have but one task, that of the role of crowning the winner with garlands… In public competitions, women’s participation must be absolutely prohibited.” 


The games consisted of sporting races and competitions among men, and they have evolved to become the world’s most prominent sporting competition. The first games consisted of 280 participants from 12 nations competing in 43 events, and now a whopping 206 nations compete, including both men and women. Although there have been tremendous strides in the growth and inclusion of the Olympics, women continue to overcome various obstacles and challenges to be recognized as strong and capable athletes. 


Women were not allowed to partake in the first Olympic Games in 1896, but they were given the chance to display their athletic prowess in the second games held in Paris in 1900. They were not explicitly excluded, but they were not explicitly included either.  Out of 997 athletes, only 22 were female. The first American woman to win an Olympic competition was golfer Margaret Abbott, and rather than receiving a medal, she was given a porcelain bowl for her victory. 


The London games in 1908 were the first to officially allow women’s participation in sporting competitions. While the American Olympic Committee refused to send women athletes in 1908, European women competed in tennis, archery, and figure skating. 


The 1920 games in Belgium were the first to host American women since 1904, as the 1916 games were canceled during World War I. American women competed in swimming, diving, and figure skating events. Aileen Riggin won a gold medal in diving, and she was also the youngest athlete on the US team at the age of 14. Ethelda Bleibtrey became the first American woman to win an Olympic swimming title, and she was also the first woman to win three gold medals.


Ethelda Bleibtrey becomes the first American woman to win an Olympic swimming title.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women’s athletics gained immense popularity among the US. By 1920, 22% of colleges and universities offered women’s athletic programs, and club teams and company-sponsored teams offered opportunities to female athletes that had never been available before.

The support for women’s sports decreased almost as quickly as it had risen. In 1922, the National Women’s Track Athletic Association petitioned the AAU to include women’s events. The AAU voted to become the governing body for women’s track and field. However, the women who ran girls and women’s physical education programs in schools and colleges protested the inclusion of women’s events. 

The lack of women’s collegiate athletic programs narrowed the amount of potential athletes to compete in the Olympics, as women turned to club teams as outlets. The lack of access to sufficient coaching and training significantly impacted women’s results in competitions, including the Olympics. 

While many predominantly white colleges had eliminated women's sports, many historically Black colleges kept them. The women’s head track coach of Tennessee State University, Ed Temple, helped progress the success of women’s sports. During his coaching career from 1950-1994, forty female athletes that he coached represented Tennessee State University in the Olympics, winning a total of 23 medals (13 gold, 6 silver, and 4 bronze). 

The US women’s teams still had weak performances in the Olympics, and this raised concerns throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, as US women’s teams were being dominated by the East. For decades, US female athletes lacked sufficient training and support, but the tides changed with the implementation of Title IX. 

In 1972, Title IX mandated that girls and women have equal opportunities for participation in sports, and the law immediately expanded the opportunities for women in sports. Before Title IX, fewer than 30,000 women were collegiate athletes, but by 2012, that number rose to 190,000. In the 2012 Olympics, women made up more than 44% of the participants, and the number of Olympic sporting events for women increased, with women’s boxing being accepted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) IN 2012. 

Despite these historic advances for women, sex discrimination continues to pervade atheltics. In 2010, the International Boxing Association suggested that women wear skirts to distinguish themselves from male athletes. At the 2011 world championships, Poland Boxing made skirts mandatory for female boxers. Furthermore, although the 2012 Olympics was the first in which almost every country sent at least one woman, many Muslim countries still discourage female athletes from participating in sporting competitions.  

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were the most gender-balanced games in history. Almost 49 percent of the athletes participating were women, according to the International Olympic Committee. For the first time in history, each of the 206 countries had at least one female athlete on their teams.

At the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, about 40.5 percent of the athletes were women. At the Opening Ceremony, all the competing National Paralympic Committees were encouraged to have their flag carried by one female and one male athlete. 

Since Coubertin’s creation of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, there have been tremendous strides towards the integration and acceptance of women in sports. However, the battle is still ongoing, and female athletes continue to have to prove their place in the athletic world. Women continue to defy Coubertin’s beliefs, that they can compete and succeed at the highest level. 






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