It has been a long road to equality for women at the Olympic Games. The Tokyo Olympics in 2021 are being heralded as the first gender-balanced Games in history. It is expected that almost 49 per cent of the athletes participating will be women. For the first time ever, all 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) should have at least one female and one male athlete in their respective Olympic teams. It has not always been this way.
Participation in the Ancient Olympic Games was limited to male athletes only. The only way women were able to take part was to enter horses in the equestrian events. There are records of several winning women horse owners. As the owner of the horse teams, they were credited with the victory, though they were most likely not present at the events.
Even in the early years of the modern Olympics, women were not well represented (consequently a rival Women's Olympics was held). Women participated for the first time at the 1900 Paris Games with the inclusion of women's events in lawn tennis and golf. Women's athletics and gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Olympics. Over time more women's events were added. In 2012, women's boxing was introduced, resulting in no remaining sports that do not include events for women.
Equality in the available sports is one thing, but in many countries, women do not have equal rights to participate in sports and the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games. Prior to the 2012 Olympics in London, three Muslim countries have never before sent a female athlete: Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia. However, they all bowed to IOC pressure and sent female athletes to London. Now every national Olympic committee has sent women to the Olympic Games, a small step.
- At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, no women competed, as de Coubertin felt that their inclusion would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect."
- Women first competed at the 1900 Paris Games. Women were allowed to compete in lawn tennis and golf, though there were three French women competing in croquet and there was at least one woman sailor as part of mixed crews. It is commonly believed that first woman to win an Olympic event was England's Charlotte Cooper, who won the tennis singles title, however Swiss sailor Hélène de Pourtalès won a gold medal as part of a team in sailing earlier than this. (see more firsts, and more on Pourtalès)
- Here are the first women competitors in the Modern Olympic Games of 1900, in chronological order:
- May 22 - Helen de Pourtales, Switzerland (Yachting)
- May 31 - Elvira Guerra, France (Equestrian). There may have been another woman also competing in the equestrian events.
- Jun 28 - Mme Ohnier, Madame Depres, and Mme Filleaul Brohy, France (Croquet)
- July 11 - winner Charlotte Cooper, Great Britain (Tennis) plus other female competitors.
- Oct 3 - winner Margaret Abbott, USA (Golf) plus other female competitors.
- Women competed in swimming events for the first time in 1912, but none of them was from America, which did not allow its female athletes to compete in events without long skirts. The first women's swimming gold medal was won by the Australian Sarah 'Fanny' Durack, who won the 100m freestyle in 1912.
- In 1928, women competed in track and field events for the first time. The first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field was Poland's Halina Konopacka when she broke her own world record with a throw of 39.62 metres to win the discus at Amsterdam 1928. In the 800m track event, it was claimed that many collapsed at the end of the race (which has been disputed), leading to the event being banned until 1960.
- Women's shooting events were first included in the Olympics in 1984. There were three events, three position rifle, air rifle and sport pistol.
- The first Arab Muslim woman to claim an Olympic gold medal was Morocco's Nawal El Moutawakel when she won the women's 400 metres hurdles at LA 1984.
- In 1996, a women's only sport was introduced - softball (softball is no longer part of the Olympic program)
- The 2000 Olympics was the first time that women were allowed to compete in the Olympics in weightlifting.
- A women's wrestling competition was introduced in 2004. Women compete in freestyle wrestling, but not greco-roman wrestling.
- There are only two Olympic sports where men and women compete directly against each other; equestrian and sailing, though in sailing it is now only in one event. Tennis (in early Games and since 2012) and Badminton (since 1996) have mixed doubles events.
- Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabic all sent female participants to the London 2012 Olympic Games, meaning now every national Olympic committee has sent women to the Olympic Games.
- With the addition of women's boxing at the 2012 London Games, there are men and women competing in all Olympic sports. However, there are still several sporting disciplines that are solely for women: synchronized swimming, greco-roman wrestling and rhythmic gymnastics.
- In cycling in 2012, for the first time men and women competed in the same number of events in all cycling disciplines. However, women have shorter distances for some events.
- In Rio 2016, 44% of medals were be awarded in women's events, the highest ever. In 1984, the figure was only just over 25%.
- The Tokyo Olympics in 2021, almost 49 per cent of the athletes participating will be women, (according to the IOC quota allocation). For the first time ever, all 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) should have at least one female and one male athlete in their respective Olympic teams. All 206 NOCs and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team will be encouraged to have their flag carried by one female and one male athlete at the Opening Ceremony.
Great Female Olympic Achievements
- In 1948, Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, the equivalent of the medals Jesse Owens had won twelve years earlier. She held the world record in the high and long jumps, but did not compete in those as the rules prohibited women from competing in more than three individual events.
- British Equestrian, Lorna Johnstone was 70 years and 5 days old when she rode at the 1972 Games, thus being the oldest woman ever to compete at an Olympic Games.
- Joan Benoit of the USA won the first women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984.
- Soviet athlete Maria Gorokhovskaya - unhindered by the limits set on female competitors at earlier Games - in 1952 set a record for most medals won by a woman in one Olympics, with two golds and five silvers.
- US Shooter Margaret Murdock won a silver medal in the rifle competition (which at that time included men and women) at the 1976 Olympics. She was the first woman to win a medal in shooting at the Olympic Games.
- Canoeist Josefa Idem became the first woman to compete in eight Olympic Games, eventually reaching the final of the K1-500m event at the 2012 Olympics at the age of 48. She competed for West Germany in 1988, then for Italy from 1992 until 2012.
- Gender Testing at the Olympics.
- Women at the Winter Olympics
- Transgender Olympic Participants
- The Women's World Games / Olympics — for women participants between 1922 and 1934
- Female Firsts in Sport
- The All Time Greatest Female Athlete?
- Olympic History
- Olympic Trivia
- "In 1928, women competed in track and field events for the first time; however, so many collapsed at the end of the 800-meter race that the event was banned until 1960."
This comment has been dis-proved and I would like you to say so. A film of that event has surfaced, and NOT ONE woman collapsed. (Saw it on TV) They are bent over, hands on knees and breathing hard - as ANY human would. How did they get away with a ban for 32 years. I was born 1945 and at age 13 (1958) was NOT allowed to ride my horses or shampoo my hair when menstruating. One might get a "chill" you know. Today I am 67 and have a 6 pack that my "great grand children" (that started high school this year) do not understand. I tell them "mean-ness counts". (from Teena Phillips, Dec 2012)
- Teena is right about 1928. My article "Eleven Wretched Women: What really happened in the first Olympic women's 800m" (Running Times, May 2012), analyzed the film footage second-by-second, as well giving the background with Alice Milliat etc. My conclusion is that the film was probably doctored by the IOC or others to emphasise the one woman who fell at the finish. In fact, even she was on her feet again in 3.2 seconds. Newspaper reports were grossly inaccurate. Not one woman "collapsed." (Search "Eleven wretched women.") (from Roger Robinson, Mar 2013)