Women's long battle for right to compete

Women's long battle for right to compete - 14th March 2004
(Credit: The Age)

Female athletes have fought hard to overcome male chauvinism at the Olympic Games, writes Robert Woodward.

The Olympics would be "men-only" Games if founder Pierre de Coubertin had had his way. Inspired by the example of ancient Greece and the ideals of medieval chivalry, de Coubertin saw the true Olympic hero as an adult male.

For him, the Games were "the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism . . . with the applause of women as a reward".

"If a woman wishes to pilot an airplane, no policeman has a right to stop her . . . but when it comes to public sports competitions, women's participation should be absolutely prohibited," the Frenchman said in 1910.

Despite the opposition of the first president of the International Olympic Committee, women were allowed to compete in the second modern Games in 1900. A century later, they are still playing catch-up with their male teammates.

In Sydney four years ago, 38 per cent of the Olympic athletes were female. Nine of the 199 Sydney teams did not contain a woman compared with 26 teams in Atlanta in 1996.

Fifty-three of those Sydney teams had a female majority, including a sporting superpower, China (65 per cent).

Women were involved in 131 of the 300 events and, after their debut in weightlifting in 2000, they can now win wrestling medals for the first time in Athens, when 44 per cent of the athletes are expected to be women.

The thought of women wrestlers would make de Coubertin turn in his grave. He feared girls "corrupted" young men, who otherwise would be involved in pure sporting endeavour.

In de Coubertin's view, women could not physically rival men, therefore they could not push sport "citius, altius, fortius" (faster, higher, stronger), the core precept of the Olympics.

He also failed to see the appeal of women's events running alongside the men's at the Games. "In our view, this feminine semi-Olympiad is impractical, uninteresting, ungainly and, I do not hesitate to add, improper."

After the first Games were held in Athens in 1896, women took to the Olympic stage in Paris four years later in the tennis, golf and croquet competitions. Women were able to enter the swimming in 1912 and to fence in 1924, but were not allowed to take part in track and field.

In response, Frenchwoman Alice Milliat organised the first "women's Olympics" in 1922, a one-day event in Paris that drew big crowds. Four years later, the event, involving 10 nations, took place in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Such was the success of these games that the International Amateur Athletic Federation was forced to take notice. In exchange for Milliat dropping the Olympic tag, officials offered her 10 events at the next Games.

The women's 800 metres in 1928 triggered a storm when the press reported that several women fell to the ground at the end of their events. This was deemed unseemly and in 1929, the IOC voted to exclude women from the athletics events. The IAAF, under pressure from the Americans, reversed the ban, although women were not allowed to compete in the 800 metres again until 1960.

The 1932 Los Angeles Games gave the world its first Olympic heroine - double athletics gold medallist Mildred Didrikson - and four gold medals won by Fanny Blankers-Koen in 1948 changed perceptions about the prowess of women athletes.

In Athens, women will compete on equal terms with men in sailing and equestrian events and participate in all sports except boxing.



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