An Olympics without women is unthinkable today. As many as 4,676 (44% of the total participants) took in the 2012 London Games.
An Olympics without women is unthinkable today. As many as 4,676 (44% of the total participants) took in the 2012 London Games. In Rio next month, women will compete for medals in 136 events out of 306. The International Olympic Committee has made women’s participation mandatory for a new sport to be included in the Games programme.
But the early days of the Olympics were nothing but smooth for women. From top to bottom, the IOC was a male bastion when it was formed in 1894. In addition, it was controlled by men who virulently opposed women’s participation. Little wonder, then, the inaugural Games in 1896 featured no event for women.
The IOC, headed by Pierre de Coubertin, grudgingly permitted women to take part in two exclusive sports — golf and tennis — at the 1900 Games in Paris. Although the floodgates didn’t open for women in other sports immediately, the Paris Games became a milestone for changing the men-only template of the Olympics. Being allowed to compete in swimming at the 1912 Games was another significant step for women. The anti-women mindset in the IOC hierarchy was so well entrenched that Coubertin said in 1928: “If some women want to play football or box, let them, provided the event takes place without spectators because the spectators who flock to such competitions aren’t there to watch a sport.”
In addition to holding overt sexist views, the IOC also questioned the physical strength of women to take part in athletics. Some IOC mandarins said women would lose their ability to conceive children if they competed in physically demanding athletic events.
When six of the nine runners in the women’s 800m collapsed at the 1928 Games, with two being stretchered off, the IOC joined hands with the world athletics body to ban all track events beyond 200m for women until the 1960 Rome Olympics.
The spectacular Olympic performances of USA’s Mildred Didrikson, who won two gold medals and one silver in 1932, and ‘Flying Housewife’ Fanny Blankers-Koen from the Netherlands, who won four gold medals in 1948, went a long way in advancing women’s cause in track and field.
Today women compete in all athletic events barring the 50km walk. With the exception of Greco-Roman wrestling, women take part in all disciplines of every Olympic sport. Rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming are exclusive for women. Equestrian, which not only excluded women but also non-military officers until 1952, is a mixed sport nowadays with women competing with men as equals.
In IOC administration, too, women faced an uphill task. Until 1981, the IOC never had a woman member. But the winds of change soon swept up the patriarchal cobwebs on the corridors of IOC. From the executive committee to commission heads, women are all pervasive in the Olympic body today. It’s a sign of the times we live in because a woman, Hillary Clinton, could become the most powerful person in the world in November.