Women cleared hurdles to join Games
Posted: Wednesday July 7, 2004 9:41PM; Updated: Wednesday July 7, 2004 9:41PM
LONDON, July 8 (Reuters) -- The Olympics would be "men-only" Games if founder Pierre de Coubertin's ideas still held sway.
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 (IOC), women were allowed to compete in the second modern Games in 1900. A century later, they are still playing catch-up with their male team mates.
In Sydney four years ago, 38 percent 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 one sporting "superpower," China (65 percent).
Women were involved in 131 of the 300 events and, after making their debut in weightlifting in 2000, they can win wrestling medals for the first time in Athens in August when 44 percent 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, and never accepted women had their place in the Olympic fold.
"The ruggedness of male exertion, the basis of athletic education when prudently but resolutely applied, is much to be dreaded when it comes to the female," he wrote in 1928.
"Add a female element, and the event becomes monstrous." In the ancient Olympics, women were banned -- even as spectators -- on pain of death.
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.
Britain's Charlotte Cooper, a Wimbledon champion, was the first woman to win a gold.
Women, dressed in shorts and sleeveless costumes, were able to enter the swimming in 1912 and to fence in 1924. However, athletics officials and the IOC refused to allow them to take part in track and field.
In response and empowered by the growing suffragette movement, Frenchwoman Alice Milliat organised the first "women's Olympics" in 1922, a one-day event in Paris which 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 IAAF was forced to take notice. In exchange for Milliat dropping the Olympic tag, officials offered her 10 events at the next Games.
The IOC, however, included only five women's events in 1928. The British women's team refused to take part due to this snub -- the only feminist boycott in Olympic history.
The women's 800 metres in Amsterdam in 1928 triggered a storm, particularly among those who agreed with Coubertin that women were not made for extreme physical exercise.
The race was won by Germany's Linde Radke and the press reported several women fell to the ground at the end following their exertions.
This was deemed unseemly and in 1929 the IOC voted to exclude women from the athletics events at the 1932 Games.
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 Olympics in Los Angeles gave the world its first Olympic heroine -- double athletics gold medallist Mildred Didrikson -- and the first female pin-up, 18-year-old American Eleanor Holm who won the 100 metres backstroke.
The first Games after World War Two, in 1948 in London, provided the stage for arguably the finest woman athlete in Olympic history, Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen.
The mother of two children, Blankers-Koen won four gold medals and changed perceptions in the IOC and IAAF about the prowess of women athletes.
In Athens women will compete on equal terms with men in sailing and equestrian events and will participate in all sports except boxing and baseball. There is a separate women's softball competition.
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