Women at the Olympics


The history of women’s participation in the modern Olympics, now in its 30th edition, demonstrates the changes that have taken place over the past century in the way women participate in society. The world of sport is a kind of microcosm of the issues and progress to be seen in wider society. If we look at the evolution that has taken place and the questions that have arisen, we are given a focussed view of today’s society.

Sporting activity in Ancient Greece was generally reserved to men from the aristocracy who were physically perfect. The Olympics were held every four years between 776 BC and 393 AD, and participation was limited to free Greek male citizens. Athletes gathered in Olympia, and for the duration of the games an ekecheiria or truce was proclaimed. Women were not permitted to attend the games much less participate. Athletes ran their races completely naked. There is a curious anecdote that tells of a mother who managed to see her son taking part in a competition. She dressed as a man and managed to enter the precinct as a trainer. After that incident, trainers attending the event also had to be naked.[1]

The modern Olympic Movement was established at the end of the 19th century. The ecumenical nature of sport was among its ideals because sport was considered to be an activity open to everyone. Nonetheless, De Coubertin, the French baron who was the driving force behind the movement, was completely opposed to competitiveness among women. He was certainly conditioned by the society of his times, but also by his unconditional adherence to the Greek Olympic ideal. De Coubertin maintained that women’s different physiological constitution and different role in society made them unsuited to sporting activity.[2]

In spite of prejudice, however, women managed to take part, even if unofficially, in the second Olympics that were held in Paris in 1900. They competed in tennis, croquet, sailing and golf. In London in 1908, there were 36 women among a total of 2008 athletes, still unofficially. They competed in archery, skating, sailing, tennis and water motor sports. In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, women were allowed to compete in swimming. The Australian Fanni Durack won the 100 metre freestyle with a time that equalled that of the Athens 1896 male gold medalist.

After the First World War, in Antwerp in 1920, women took part officially in the Olympics for the first time. In Amsterdam in 1928 they could compete in athletics competitions, and this increased their participation considerably. There were 290 women out of a total of 2,883 athletes. Between 1928 and 1936 (Berlin), there were women’s competitions in the main Olympic disciplines.

In the 1948 Olympics in London, the Dutch athlete Francina Elsje Blankers Koen made a name for herself by winning four Olympic medals in track and field events. She was a mother of two and earned the nickname the “Flying Housewife”. Micheline Ostermeyer, a discus thrower, also attracted attention for her athletic prowess and great personality.

In 1968 in Mexico, for the first time the final torch-bearer was a young woman, the athlete Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo. The participation of women continued to increase. In Seoul in South Korea the number exceeded two thousand. There were 2,194 women out of a total of 8,391 athletes. In Sydney in 2000, the Olympic flame was carried by women torch-bearers to commemorate the one hundred years of women’s participation in the Games.

Today, in the London Games of 2012, women make up 45% of the athletes. Women’s boxing has been introduced, a discipline that was previously reserved to men. On the other hand, there are two disciplines not open to men. They are synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. The London Games have another “first”. This is the first time that all the participating nations have at least one woman in their delegation. Some Muslim nations that had resisted until now, have allowed some women to take part. There are women representing Saudi Arabia in athletics and judo. Brunei has one woman athlete taking part, and Qatar has four women competitors, one each in athletics, shooting, swimming and table tennis. One of the women athletes carried the flag for Qatar in the opening ceremony.

Even though there is growing participation and presence of women, some people lament that discrimination remains. There are more male than female participants, and some disciplines have more competitions for men and consequently more medals are assigned to men than women. We might question whether numerical equivalence is the best parameter for an evaluation of relations between men and women. Is every difference motivated by discrimination? Is discrimination still the big problem in relations between men and women? Perhaps it would be better to admit that this is an issue that has been mostly resolved, at least in countries with a tradition of Christianity. Maybe relations between men and women now have to deal with other more urgent problems.

Other voices are calling for a total abolition of “gender discrimination” in competitions so that men and women could compete in the same competitions and so eliminate any differentiation among competitors according to sex. This idea does not seem to have gained many adherents up to now, and in any case, the facts show how absurd this would be. The fastest woman marathon runner is still twelve minutes behind the fastest man. There is always more than a second between men and women in the 100 metres, and more than a metre in the long jump. Are we really sure that differences should be removed and that the result would be favourable to women, to men, or to relations between them?

Other experts hope that sport too will recognise the specific nature of the female organic structure so that excellence will be seen in disciplines that do not depend on strength or muscular power, but on resistance, flexibility and agility. Sports medicine shows how the lower muscular mass of women and their lower number of red cells in the blood limit the peak of strength they can reach, but it gives them greater breadth of movement and less consumption of oxygen for the same effort.[3] We can understand this idea by observing the differences between men’s and women’s competitions in disciplines like gymnastics and diving. On the other hand, there are sports where the sex of the athlete is irrelevant. Equestrians sports are an example, and in these men and women take part in the same competitions.

The Olympics provide us with a singular opportunity to observe the changing situations of men and women and the relationship between them. In the space of two or three generations, women’s presence in society, and consequently also in sport, has increased enormously. This is undoubtedly a very positive development and something for which we are very glad. The speed of change, however, together with the concomitant loss of points of reference, leave many questions unanswered. Is every difference between men and women a discrimination? Must every difference between men and women be abolished in order for relations between the sexes to be better? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? How should we view the specificity of each one so that there can be reciprocal collaboration in every sphere? These are questions that need to be answered today. Our culture has been called “liquid” or “flat” by some and it lacks points of reference, and so the answers to those questions are central to the new evangelisation. The Church is an expert in humanity and must use its rich anthropology to provide answers. Only Christ can reveal to human beings – men and women – who they are, and only Christ can reveal to them their high vocation.[4] 

[1] M. Aiello, Viaggio nello sport attraverso i secoli, Ed. Felice Le Monier Firenze 2004, 49-50.

[2] M. Aiello, “A brief history of sport”, in: The World of Sport Today: a Field of Christian Mission, Pontifical Council for the Laity (ed.), Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2006, 14

[3] M. Aiello, Viaggio… (cit.),298.

[4] Cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22.

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