The First Female Olympians

sportsThe next time you’re out jogging or at the gym or taking a yoga class or going on a bike ride, if you do such things, appreciate for a moment your freedom to exercise. If you’re a sweater like me, be grateful. Enjoy your sweat. There was a time when physical exercise was deemed a masculine activity, and a moral issue, anathema to your true role as companion of the male and mother of the family. Sweating, in particular, was considered unladylike and an affront to the public.

On a practical level, the advent of the bicycle in the late 1800s—with its more common-sense bloomer-style clothing (try riding a bike in an ankle-length dress)—helped advance women’s rights. (Susan B. Anthony claimed “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”) But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, women were prohibited from participation in athletics, and those who did had to fight against the conviction that “a woman athlete must be built like a baby grand piano and have a face like a hatchet.”

The main assertion—based not on scientific evidence, but on widely-held cultural assumptions—was that physical activity would damage reproduction. And as we know, for men in power, it seems to be about legislating, enforcing, and controlling the baby-making.

The struggle to achieve equality has been a fight against this image of female participation in athletics as unnatural, immoral, harmful, and disgusting. Women athletes are (more or less) accepted now, and women continue to break barriers in traditional male strongholds such as boxing, which was included in the Olympics for the first time this past year.

Progress has not been linear, but rather more of a cyclical phenomenon, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, through the Great Depression, and right up to the outbreak of World War II, with what has been called a “Golden Age” in women’s sports. Not only did women begin to form teams and leagues, but there was also a general support and interest from the public.

But the Golden Age was followed, as they so often are, by a Dark Age, which continued up to the late 1960s. Following the second World War, the national psyche seemed to revert to the conservative ideal of woman as mother and housewife, a reaction to the large number of men back in the workforce, and also the emphasis once again on baby-making. From the 1970s (think Women’s Liberation Movement) until now, there’s been a mostly steady progress.

But let’s go back to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, where women were allowed to participate in five track and field events for the first time, on a trail basis, for a clear example of one step forward, three steps back. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, claimed the unnatural spectacle of women participating in sport was an affront to the human eye, and that women’s “primary role should be like in the ancient tournaments—the crowning of the (male) victors with laurels.”

Despite de Coubertin’s opposition, women slowly won concessions in each consecutive Olympics. With de Coubertin’s resignation as president of the International Olympic Committee in 1924, women were finally being permitted the test-ground track and field events of the 100-meter and 800-meter races, the 400-meter relay race, the running high jump, and the discus.

On a steamy August afternoon, nine female runners lined up for the 800-meter’s finals.  It was the longest race (two laps) and thought by many to be too difficult for women.  At the race’s conclusion, some of the competitors went to the ground on the infield.  Officials rushed onto the track to administer first aid. It wasn’t unreasonable for athletes to collapse after a historical middle-distance final with a world-record end—whether from exhaustion or emotion or a combination—yet male officials and reporters decided that this was sufficient evidence that the event made “too great a call on feminine strength.”

The all-male International Amateur Athletic Federation voted to ban all races longer than 200 meters and women’s races longer than half a lap from the Olympics. How long would this ban last? 32 years, until the 1960 Games in Rome, where the 800-meters was finally reinstated. While the IAAF argued that their decision was a humanitarian one, as one writer stated at the time: “…It seemed that the Federation was bent on displaying its power—giving the women to understand that they were not yet in direct control.”

According to bestselling Born to Run author Christopher McDougal, long distance running—with its emphasis on endurance—is “the great equalizer,” yet ironically, women were banned primarily for the same reason: that because of the strength and endurance requirements, it would be injurious to our health.

Not until 1981—thanks in no small part to Kathrine Switzer—did the International Olympic Committee vote to allow women to compete in marathons. In an interview, McDougal says that “ultra races are the only sport in the world in which women can go toe-to-toe with men and hand them their heads.”

1981 wasn’t that long ago. It’s been a long road for women’s advancement in athletics. So sweat as much as you want to—because you can. Appreciate it. Run, go to the gym, box, take a class or go outside; join a basketball, softball, or maybe even an extreme Frisbee team. Why not? It’s your right, and chances are that no one will warn you that your uterus will fall out, or that you’ll become an Amazon, or that it’s too dangerous. You won’t be told that it’s your moral obligation to refrain in service to your family, and that this is simply what’s best for you and your body.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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