If you read the Olympic websites, you would believe that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is thoroughly committed to the equality of women in sports. However, this commitment is relatively new. It was not until 2012, just four years ago, that every country participating in the Olympics had women athletes. This was the same year that women competed, for the first time, in all sports.
When the Olympics were revived in 1890, women were prohibited from participation. That changed in 1900 when women competed in the Paris games. The First American Woman (and second woman internationally) to win a gold medal was Margaret Abbott, a golfer who was studying art in Paris at the time. Her mother, Mary Perkins Ives Abbott also competed in the event, making this the first—and last—time a mother and daughter competed in the Olympics.
Margaret Abbott and her mother were among the 22 women competing in Paris, out of the full contingent of 997 athletes. Women competed in five sports: croquet, tennis, golf, sailing, and equestrianism. In 1924 women reached 136 in numbers. However, by this time, there were 2,954 men participating, so their percentage increased only marginally. That same year, in the Olympic 100-meter backstroke, Sybil Bauer broke a swimming world record that had been held previously by a man.
Four years later Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson Schwartz was awarded the first Olympic gold medal for a woman in track and field. In 1931, she was in a plane crash. Believing she was dead, she was taken to the morgue and found to be in a coma. Her recovery was slow as she struggled to walk normally and finally to run. Although she could not bend over into the starting position for a race, she competed on the American women’s relay team in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The Americans beat Hitler’s Germans and won the gold.
It was not until 1981, one hundred and one years after the Olympics were revived, that women served as board members on the IOC. Was it a coincidence that women were allowed to compete in the marathon at the Olympics shortly after, in 1984? Joan Benoit, who had set a Boston Marathon record that lasted for 28 years, won the gold.
Five years later, in 1986, Anita DeFrantz, a former U.S. rowing team captain, became the First African American Woman to serve on the IOC. Was it any coincidence that five years after, in 1991, the IOC decided that any new sport added to the Olympics must include both men’s and women’s events?
Even this change, however had some limits. Although women could compete in every sport, they could not necessarily compete in every event. As late as 2006 the International Ski Federation petitioned the IOC to allow women to ski jump in the Olympics. It took two more winter Olympics, and eight years, before the IOC agreed. In 2014 Sarah Hendrickson was the First Woman ever to ski jump at the Olympics. In 2016 women will earn 44% of all medals awarded.