Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: The herstory of the Olympics

13 comments
Valerie Adams is one of New Zealand's most successful athletes. 
Photo / File
Valerie Adams is one of New Zealand's most successful athletes. Photo / File

Although there's still progress to be made, the 2012 Olympics is proving a game changer when it comes to gender equality. Every participating country has female representatives, women make up a record 45 per cent of the athletes, and nations that previously baulked at the idea have sent female competitors.

What a shipfight it's been, though.

Backing up a bit into the recesses of lady-unfriendly history, married women weren't even allowed to sit in the stands at the Ancient Olympic Games. And by 'not allowed', I mean hurled to their death from a cliff if caught sneaking a peek. Unmarried girls could watch, but only take part by entering a horse into an equestrian event. And there was a four-yearly sports 'festival' for women - named Heraia, after Zeus' wife - but it was a massively poor cousin, because the line-up went: START > ONE FOOTRACE FOR MAIDENS > THE END.

In 1896, when Europe was busy copying everything ancient and Greek, French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games.

Except he banned women completely, declaring their inclusion "impractical, uninteresting, anaesthetic, and incorrect". Experts agreed with him, worried ladies might ruin their ability to grow babies, or that they'd suddenly come over all sex-crazed thanks to the competitive vibes.

However, at the 1900 Games in Paris, women were granted the privilege of competing in the gentle sports of lawn tennis and golf. And so it came about that the first female Olympic champion ever was a 30-year-old English lady called Charlotte Cooper - Kiwi connection here! - who won the tennis singles in a long swooping skirt. (Also, she was deaf and nearly blind, so must have been one hell of a player.)

Very, very, slowly, the Olympic authorities began to make some allowances. At the 1908 Games in London there were 36 women competitors in the figure skating and tennis events. And the Swedes included two women's swimming events and one diving contest in 1912 in Stockholm.

In 1928, women were even allowed to compete in track and field events - but most of them collapsed with fatigue at the end of the 800-metre race. Which was really bad luck, because critics of female participation used that as an excuse to ban the event until 1960. Like Frederick Rand Rogers - a pioneer in physical fitness testing - who wrote in 1929 that the Olympics lead female competitors to lose their "health, physical beauty, and social attractiveness."

By the 1936 Games in Berlin, there were only four sports available to women. By the 1968 Games in Mexico, there were six. Fast forward to 1996 and things were better - 23 sports and 97 events open to women - but still way below the 163 events open to men. That was only 16 years ago. And, amazingly, the 2000 Olympics was the first time women could compete in weightlifting. That was only 12 years ago.

Finally, here we are, and the 2012 Games is the first year women can compete in ALL the sports - thanks to the addition of women's boxing.

So: from being hurled off cliffs to winning the right to punch each other silly like men do, it's been a long, cobbled road. Don't forget to celebrate by following Alexis Pritchard and Siona Fernandes, our very own female Olympic boxers. Here they are TV One's Good Morning, in case you missed it. And here's the schedule. Now you have no excuse.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 30 Aug 2014 17:06:49 Processing Time: 690ms