“Tomorrow there will probably be women runners, or even women football players? If such sports are played by women, would they constitute a proper spectacle to offer the audience that an Olympiad brings together? We do not think this may be claimed to be so.”
— Founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, July 1912.
There is something fascinating about the Olympics. The Games capture the attention and hearts of people, who ordinarily don’t have an interest in sports. Maybe it’s the fact that they come once every four years coupled with watching some of the great personalities involved such as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.
In case anyone missed the detail, Bolt won the gold medal in the men’s 100 metres in 9.63 seconds and Michael Phelps is the American swimmer who, over the years has won 22 medals, the highest number in Olympic history.
However like most other areas in life, the Olympic Games haven’t always accepted women as equal participants.
Excerpts from the book ‘A Proper Spectacle — Women Olympians 1900-1936’ by Daniels and Tedde which is discussed on www.olympicwomen.co.uk gives some interesting insights.They authored the book after one of them wrote a Masters Degree thesis about “Women in the Olympics” and struggled to find information.
For starters, during the men’s Ancient Olympic chariot races women themselves were the actual prizes! And in the Ancient Olympic Games married women were barred but virgins and prostitutes were allowed as spectators. It is difficult to imagine how they verified eligibility based on such criteria.
It seems the issue of women competing in the modern Olympics was a contentious one for many years in the early 1900s, as the founder of the modern Olympics stated in the opening quote.
During this period, women were only allowed to compete in selected events such as tennis, archery, golf and ballooning.
Women remained barred from competing in athletics until the 1928 games in Amsterdam where they were accepted in only five events.
It is reported the women’s athletics team from Great Britain boycotted these games in protest at the low number of events women were allowed to enter.
It has also not been easy for women to penetrate the leadership circle of the Olympics.
The website states that between 1896 and 1981, there were no women members in the International Olympic Committee.
The online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, sheds more light on the struggles women are facing up to this day. As late as 1992, there were still 35 countries that were sending men only teams to the Olympics. It is only now at the current Summer Olympics in 2012 that all countries are including women in their teams.
Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia were the last countries upholding the rule which precluded women from competing. In Saudi Arabia, it was actually against the law.
There was a growing chorus of calls for the exclusion of Saudi Arabia and an all male team at this year’s Olympics would have certainly drawn adverse reactions.
So this year Saudi Arabia, the last country to end female exclusion finally sent two women athletes as part of their team to the 2012 London Olympics. One is Wodjan Shaherkani in judo and the other is Sarah Attar, an 800 metre runner.
There was debate on whether the former should be allowed to compete in a hijab, that is, a head scarf. She was not willing to participate without one and a compromise which saw her wearing a modified scarf was reached.
Interestingly, there are two events in which men are actually excluded; synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.
The official Olympics website www.london2012.com indicates that although synchronised swimming began as a sport for men in the 1800s, it is now contested only by women.
The Summer Olympics began in London on July 27 and are due to end on August 12.
The modern Olympics were founded in 1894 after many centuries break from the Ancient Greek Olympics which were staged between 8th Century BC and 4th Century AD.
One can conclude that the struggle to allow women from anywhere in the world to compete in the modern Olympics is now finally over — one hundred and eighteen years since they began.