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Women in the Olympics - a brief history

The 20th May 2000 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympic Games. It also marks the centenary of women’s participation in the modern Olympics. Three events were available for women at the 1900 Olympic Games: golf, tennis and yachting.

When the modern Olympic Games began in 1896 women had no part in the competition. In fact, the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin had said on several occasions that the Olympics were no place for women. He felt that rather than seek records for herself, a woman’s greatest achievement was to encourage her sons to excel.

Women had to work to gain a presence in the Olympic arena and force open the door to one sport after another. Swimming for women was included in the Games in 1912 and a limited program of track and field was added in 1928. Women’s races longer than 200m were banned until 1960 when the 800m was reintroduced. The women’s marathon was not added until 1984. In 1992 the 10,000m walk was introduced and recently, waterpolo — which had been the domain of men since the Olympics first began — was added to the 2000 Olympic Games program for women.

Women have played an enormous role in painting the Olympic picture. Since Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain won gold in singles tennis at the 1900 Paris Olympics, many women have put their stamp on Olympic history.

There are those who have dominated, like the great Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen who became the first woman to win four gold medals in a single Games, and Larissa Latynina of the Soviet Union, whose nine gold, five silver and four bronze over the course of three Olympiads remains a record for men and women.

There are those who are renown for their "firsts" like Nadia Comanici who became the first Olympic gymnast male or female to score a perfect 10 in competition and American Joan Benoit who won the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984.

Moroccan 400m hurdler Nawal El Moutawekel won her nation’s first gold medal and became the first woman from an Islamic nation to win a medal. And there are some for whom age meant nothing like gymnast Luigina Giavotti who, at 11 years 302 days is both youngest female competitor and medallist, and Lorna Johnstone who competed in her second Olympics in 1972 at the age of 70 years, 5 days, representing Great Britain in equestrian.

Women athletes in many countries have historically made a disproportionately high contribution to the medals count at the Games. This has certainly been true for Australia.

In certain Olympic sports, particularly swimming and track and field, Australian women have been outstanding. For example in track and field up to and including Atlanta, since 1948 women have constituted just over 30% of the track and field team but have won 75% of all medals and 11 out of 14 gold medals.

In swimming women have won 15 out of the 25 gold medals won by Australians since 1912.

In total, women have comprised 23 per cent of Australian Olympic teams from 1948 to 1996 and have won 38 per cent of medals.

In so far as Australia has a reputation for excellence as an Olympic nation, that reputation has been built largely on achievements of women like swimmers Sarah (Fanny) Durack, Dawn Fraser, Lorraine Crapp, Shane (Gould) Innes, Beverley Whitfield; track and field competitors Marjorie Jackson, Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland, Glynis Nunn, Debbie Flintoff-King and Louise Sauvage; our women’s hockey team and many others.

Many of those women’s personal stories have contributed to the Olympic picture. Marjorie Jackson came from a small country town whose members banded together to create a cinders track on which she could train for the Olympics. Shirley Strickland was criticised during the 1948 Olympics for not remaining at home with her children. Headlines described her as a "mother and runner" but few made mention of the fact that she also held a PhD in nuclear physics. Nova Peris-Kneebone became the first Indigenous Australian to win a gold medal as a member of the victorious Australian women’s hockey team at Atlanta. Louise Sauvage could walk as a child but found she got around more quickly in her wheelchair. That has certainly proved to be true. Louise is a Paralympic champion many times over, and a gold medallist from the 800m wheelchair demonstration event at the Atlanta Olympics.

The achievements of women athletes have encouraged participation in sport generally and continue to inspire all Australians.

The fact that the entire first print run of Dennis H. Phillips' book Australian Women at the Olympic Games, published on the eve of the Barcelona Olympics, sold out in three months, serves to illustrate the impact on society of our women Olympians.

Role models inspire children and adults alike. Young girls need to see women can do and have done, well in sport. Women’s participation in the Olympics is a story of hard work and persistence, and also one of achievement and success. It is the epitome of the Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic creed: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle".

Facts ‘n’ Stats

- Australian women first competed in the Olympic Games in 1912, when Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie competed in the swimming events, winning a gold and silver medal respectively.
- Women have won 15 out of the 40 Olympic gold medals won by Australians in swimming events since 1912.
- In 1948 Australian women participated in a team event in the Olympic Games for the first time. The event was the 4 x 100m relay in track and field and team members were Betty McKinnon, Shirley Strickland, Joyce King and June Maston. The team won a silver medal.
- Since 1948 women have made up 19% of the Australian athletics teams, but have won more than 75% of the athletics medals.
- Australian women have won 11 out of the 18 athletics gold medals won by Australians.
- Women have won 30 of the 89 gold medals (ie 34%) won by Australians at Olympic Games from 1948 to 1996. This is a remarkable achievement since only 24% of the total number of events between 1948 and 1996 were available to women, and women comprised only 21% of the total participants in Australian teams.
- Australian women have won 32 gold medals, 28 silver medals, 37 bronze medals in the Olympic Games since 1912.
- No women were named in the Australian team for the Olympic Games in 1924.
- Since 1912, Australian teams at the Olympic Games have included 669 women, of which 149 have won at least one medal.
- Australian women have won medals in the following sports at the Summer Olympic Games: athletics/track and field, basketball, beach volleyball, canoeing, cycling, diving, equestrian, hockey, rowing, shooting, softball, swimming and tennis.

Australian women flag bearers
1976 Montreal Raelene Boyle (athletics)
1980 Moscow Denise Boyd (athletics)
1992 Barcelona Jenny Donnet (diving)

Youngest women to represent Australia at the Olympic Games
Sandra Morgan was aged 14 years, 6 months when she was par of the winning 1956 4 x 100m freestyle relay (with Dawn Fraser, Lorraine Crapp and Faith Leech) in Melbourne.

In 1972 at Munich, Shane Gould was the youngest woman to win an individual gold medal – aged 15 years, 9 months she won three gold medals.

Maureen Caird, at 17 years, 19 days became the youngest track and field gold medallist from any country in the history of the Olympic Games. She won the gold medal in 80m hurdles at the 1968 Mexico City Games.

Most medals
In addition to her four gold medals, Dawn Fraser won four silver medals in the 1956—64 period.

Most gold medals
Dawn Fraser won four gold medals in swimming (1956 — 2; 1960 — 1; 1964 — 1).
Betty Cuthbert won four gold medals in athletics (1956 — 3; 1960 — 1).

Most gold medals at a single Olympics
>Betty Cuthbert won three gold medals in athletics at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.
Shane Gould won three gold medals in swimming at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

A Chronology of Women at the Olympic Games
1000BC Women-only Herean Games take place in Greece

776 BC Olympic rules forbid the men-only Games from taking place unless a priestess of Demeter is present

  1. At the first modern Olympics, a Greek woman called Melpomene becomes the first female to run an unofficial marathon, which she completed in 4.5 hours
  1. Tennis player Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain becomes the first female Olympic champion
  1. Yachtswoman Frances Clytie Rivett-Carnac and her husband win gold, making her the first woman in any event to win gold against men
  1. The first Australian woman to win gold (and in a world record time), Fanny Durack, puts the crawl on the world swimming map
  1. The collapse of several runners at the end of the 800m run (the first three women beating the world record) sees the race declared dangerous for women and banned.
  1. At the first post-war Olympics, Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands was the first mother to be successful at the Olympics. In achieving this success she breaks the social barrier that had previously discouraged women with children from participating in sport
  1. The first woman ever to compete in equestrian sport (against men) Lis Hartel, from Denmark, wins a silver medal
  1. The first woman in Olympic history to take the oath at the opening ceremony is skier Guiliana Chenal-Minuzzo at the Winter Olympics
  1. American sprinter Wilma Rudolf, who wore a leg brace as a child, wins three gold medals
  1. Dawn Fraser becomes the only swimmer, male or female, to win the same event at three successive Olympics. Speed skater Lydia Skoblikova wins her sixth gold medal, still a record total for either sex in any sport at the Winter Games
  1. Enriquetta Basilio becomes the first woman to light the Olympic flame in the stadium; sex tests for women are introduced at the Mexico City Games
  1. At 70, British equestrian Lorna Johnstone becomes the oldest ever female Olympian
  1. East German women win 11 swimming and nine athletics gold medals of the possible 14 in each sport; Margret Murdock, of the United States, outshoots male rifle shooters to win silver
  1. The greatest mother—daughter Olympic success occurs when Soviet runner Irina Nazarova, daughter of 1952 discus medallist Elizabeta Bagrinaseva, wins gold in the relay
  1. Women’s cycling and marathon are added to the Olympic program
  1. Tennis returns to the Games, with the inequitable situation of fewer women than men being allowed to compete
  1. Women’s judo, a demonstration sport in 1988, becomes a fully fledged Olympic sport
  1. The 5000m and triple jump are added to the women’s athletic program
  1. Women’s water polo, triathlon, taekwondo and weightlifting are added to the Olympic program

Australian Women at the Paralympic Games
The Paralympics, or ‘Parallel’ Olympics, are held every four years, usually in the same country that hosts the Olympic Games. A diverse range of people compete in the Paralympic Games including athletes with intellectual and sensory disabilities. Athletes are generally classified according to their ability and not their disability. So, for example, there are events where athletes with cerebral palsy compete against amputee athletes or athletes with a vision impairment. There are some sports that are only for people with specific disabilities such as goalball for vision impaired and boccia for athletes with cerebral palsy.

The first Paralympics were held in 1960 in Rome. Unfortunately there is no comprehensive record of Australia’s participation in the Paralympics before 1990, however we do know that our first woman representative was Daphne Hilton (nee Ceeley) who was the only Australian woman in the 1960 team.

In 1992, Australian women won 20 of our 37 gold medals at the Barcelona Paralympics. Australia’s greatest success though, was in 1996 when our athletes finished in second place to the USA on the medal tally with 106 medals, including 42 gold. Women made up less than 40% of the team yet won more than 50% of these gold medals (22 gold).

Indigenous Australian Women at the Olympic Games
While Australian women have faced many hurdles in their quest for Olympic equality, these hurdles have been higher and more numerous for Australia’s Indigenous women.

Australia has had only two Indigenous women representatives at the Olympic Games. Cathy Freeman and Nova Peris-Kneebone both represented Australia at Atlanta in 1996. These two women have a 100% record, both having won a medal at the Games. This is all the more impressive when considered with the fact that Indigenous women constitute less than 1% of the Australian population.

Australian Women at the Winter Olympic Games
Although the Winter Olympic Games have been held since 1924, and Australia did have one representative at the Garmisch (Germany) Games in 1936, Australia did not start competing regularly in Winter Olympic Games until Oslo (Norway) in 1952.

The earliest notable result for an Australian woman at the Winter Games was a 12th placing for Jacqueline Mason, who participated in the figure skating pairs competition with Mervyn Bower in 1960 at Squaw Valley in the USA.

Australia’s only medal in the Winter Olympic Games came in 1998 when Zali Steggall finished 3rd in the slalom event in the Alpine skiing.

Ranked 12th in the World Cup standings, Zali went on to confirm that the Olympic result was no fluke with a win in the women’s slalom world championship early in 1999.

The other most successful Australian woman competitor in the Winter Games has been Kirsty Marshall, who finished 6th in the freestyle aerial competition at Lillehammer in 1994. Expected to win a medal, Kirsty was leading after the semi-finals and was third after the first of two jumps in the final. In true competitive spirit, rather than settle for bronze, Kirsty attempted a difficult jump she hadn’t executed in two years since injuring her knee. In an all or nothing attempt, Kirsty missed out on the bronze and finished in 6th place, but had given her all to the competition.

In 1998 at Nagano, Kirsty was favoured to win a medal after finishing first in the world championships earlier in the year on the same course. Unfortunately a couple of bad landings in the preliminary rounds saw her miss the finals.


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