because history just ain't what it used to be

The Right to Go for the Gold: Women in the Olympics

In History on February 24, 2010 at 17:18

by Jen Kreis

Women have had their fair share of struggles and battles throughout the past. From having limits on occupations and rights, being discriminated against, and being labeled and stereotyped, women have been through many hardships throughout history. Women used to be known as only being the ones to take care of the children, cook, clean, and serve others. Women did not always receive proper education. We know that women are no longer looked at in this way, and there have been many big changes for women. Women were able to act in theatre in 1660, gained the right to vote in 1920, and were allowed to be in the military in the 1940s, so it was just natural for women to gain the right to compete in the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Games first began in Olympia in the year 776 BC. This was the year when the names of the winners were first recorded, but the actual games began at least 1500 years beforehand. Only free men from any country or city who spoke Greek could compete in these sports. Women were not allowed to participate in these Games. They were thought to be second-class and it would not have been acceptable for a woman to compete in these Games (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Olympic_Games). Women were forbidden to watch the Games, and if they were caught doing so, they would be killed (http://period8dolzall.tripod.com/olympics.html).

In Ancient Greece, unmarried maidens were able to be a part of the Heraea Games. These ancient Games were dedicated to the goddess Hera. They date back as early as the sixth century BC. These were the first recorded women’s athletic competitions that were help in the stadium at Olympia. Heraea originally consisted of only foot races. The majority of the competitors and winners were Spartan girls. When competing, their hair was supposed to be down so that it could flow behind them. Short tunics were worn and all girls ran barefoot (http://greek-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/did_women_compete_in_the_ancient_olympics).

The champions would win olive crowns, cow or ox meat, and the right to dedicated statues inscribed with their names or painted portraits of themselves on the columns of Hera’s temple. The competitors in these games were dressed like men. It is said that the Heraea Games were started because the Olympic Games became very popular (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraea_Games).

In the 1880s, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France wanted to revive the ancient Olympic Games and create modern Olympic Games. Only summer sports were included at the beginning (http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_668.pdf). Coubertin, along members of the International Olympic Committee, opposed women’s participation in the Olympics and only included them so that they could applause the male athletes’ awards. “During the nineteenth century, a common belief was that men were naturally aggressive and competitive and women were emotional and passive, making men better suited for strenuous exercise and sports.” Doctors became involved by arguing that because of the energy women expended on reproductive functions, “minimal energy was left for physical, psychic or intellectual endeavors” (Ibid). Later in the nineteenth century, physicians decided that some physical exercise in small doses could aid women’s health and their ability to bear strong children. Walking and a few recreational sports such as croquet, archery, and skating were the main activities that women were allowed to participate in.

By the end of the century, a few middle and upper class women participated in tennis and golf. Around the same time that this was occurring, “changes such as industrialization, urbanization, the women’s reform movements, and an alteration of the restrictive clothing women wore brought more women into the leisure sports world were taking place, which led to their inclusion in competitive sports.” Women lacked the international support to be fully included in the Olympics, but they did get a foot in the door through leisure sports. The first female participants of the Olympics were the nineteen women who competed at the 1900 Games in Paris. Women were allowed to compete in tennis, golf, and yachting, although none participated in yachting. Women began to earn their place in the Olympics, sport by sport, and event by event (http://www.nwhm.org/olympics/olympics1.htm).

The 1912 Games in Stockholm saw the first appearance of women swimmers; and in 2004, women’s wrestling joined the Olympic program. At the turn of the millennium, over 40 percent of the athletes at the Games were women, the largest proportion of female participants in the history of the Olympic Games! The only sports that women cannot compete in during the Summer Games are boxing and baseball. Softball, synchronized swimming, and rhythmic gymnastics involve only women (http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_668.pdf).

Today, there are many famous women who participate in the Olympic Games. A fair share of these women compete for the United States of America. Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin are known for being great in gymnastics. Liukin is the 2008 Olympic individual all-around gold medalist, the 2005 and 2007 world Champion on the balance beam, and the 2005 World Champion on the uneven bars. Liukin is tied with Shannon Miller as the American gymnast having won the most World Championship medals (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nastia_Liukin). Johnson is the 2008 Olympic women’s balance beam gold medalist, the individual all-around silver medalist, the 2007 all-around World Champion, and the 2007 and 2008 U.S. all-around champion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shawn_Johnson). One woman we have been hearing a lot about during the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver is Lindsey Vonn. She is an American alpine ski racer, who is the first American woman to win the gold medal in downhill. She has become the most successful American woman skier in history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindsey_Vonn).

After all that women have gone through to be included in the Olympics, they definitely deserve their spot in the Games and have proved it by doing so well. Women bring a different dimension to the Games and people definitely love to watch them. Many women who compete in the Olympics have made history and future competitors will continue to do so. It was no mistake to allow women to join in on the Olympics, and that has been made evident by the great impact they have made.

Web. 18 Feb. 2010. <http://period8dolzall.tripod.com/olympics.html>.

Web. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://greek-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/did_women_compete_in_the_ancient_olympics>.

Web. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_668.pdf>.

Web. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://www.nwhm.org/olympics/olympics1.htm>.

Wikipedia. Web. 18 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Olympic_Games>.

Wikipedia. Web. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraea_Games>.

Wikipedia. Web. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindsey_Vonn>.

Wikipedia. Web. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nastia_Liukin>.

Wikipedia. Web. 19 Feb. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shawn_Johnson>.

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  1. Great job on this paper, Jen. I hadn’t read the history of women’s athletic competitions before.

  2. Thanks, Jen, for this very thorough read on the gradual inclusion of women in Olympic competition through the ages. Your argument proceeds naturally to a conversation that has been happening in Vancouver leading up to the current games, where a group of female ski jumpers sued the Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) for excluding their sport from the program of events, and saw their case through to the provincial Supreme Court.

    In the end the province deemed that it couldn’t impose the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (which prohibits the discrimination of women in every aspect of public life) on the International Olympic Committee. The IOC contends that the sport was not developed internationally when they voted on its inclusion in 2006, and president Jacques Rogge could be correct when he says that including female ski jumping would “water down” the medal count. But I would ague – and many have – that this is contrary to the Olympic Spirit espoused in the history you put forth above, that says: “It was no mistake to allow women to join in on the Olympics, and that has been made evident by the great impact they have made.”

    After all, a certain path to developing sport for women internationally, and reap the global benefits that sport brings, is to broaden the Olympic range of competition for them. This is the argument made in giving due attention to sports like Skeleton, and Snowboarding, and Ski Cross (new this year), but ski jumping didn’t make the cut, dooming the sport in a certain sense. Mr. Rogge also said that, “Medals create dreams, and without dreams you have no participation. Medals are the biggest incentives for governments to fund sports in their countries.”

    While I write this, I am sitting in Vancouver, British Columbia, watching the Women’s Canadian Hockey Team accept their gold medals on my television after defeating the United States in a rematch of the 2002 Final. Today I read that our female athletes have won 80% of Canada’s medals, and I cannot help but think of what these two weeks have done for the young women of Vancouver and Canada who have been witness to the strength of our country’s females. Young women who take up bobsled, and ski and snowboard cross, and luge, and hockey will have heroes, and golden moments to savour that will see us through a generation of athletes.

    It is sad to think that the same isn’t true for ski jumping.

    http://www.cbc.ca/olympics/skijumping/story/2009/12/22/bc-oly-women-scoc.html

    http://www.morecanadian.com/2009/08/deborah-folka-women-ski-jumping-vanoc-2010/

    http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=77f736fe-8b73-4d38-b809-f55bc49a29b8&k=86940

  3. “it would not have been unacceptable for a woman to compete in these Games”

    Ooops….this does not make sense, but I think you meant to say acceptable, rather than UNacceptable.

    “In the 1980s, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France wanted to revive the ancient Olympic Games and create modern Olympic Games.”

    1886…is what your link information provides…

    This is a very nice article, well written and I learned a lot that I did not know. I love what you’re are doing on this website with your class, and that you can receive feedback on your articles. However, I think someone should be proof-reading your articles for errors prior to posting your articles!

    Keep up the good work~

  4. Thank you for pointing this out. It should be fixed soon.

    • Thank you very much for your helpful response and for your interest in our e-zine. We will discuss proof-reading at our next meeting and set up a procedure for avoiding these errors in the future.

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