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Although the  Modern Olympic Games were revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, female athletes were not allowed to participate until the 1900 Olympics in Paris. Their inclusion began a slow-growing movement for women’s inclusion in sporting competition. This growth slowed and women’s competition dwindled in the mid 1900s.  While it may seem that the absence of expanding international competition and the lack of interest in women’s competition were the primary factors in the decline of women in international sporting competitions by the 1950s, a deeper examination of social factors shows that gender roles in European society combined with the perception that women possessed an inferior biological composition coupled with concerns about strenuous activity were the primary causes.

Founder of the Modern Olympic Games Baron Pierre de Coubertin

The 1900 Olympic Games in Paris were the first Olympics to include women in the events. While only 22 women athletes participated, it was a huge achievement for women athletes [1]. While on the surface it appeared to be a positive advancement for women in sport, the founder of the Modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, opposed the inclusion of women athletes. In his revival of the Games, Coubertin aimed to emulate the Olympics held in Ancient Greece as closely as possible; The Ancient Games did not include women participants, the only role women played was presenting the winnings at the awards ceremonies [2]. In a monthly newsletter published by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Coubertin was quoted expressing his disapproval of women athletes, stating that “ a woman’s glory rightfully came through the number and quality of children she produced, and that as far as sports were concerned, her greatest accomplishment was to encourage her sons to excel rather than seek records for herself” [3].  Coubertin’s view on women’s athleticism as risky for their reproductive capacities was not a radical thought, but one that prohibited many women from entering sports. Coubertin was also later quoted saying that women’s sporting events should have no spectators and that women who competed were destroying their “feminine charm” [4]. Another reason that contributed to Coubertin’s opposition of female competitors in the Games was the fact that the emancipation movements in his native France had progressed slower than in other countries in Europe, meaning that French women’s involvement and participation was negligible.  

While women were allowed to compete in the 1900 Games, the events open to them was limited. Golf and tennis were the first sports offered to female athletes. In 1904, women also competed in archery. The International Swimming Federation (ISF) was the first main sporting federation to openly support the participation and inclusion of women. The ISF voted to include women in swimming at the 1912 Games [5]. This active involvement in women’s sports prompted other international sporting federations to slowly begin including women in their competitions. After World War 1, the number of female competitors rose, but it was still a slowly growing sector of sport [2]

Women competing in golf at the 1900 Games in Paris.

At the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, at the end of the 800m track race, women runners collapsed from exhaustion at the finish line. This act of fatigue prompted the all-male media and news outlets to exaggerate and fabricate facts about the race and deem women as incapable of competing at such a level [5]. This controversial race was excluded from women’s Olympic program until 1960. What truly shows the idea that women were not fit for competition is that in 1904, men had collapsed from exhaustion after completing the 800m race and were seen as merely tired from effort and energy exertion and the event was continued at the following Olympics [5]. Elimination of the 800 meter run was a setback for women as they pushed to gain advancements in sport. A 1957 London Times article cites lack of international competitions as a major factor in the decline of women’s presence in sport [6]. In the 1960s, an increasing number of women’s movements globally fostered the growth and spread of women’s sport [7].

The start of the controversial women’s 800m run in Amsterdam 1928.

The 1936 Olympic Games were held in Berlin, Germany at the time that Hitler was assuming power and assembling his Nazi soldiers. Hitler saw these Games as a global opportunity to advertise and promote his ideals of racial supremacy and set high standards for his athletes to achieve. At these Games, women’s events included track and field, fencing, swimming, gymnastics, and figure skating [8]. The expanding events list for women shows how they were gradually accepted into global sporting competition and how the interest and participation in women’s athletics grew. A woman’s medal counted the same as a man’s medal in the overall medal count for a country, which was one reason that the Nazis favored women’s participation. However, Nazis primarily thought that women were “biologically needed for breeding” and therefore should not participate in any activity that would jeopardize their reproductive success or ability [9]. The Fascist Grand Counsel expressed strong opinions against women’s sport participation in a newspaper article from the London Times. In it, they state that women’s athleticism would taint their femininity. This view, though somewhat extreme, was not uncommon at this time as women elsewhere were fighting for equal rights and suffrage movements were beginning [10].

Women have achieved much success in sport, specifically the Olympic Games, despite fierce objection and societal opposition in the early 20th century. A surface look at women’s decline in participation in international sporting competition cites a lack of international competition and reduction in interest in women’s sport as the primary reasons. A deeper look however,reveals that European societal ideals on the role of women and the concerns over their physical limitations were the primary causes.

Footnotes

[1] Ana Maria Miragaya, “The Process of Inclusion of Women in the Olympic Games,” (Rio de Janeiro, 2006) accessed September 16,2015.

[2] D. Margaret Costa and Sharon R. Guthrie, Women and Sport: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. (D. Margaret Costa and Sharon R. Guthrie: 1994). 123-124.

[3] Greta L. Cohen, trans., Women in Sport: Issues and Controversies. (Newbury Park, 1993). 185.

[4] Kath Woodward, Sex Power and the Games. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).29-30.

[5] Greta L. Cohen, trans., Women in Sport: Issues and Controversies. (Newbury Park, 1993). 186-187.

[6] Our Athletics Correspondent. “Decline in Women’s Athletics After Long Olympic Season.” Times (London, England). 25 Oct. 1957:14. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

[7] Roberta J. Park, “Contesting the Norm: Women and Professional Sports in Late Nineteenth-Century America.” International Journal Of The History Of Sport (2012). Historical Abstracts, EBSCOhost. accessed September 16, 2015.

[8] Anna Kruger and William Murray, The Nazi Olympics: Sports, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930s. (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 2003). 229.

[9] Anna Kruger and William Murray, The Nazi Olympics: Sports, Politics, and Appeasement in the 1930s. (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 2003). 234- 235.

[10] Our Own Correspondent. “Women in Sport- A Fascist Inquiry.” Times (London, England). 17 Oct. 1930: 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

Images

Fig 1. “Running History: The Women’s 800m- 1928 and Today”. Go Feet Blog 2013. http://go-feet.blogspot.com/2013/08/running-history-4-womens-800m-1928-and.html

Fig 2. “Presidents of the International Olympic Committee. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidents_of_the_International_Olympic_Committee

Fig 3. “History of Golf at the Games”. International Golf Federation. http://www.igfgolf.org/olympic-games/golf-at-the-olympic-games/