The History of Women at the Olympic Games

Matthew Keogh

Jul 20, 2021

In 1976 in Montreal, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored a ten on the uneven bars – the first gymnast (man or woman) in Olympic history to be awarded a perfect score.

From Comaneci’s perfect ten to Simone Biles winning four gold medals in 2016, female Olympians have exhibited graceful athleticism for over 100 years.

In this article, we document the history of women at the Olympics – both summer and winter. We also highlight the defining moments that advanced women’s sport while celebrating the major medal winners who stole the show along the way.

The progression of women at the Olympic Games

The early days

Olympia, the Greek city of Elis held the first recorded Olympic Games in 776 BC.1 However, these Olympic Games were limited to only men – women couldn’t even attend.

Almost 3,000 years later in 1896, Athens held the first Summer Olympics.2 Only 13 nations competed and all the participants were men. Finally, four years later in 1900, women competed at the Olympic Games for the first time. Twenty-two female athletes out of 997 participants competed in five sports, including tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. Swiss sailor Helene De Pourtales became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal.3

In 1912, women competed in swimming events for the first time. However, America was not represented as they prohibited women from competing in events without long skirts.4 Many other countries shared this conservative view.

Trouble with the International Olympic Committee (IOC)

In 1922, French feminist Alice Milliat organised the first ‘Women’s Olympic Games’ in Monte Carlo.  The event protested the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) refusal to allow women to compete in athletics events. These games and the following in 1926 proved popular, which pressured the IOC to allow women to compete in track and field at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.5

Meanwhile, in 1924, the first Winter Olympic Games were held in Chamonix, France. Women only competed in the figure skating.6

Recent history  

In 1996, the first IOC (International Olympic Committee) World Conference on Women and Sport took place in Lausanne, Switzerland. The Olympic body was established to progress women in sport.7

The IOC introduced softball, a women-only sport at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In 2006, women competed in rugby for the first time and golf was re-introduced for the first time since 1900. In 2012, with the inclusion of women’s boxing, men and women competed in all Olympic sporting events.8

In a sign of progress, women participation grew to 45 per cent women, 55 per cent men (a new record) at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.9

The most decorated female Olympians of all time (by total medals won)

Most gold medals won by a woman in Olympic history

Source: Olympic.org. Olympic results. https://www.olympic.org/olympic-results. 2020. Accessed August 2020.

 

Most individual gold medals won by a woman at a single Olympic Games

Source: Olympic.org. Olympic results. https://www.olympic.org/olympic-results. 2020. Accessed August 2020.

 

Each country’s greatest female Olympian by gold medals

 

The most inspiring female Olympic moments of all time

  • In 1902, Madge Syers won a silver medal in World Figure Skating Championships – against men. This accomplishment led to a female division in the sport at the 1908 London Winter Olympics.16 Syers won the gold medal in a fitting moment for the skating trailblazer.
  • Born in the segregated south of the United States, Alice Coachman went from training barefoot to becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.17 She accomplished this feat in the high jump at the 1948 London Olympics.
  • At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Greek hurdler Voula Patoulidou became the first Greek woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Sensationally, Patoulidou won the 100m hurdles when heavy favourite Gail Devers tripped at the final hurdle.18
  • Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman won silver in the 400m at the 1996 Atlanta games. In 2000 at her home games in Sydney, she went one step further and won gold.19 Although unofficial flags are banned from the Olympics, Freeman completed a lap of honour with the Australian and Aboriginal flag draped around her neck in a unifying moment.
  • At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, American gymnast Simone Biles set the gymnastics floor alight, smashing records and winning four gold medals. In a post-competition interview Biles said, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.”20
  • British Hockey superstars Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh won the gold medal with their national team at Rio de Janeiro in 2016. They became the first married lesbian couple to win an Olympic gold medal.21

Brought to you by Compare the Market: Making it easier for Australians to compare Health Insurance.

Sources

1. Judith Swaddling, The Ancient Olympic Games, 2015. Published by University of Texas Press.
2. The Library of Congress. The Olympics: A Guide to Reference Sources. https://www.loc.gov/rr/main/olympics/dates.html. 2018. Accessed August 2020.
3. Olympic.org. Key dates in the history of women in the Olympic movement. https://www.olympic.org/women-in-sport/background/key-dates. 2020. Accessed July 2020.
4. Ibid.
5. World athletics. Plaque commemorating first women’s Olympics unveiled in Monte Carlo. https://www.worldathletics.org/news/news/plaque-commemorating-first-womens-olympics-un. 2008. Accessed August 2020.
6. Radio Free Europe. The First Winter Olympics: Chamonix 1924. https://www.rferl.org/a/winter-olympics-france/25238845.html. 2014. Accessed August 2020.
7. Olympic.org. Key dates in the history of women in the Olympic movement. https://www.olympic.org/women-in-sport/background/key-dates. 2020. Accessed July 2020.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. WBUR. Larisa Latynina: An Unlikely Medal Leader. 2012. https://www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2012/07/28/latynina-medal-leader. Accessed August 2020.
11. Eureka alert. Public release. How to train like the world’s most successful female cross-country skier. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-02/nuos-htt021618.php. 2018. Accessed August 2020.
12. Art of the Olympians. Birgit Fischer. https://artoftheolympians.org/artists/birgit-fischer/. 2016. Accessed August 2020.
13. United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum. Jenny Thompson. https://usopm.org/jenny-thompson/. 2020. Accessed August 2020.
14. Team USA. Dara Torres. https://www.teamusa.org/usa-swimming/athletes/Dara-Torres. 2020. Accessed August 2020.
15. Team USA. Natalie Coughlin. https://www.teamusa.org/usa-swimming/athletes/Natalie-Coughlin. 2020. Accessed August 2020.
16. Olympic.org. Syers skates to landmark gold. https://www.olympic.org/news/syers-skates-to-landmark-gold. 2020. Accessed August 2020.
17. Olympic.org. Alice Coachman – athletics. https://www.olympic.org/news/alice-coachman-athletics. Accessed July 2020.
18. Tokyo2020.org. Blast from the past: The curse of the hurdles. https://tokyo2020.org/en/news/blast-from-the-past-the-curse-of-the-hurdles. 2020. Accessed August 2020.
19. AIATSIS. Cathy Freeman. https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/cathy-freeman. 2020. Accessed August 2020.
20. Olympic Games. From Rio 2016 to Tokyo 2020 https://www.olympic.org/news/the-legend-of-simone-biles-continues-to-grow. Accessed July 2020.
21. Team GB. Love stories: Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh. https://www.teamgb.com/video/love-stories-with-kate-and-helen-richardson-walsh/38By0X5eMgEcOdCPBxofSN. 2020. Accessed August 2020.