Women's Olympic History

Mon 30 August 2021 | 16:30

Although there were no female sport events in the ancient Olympics, several women appeared in the official lists of Olympic winners as the owners of the stables of some victorious chariot entries. Read on to find out more about women's involvement in the Olympic Games.

Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) broke new ground as the most gender-equal edition so far, with women representing nearly 49 percent of all participants at these Olympic Games.

It has been a long road to equality for women at the Olympic Games. The Tokyo Olympics was held as the first gender-balanced Games in history. It was expected that almost 49 percent of the athletes participating would be women.

For the first time ever, all 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) should have had at least one female and one male athlete in their respective Olympic teams. However, it has not always been this way.

Participation in the Ancient Olympic Games was limited to male athletes only. The only way women were able to take part was to enter horses in the equestrian events. There are records of several winning women horse owners. As the owner of the horse teams, they were credited with the victory, though they were most likely not present at the events.


women and sport history

, it should be mentioned that even in the early years of the modern Olympics, women were not well represented (consequently a rival Women's Olympics was held). Women participated for the first time at the 1900 Paris Games with the inclusion of women's events in lawn tennis and golf.

Women's Olympic History:

Women's athletics and gymnastics debuted at the 1928 Olympics. Over time, more women's events were added. In 2012, women's boxing was introduced, resulting in no remaining sports that do not include events for women.

Equality in the available sports is one thing, but in many countries, women do not have equal rights to participate in sports and the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games.

Prior to the 2012 Olympics in London, three Muslim countries had never sent a female athlete: Qatar, Brunei, and Saudi Arabia. However, they all bowed to International Olympic Comate (IOC) pressure and sent female athletes to London. Now every national Olympic committee has sent women to the Olympic Games, a small step!

At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, no women competed, as de Coubertin felt that their inclusion would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect."

Women first competed at the 1900 Paris Games. They were allowed to compete in lawn tennis and golf, though there were three French women competing in croquet and there was at least one woman sailor as part of mixed crews.

First woman to win an Olympic medal

It is commonly believed that first woman to win an Olympic event was England's Charlotte Cooper, who won the tennis singles title, however Swiss sailor Hélène de Pourtalès won a gold medal as part of a team in sailing earlier than this.

Countess Hélène de Pourtalès, also known as Helen, was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal, competing in the sailing at the 1900 Paris Games.

The 32-year-old was a crew member on the Lerina along with her husband and helmsman, Count Hermann Alexandre de Pourtalès, and fellow crew member Count Bernard de Pourtalès, her husband's nephew.

The trio won gold for Switzerland in the first race of the 1-2 tonne class on May 22, 1900, on the River Seine in Meulan.

They won silver in the class' second race three days later, losing to Germany.

There were 22 women out of 997 athletes competing in Paris in 1900, just four years after the first modern, and male-only, Olympics in Athens.

Women were allowed to compete in five non-contact sports — tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf — but only golf and tennis had women-only events.

British tennis champion Charlotte Cooper was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event.

Women and the Olympic Games

Speaking about women and the Olympic Games, it should be mentioned that women competed for the first time at the 1900 Games in Paris. Of a total of 997 athletes, 22 women competed in five sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism, and golf.

The IOC is committed to gender equality in sport. The Olympic Charter, Chapitre 1, Rule 2.8, states that the IOC's role is: “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.”

With the addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic program, the 2012 Games in London were the first, in which women competed in all the sports on the program. Since 1991, any new sport seeking to join the Olympic program must have women’s competitions. At the 2016 Games in Rio, 45 percent of the participants were women.

The U.S. Women's Olympic Team has participated in every Olympic Winter Games since the first-ever women's ice hockey tournament in 1998. USA took home gold at that inaugural tournament in Nagano, Japan in a gold-medal game thriller over the Canadians. In total, the U.S. has won two gold medals (2018, 1998) three silver medals, (2002, 2010, and 2014) and one bronze medal (2006).

After a year-long delay to the Tokyo Olympics and during a global pandemic, the women of Team USA rose to the occasion. The U.S. finished the Games with 66 medals in women's events, the most ever for any nation.

Of Team USA’s 113 medals at these Games, 66 were won by women and 41 were won by men. (Six of the medals were won in mixed events featuring male and female athletes.)

That means 58.4% of all U.S. medals were won by women, easily surpassing the previous best result for American women, which was 55.8% of the medals at the 2012 London Olympics. The 66 medals is the most ever won by U.S. women at an Olympics.

Tennis legend, Billie Jean King, announced, “If you give girls and women the same investment, opportunity and access, their potential, like all people, is unlimited.”

Great Female Olympic Achievements

In 1948, Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals, the equivalent of the medals Jesse Owens had won twelve years earlier. She held the world record in the high and long jumps, but did not compete in those as the rules prohibited women from competing in more than three individual events.

British Equestrian, Lorna Johnstone was 70 years and 5 days old when she rode at the 1972 Games, thus being the oldest woman ever to compete at an Olympic Games.

Joan Benoit of the USA won the first women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984.

Soviet athlete Maria Gorokhovskaya - unhindered by the limits set on female competitors at earlier Games - in 1952 set a record for most medals won by a woman in one Olympics, with two golds and five silvers.

US Shooter, Margaret Murdock, won a silver medal in the rifle competition (which at that time included men and women) at the 1976 Olympics. She was the first woman to win a medal in shooting at the Olympic Games.

Canoeist Josefa Idem became the first woman to compete in eight Olympic Games, eventually reaching the final of the K1-500m event at the 2012 Olympics at the age of 48. She competed for West Germany in 1988, then for Italy from 1992 until 2012.

History of Women and the Olympic Games

Paris1900- This was the first time women were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. That year, 22 of the 997 total athletes were women.


history of

women and the Olympic Games

, it should be mentioned that the sports women allowed to participate in were limited but included golf, sailing, tennis, and croquet… Sailor, Hélène de Pourtalès became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal, and American golfer Margaret Abbott won a gold medal in golf, though she didn’t realize she was competing in the Olympics at the time, and the significance of her victory was unrecognized till after her death.

1912- Aquatic events became open to women in the Olympics for the first time. Most women’s bathing suits at the time were made of wool and became heavy in the water. The British swim team wore suits made of silk to cut down on bulk and drag.

1921- In protest of the restrictive Olympic regulations keeping women from competing in almost all Olympic sports a group of women joined together to establish a separate event for women athletes.

At its first meeting, the group voted to establish a Women’s Olympics as an alternative to the male-centric Games. In total, four Women’s Games were staged, in 1922 (Paris), 1926 (Gothenburg, Sweden), 1930 (Prague), and 1934 (London), with participants coming mostly from North America, Western Europe, and Japan.

1928- Women’s participation in the Olympics reached 10%. However, after completing the 800-meter run in the summer Amsterdam games a few of the women competitors fell to the ground to regain their strength. Citing this and medical “evidence,” the IOC then ruled that the 800-meter run was too dangerous for women. Women were not allowed to compete in the 800-meter run until the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

1932- Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson gained international acclaim for setting four world records and winning two gold medals and one silver in track and field events.

She later became known as a professional golfer and has been honored with numerous inclusions on “Best of” lists. Her Olympic victories set the tone for the rest of her successful athletic career.

1936- The controversial Berlin Olympics saw many notable moments, but one often overlooked accomplishment is the gold medal win of 13-year-old Marjorie Gestring. She remains the youngest person to have won a medal in the Olympics.

1956- Australian Betty Cuthbert won three gold medals in track events and set an Olympic record for her time in the 100m sprint. She had a distinctive running style, with high knee lifts and an often wide-open mouth.

1960- Over 20% of the Winter Games athletes were women, this was owed in part to women being allowed to compete in speed skating for the first time in Olympic history.

1964- In Tokyo, gymnast

Larisa Latynina

became the most decorated Olympian after winning 5 medals, bringing her total medal count to 18. She held the record as having more Olympic medals than anyone (individually or with a team) till 2012.

She is credited as helping to establish the Soviet Union as a formidable force in gymnastics. (Fun fact: Larisa also won 5 out of the 6 titles awarded in the 1958 World Championships despite competing while four months pregnant.)

1976- Nadia Camaneci received the first ever perfect score of 10 on the uneven bars. The Romanian gymnast was only 14 at the time when she won the All-Around competition. Her tremendous skill and energy made her an audience favorite and she helped popularize gymnastics around the world, inspiring future Olympians like Mary Lou Retton. 

1984- In the Winter Olympics of 1984, Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi-Hamalainen became the only women to compete in 6 different Olympics. The skier from Finland earned three gold medals and a bronze medal in her many years of competition.

1988- Christa Rothenburger won a speed skating medal in the Winter Games and won a cycling medal in the Summer Games, making her the first person to win medals in both summer and winter Olympic Games in the same year.

1998- Women’s hockey was introduced as an event and the U.S Hockey team took home the first gold. This addition to the event roster was greatly anticipated, but Canada was the favorite to win based on the other competitions in previous years.

Only 6 teams competed in 1998, but in the most recent 2018 Winter Olympics 14 countries competed for the gold. Interestingly, in 2018 Japan only sent a women’s hockey team while other participants sent both women’s and men’s teams.

2016- Women’s participation reached 45% of athletes in the Summer Olympics in Rio.

2018- Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires was the first fully gender balanced Olympic event ever.

A look at some of the best female performances at Tokyo 2020

The Olympics in Tokyo are making huge strides for equality and representation through the addition of more events for women, and many more co-ed teams in a variety of sports. Nuuness Award winner Haley Daniels and a group of dedicated paddle athletes were instrumental in bringing women’s canoeing to these games.

Katie Ledecky

  • Full name: Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky

  • Date of birth: March 17, 1997 (age 24)

  • Place of birth: Washington, D.C., U.S.

  • Height: 6 ft 0 in (183 cm)

  • Weight: 160 lb (73 kg)

Katie Ledecky is an American competitive swimmer. Having won 7 Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals, the most in history for a female swimmer, she is considered one of the greatest female swimmers of all time.

Ledecky bowed out of Tokyo 2020 with four medals behind her name, including two golds to extend her total tally to 10 over three Olympic Games.

Demonstrating her incredible range, Ledecky won the 1500m and 800m freestyle gold medals while also bagging the 400m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle relay silvers.

The 24-year-old Ledecky added to her growing legend, winning her third consecutive Olympic 800m title, which she first won as a 15-year-old in London 2012. She also became the first female Olympic champion in the 1500m, making its debut in Tokyo 2020.

With her six gold medals, she overtook Hungary's Krisztina Egerszegi's women's record for the most titles in swimming at the Olympics.

"It feels great. I'm so happy to be bringing home two golds and two silvers to the States (USA)," Ledecky said.

"I had to fight for every meter of that race: Ariarne [Titmus] had a tremendous time and a great swim, and I knew she was going to be there the whole way. I'm really proud and happy."

Elaine Thompson-Herah

  • Full name: Elaine Thompson-Herah

  • Date of birth: June 28, 1992 (age 29)

  • Place of birth: Manchester, Jamaica

  • Height: 1.68 m (5 ft 6 in)

  • Weight: 56 kg (123 lb)

Elaine Thompson-Herah is a Jamaican sprinter who competes in the 100 meters and 200 meters. A five-time Olympic champion, she is the fastest woman alive, and the second-fastest in history over both distances.

Thompson-Herah raced to sprinting immortality at this year’s Olympic Games, becoming only the second woman since Florence Griffith Joyner to win the complete the sprint treble.

The Jamaican superstar became the first woman to win the 100-200m double gold at consecutive Olympics before adding the 4x100m relay gold medal for good measure. The 29-year-old extended her medal tally over two Olympic Games to six.

To highlight her class, Thompson-Herah launched herself into second place on the world all-time list in the 100m and the 200m. She is by default the fastest woman alive in both events.

She set a new Olympic record in the 100m with her winning time of 10.61 seconds, shaving 0.01s off Griffith Joyner's mark from Seoul 1988.

Thompson-Herah produced a dominant run in the half-lap sprint final, clocking 21.53 to complete the double-double.

"I was just excited for the team to come out here and put on a show. The feeling is surreal to capture three golds, and we got a national record," said Thompson-Herah. "We are grateful."

Jessica Fox

  • Full name: Jessica Esther "Jess" Fox

  • Nickname(s): Foxy

  • Date of birth: 11 June 1994 (age 27)

  • Place of birth: Marseille, France

  • Height: 166 cm (5 ft 5 in)

  • Weight: 63 kg (139 lb)

Jessica Fox is a French-born Australian world and Olympic champion slalom canoeist who has competed at the international level since 2008.

Foxy practically won every major title on offer in her sport from junior championships, Youth Olympics to world championships – except Olympic gold.

The Australian canoe slalom ace won K1 silver in London 2012, bronze in Rio 2016 and bronze again in Tokyo 2020.

The 27-year-old Fox finally got her just rewards in the canoe slalom (C1), becoming the first women's Olympic champion in the event.

Fox, a four-time world champion in the C1, lobbied for the event's inclusion in the Olympic program. The single-bladed C1 event had been the preserve of the men's competition while the women only competed in the kayak slalom at the Olympics.

"I was just so thrilled that we made our debut, and we showed the world what we could do," Fox told reporters.

"Obviously, having been part of that campaign to get it into the Olympics, it was really special to then, in a way, be rewarded with the gold medal. I've put in a lot of hard work along the way and been really well supported, but it is special to be able to share it with everyone who helped us get to that point."

Sydney McLaughlin

  • Full name: Sydney Michelle McLaughlin

  • Date of birth: August 7, 1999 (age 22)

  • Place of birth: New Brunswick, New Jersey, U.S.

  • Height: 5 ft 9 in (175 cm)

  • Weight: 132 lb (60 kg)

Sydney McLaughlin is an American hurdler, sprinter, and Olympic gold medalist who competed for the University of Kentucky for one year before becoming a professional athlete in 2018

In fact, it was written in the stars that Sydney McLaughlin would one day step onto the podium at the Olympic Games. It was just a question of when.

The U.S. track phenom turned 17 during her Olympic debut in Rio 2016, where she missed out on reaching the final.

Fast forward to Tokyo 2020, McLaughlin was the resounding favorite for the 400m hurdles title thanks to her world-record breaking run at the United States Olympic trials in the build-up to the Games.

She delivered on her immense promise winning the Olympic gold medal in a world record time of 51.46 seconds, chopping 0.44 off her previous mark. Compatriot and Rio 2016 champion Dalilah Muhammad took silver, going under 52 seconds in a time that also broke the former world record (51.58).

"I saw (silver medalist) Dalilah ahead of me with one to go. I just thought, 'Run your race'.

"The race doesn't really start till hurdle seven. I just wanted to go out there and give it everything I had.

"It's just about trusting your training, trusting your coach, and that will get you all the way around the track."

The 21-year-old McLaughlin bowed out of the Games as a double Olympic gold medalist after winning the 4x400m relay title with a quartet made up of track legend Allyson Felix, Muhammad, and Tokyo 800m gold medalist, Athing Mu.

The Canadian football team


Canadian football team

finally moved out of their neighbors to the south's shadow, becoming only the fourth nation to win the Olympic title.

Led by veteran captain

Christine Sinclair

, Canada has made serious moves in the Olympic ranks, winning back-to-back bronze medals at London 2012 and Rio 2016.The Canadians beat Sweden in a dramatic penalty shootout after the final ended in a 1-1 draw at the end of regulation time.

Canadian goalkeeper

Stephanie Labbe

was the hero on the day, thanks to crucial saves during the shootouts to deny Sweden an upgrade of the silver they won in Rio 2016.

"It even looks prettier. I honestly can't believe what just happened," said Sinclair.

"We had a goal coming here to change the color of the medal, and we landed on the top of the podium. It's such an honor to be a part of this special group."

Discrimination against women


women and the Olympic Games

, it is worth mentioning that discrimination against women, both online and in person, prompted a group of fans to stand up - and put themselves in the firing line - in an attempt to help stamp it out.

The campaign, #HerGameToo, launched via Twitter on FA Cup final day, featuring a video of female fans highlighting abuse they had received from other football supporters, from 'you know nothing about football, you're a woman' to more explicit and derogatory messages.

"Many women have had the classic 'get back to the kitchen' line thrown their way when trying to have a well-reasoned debate on a game of football. We have had men use derogatory, misogynistic terms in response to a football opinion.

While the participation of women in physical activities and the Olympic Games has steadily increased over the years, the percentage of women in governing and administrative bodies of the Olympic Movement has remained low.

The Olympic Charter states that one of the roles of the IOC is “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women.”


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