The first women to compete in the Olympic games played a quiet croquet match in a cauldron of trees and grass in Paris in 1900. There was only one paying spectator, an unnamed “gentle Englishman,” as the official Olympic report says.
In those games, the second Modern Olympics, women were allowed to compete in “genteel sports” such as tennis, golf and croquet. More athletes attended than spectators.
The games have changed immensely since then, but one of the biggest changes has been the support and addition of women’s sports.
“It’s been a very long 100th anniversary for women in the Olympic games,” said Marj Snyder, Associate Executive Director of New York-based Women in Sports Foundation. “It took almost a half century for women’s involvement to rise to just 10 percent of the participants at the Olympics. But it has been accelerating quickly in the last 10 years.”
The Road from Seoul
In the 1996 games in Atlanta, women represented 36 percent of the athletes on the U.S. Olympic team and 30 percent of all participating athletes. But in Sydney, 100 years after the Paris games, the U.S. Olympic team will be 44 percent women.
In what has been a concerted effort to bring equity to the games, most of the new events in Sydney feature women’s teams or individual women’s events.
The IOC (International Olympic Committee) mandated in 1992 that any new sport added to the games must be one that both men and women may compete in, that is, assuming there are athletes of both genders that compete in the sport. In Sydney, new medal sports for women include weight lifting, water polo and the modern pentathlon.
“Within the next two years, if the rate keeps climbing, women will outnumber men on the U.S. Olympic team,” said Mike Moran, spokesperson for the United States Olympic Committee.
In fact, along with tae kwon do, the triathlon and trampolining (added to the gymnastics events), 13 of the 16 new disciplines eligible for medals at Sydney include women. The three that do not are power cycling sprint track events (Keirin, Madison and Olympic Sprint).
Closing the Gap
A ground swell of both participation and public opinion helped close the Olympic gender gap. To be considered for the games, a sport must be played on five continents and in 75 countries. Sports like surfing have fervent fans and participants but only in some pockets of the world, and therefore are not added to the Olympic roster.
With sports such as water polo and weight lifting, international participation wasn’t very strong until the 1970s and ‘80s. Also, it takes time for many sports to catch on globally with both genders, said Snyder.
“Until fairly recently there weren’t any efforts made by the IOC or by the National Olympic Committee to generate interest for women’s sports,” Snyder said. “The interest in women’s soccer at the World Cup and in Atlanta helped sway that opinion.”
In fact, the story of the U.S. women’s soccer team migrated from the sports pages to the front pages, and the television ratings for the World Cup were equal to those of the NBA playoffs and World Series games. It produced the highest television ratings for a men’s or women’s soccer match.