• Charlotte Sterry (nee Cooper) was the first Olympic women champion claiming the title in 1900, seen here in action at Wimbledon (Getty) (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Founding patriarch of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin said the inclusion of women would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Now, women make up nearly half the participants. We've come a long way baby.
Elizabeth Fitzgerald

3 May 2016 - 4:58 PM  UPDATED 3 May 2016 - 5:03 PM

Sport for all, unless you're a woman

When I was at high school, one of my friends won the Pierre de Coubertin Award for demonstrating values consistent with the Olympic movement. I was so proud of her; she was one of those people who excelled at every sport she tried, yet was always humble in her achievements. The award felt like a big deal.

This was the Pierre de Coubertin who was the founder of the modern Olympic Games in 1896; the man whose immortal words “the important thing is not to win, but to take part” had been instilled in me since I was a young child. It felt like our school was suddenly part of a great Olympic tradition.

What I didn’t know then was that de Coubertin would probably not have been as happy as I was that my friend had won. In fact, although he worked hard to educate through sport, he was adamant that women should not take part in the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Movement was originally a tool to promote masculine values, and women were seen as too fragile to participate.

Although there is evidence at least one woman ran the marathon in the first modern Games in 1896, a few days after the men's official event, women were actively excluded by members of the original International Olympic Committee (IOC) from the beginning.

In 1900 there were just two women only events compared to 95 for men.

By 1912 things had improved a little and five women only events were included. There were 48 women participants including two from Australia – Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie. They took out gold and silver respectively in the 100m freestyle.

However, attitudes of those in charge remained steadfast. In the same year, de Coubertin himself said that “we believe the Olympics should be reserved for men.”

The breakaway Games

In opposition, women took matters into their own hands. Frenchwoman Alice Milliat believed that women should have the same opportunity as men. She created the International Women’s Sport Federation, and in 1921 organised the first Women’s Olympiad which took place in Monaco. Five nations took part; Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy, Norway and France. The aim was to make organisations such as the IOC and the International Amateur Athletics Association take women seriously.

The main outcome of the first Women’s Olympiad was to irritate the IOC, who demanded the women change the name of their competition. From then on, it was called the Women’s World Games, and was held every four years from 1922 until 1934. The first event held in 1922 was a one-day track and field event. The timing of the Games, every four years, was a clear sign of the women’s intentions to rival the Olympic Games.

The Women’s World Games were a success. More nations took part, and there was positive media and big crowds. Following this, increasing numbers of women’s events and women themselves were allowed to take part in the Olympic Games.

Disappointingly, it may merely have been a way to control their participation in sport rather than an acknowledgement that they belonged. Even in 1931, when 14 women’s events were scheduled for the next Olympic Games, the new IOC head Baillet-Latour said he hoped that one day women could be completely excluded from the Olympic Games.

In 1934 Milliat issued a challenge to the IOC and said that her organisation would give up the Women’s World Games if women’s athletics were fully included in the Olympics Games, and if women were represented on the IOC. Whilst Milliat ultimately did disband the Women’s World Games when the first part of this request was met, it was not until 1981 that the first two women were appointed to the IOC. As of 2014 just under a quarter of the IOC members are women.

We've come a long way baby

The irony of this difficult history is that today the Olympics is one of few sporting arenas where women and men are treated relatively equally. In Australia, we value our women Olympians just as much as the men. We cheered on Liesel Jones just as we did Ian Thorpe; we want to see the Hockeyroos succeed just as much as the Kookaburras.Whereas for most of the year women’s sport is only about 7 per cent of total sport media coverage, during the Olympics this increases dramatically.

And women are very successful Olympians. Women account for 39 per cent of Australia’s medalists, yet until 1992 still accounted for less than 30 per cent of participants. Of Australia’s top 10 most successful Olympians, 7 are women. Women are a very important part of the Olympic Games and it is clear that since 1896 there have been huge changes in the way the Olympics is run, and attitudes within the IOC.

But it has taken a lot of time. Although a woman had unofficially run the marathon in 1896, they were then excluded from all distance running at the Olympics until they could run the 800m in 1928. We didn’t see them take part in a marathon again until 1984. Boxing was not open to women until 2012.

Do we still have a long way to go baby?

Alice Milliat might be pleased today to see the women members of the IOC, and that the IOC Charter now includes a role to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels. She might, however, have been disappointed it took this long to get there.

In some ways it is encouraging an organisation such as the IOC, which started out with such a poor record of excluding women, now actively promotes women’s achievements and allows women equal participation. This shows that there is hope for other organisations that are struggling with equality: change is possible, but it takes time and it takes strong advocacy from those such as Alice Milliat.

Perhaps in future Australian students who exhibit the Olympic spirit should be awarded the Alice Milliat medal. Because if taking part in sport is the key, Milliat made this possible for so many women. Certainly hers is a name that should be as familiar to us as that of Pierre de Coubertin. Without her, the Olympic Games and indeed sport in general would be very different.