Women and the Olympics – A history of firsts
Thankfully, much has changed. Though not always perfect, today's Olympics are a beacon of equality. At the 2012 games in London, there will be no men-only competitions -- unless you count the line to the men's loo at Wimbledon.
Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, there have been all sorts of firsts for women at the Olympics, and not necessarily by the names you know best.
Charlotte Cooper and Hélène de Pourtalès
England's Charlotte Cooper, who won the tennis singles competition in Paris in 1900, is generally celebrated as the first female Olympic gold medalist in modern times. However, some assert that the title should go to Hélène de Pourtalès, a Swiss sailor who was part of the gold medal-winning crew in the 2-3 ton class mere weeks earlier.
Sarah Frances “Fanny” Durack
Australian swimmer Fanny Durack was the first woman to win a gold medal for swimming -- at the 1912 games in Stockholm. She and fellow athlete Mina Wylie were initially barred from competing in the games by the all-male Olympic selection committee, and even by their local swimming club, but officials soon relented as long as they agreed to pay their own expenses.
Elizabeth (Betty) Robinson
American runner Betty Robinson was just 16 when she became the first woman to capture gold in an Olympic track and field event, winning the 100-meter race in 1928 in Amsterdam. A decorated college runner at Northwestern University, she also won silver at the 1928 games in the 4x100-meter relay, and competed as a member of the Olympic relay team in 1936.
Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett
American sprinters Louise Stokes, from Massachusetts, and Tidye Pickett, from Illinois, were the first black women to represent their country at the Olympics. Following a tumultuous ordeal in 1932, in which they qualified for the Olympics in the 400-meter relay but endured segregation and were not chosen to compete in the Los Angeles games, both women made the Olympic team again in 1936. Pickett ran the 80-meter hurdles at the Berlin games that year, but Stokes was again left out of competition.
German skier Christl Cranz became the first female gold medalist in skiing in 1936 at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics, in the brand-new alpine combined competition. Cranz owned the 1930s and remains the most decorated female skier outside of the Olympics, with 12 gold and three silver medals in the Alpine World Skiing Championships (FIS).
U.S. army officer Margaret Murdock became the first woman to win a medal in shooting at the Olympics (1976, Montreal). Not only that, she competed directly against men (separate women's shooting events were added to the 1984 Olympics). Murdock tied with her American teammate, Lanny Bassham. And though Bassham was awarded gold (a shoot-off to break the tie was not permitted), he pulled Murdock up onto the gold medal podium with him during the playing of the national anthem in a gesture of mutual respect.
American distance runner Joan Benoit of Freeport, Maine won the first-ever women's Olympic marathon during the Los Angeles games in 1984. Though Benoit forever holds that honor (and others, including the fastest time for an American woman in the Chicago marathon), many women paved the way for the event's Olympic acceptance. Take Roberta Gibb, for example, who in 1966 sneaked into the male-only Boston marathon field to record a time of 3:21:25. She had to hide behind a bush at the starting line to avoid being seen.
The famous Romanian gymnast wasn't the first woman to win Olympic gold in gymnastics, but she was the first to record a perfect 10 in Olympic competition. Her feat in Montreal in 1976 propelled her (and her coach, Béla Károlyi) to international stardom during a time when her home country was isolated behind the iron curtain. She defected to the U.S. in 1989, and has received the Olympic Order -- the highest award given by the International Olympic Committee -- twice, the only person to receive the honor more than once.
U.S. Women’s Soccer Team
1996 was the first year that women's soccer became an Olympic event, and the U.S. team dominated, defeating China 2-1 before a crowd of 76,000 outside Atlanta. The team benefitted from the play of one Mia Hamm, who at the time was a recent high school graduate. Some of the Olympic team members had been playing on men's teams in preparation for making the national team. Today, interest in women's soccer at the Olympics is just as high, if not higher, than in men's.