Potted History

Some early history about women and the Olympics

  • Married women were barred from the Ancient Olympic Games, but prostitutes or virgins were allowed to spectate.
  • Kallipateria was the first female Olympic boxing coach in 440 BC.
  • The first female Olympic champion was a Spartan princess called Kynisca, in 392 BC. She was also the first woman to become a champion horse trainer when her horses and chariot competed and won in the Ancient Olympic Games.
  • Women had their own athletic games of Hera from about 1000 BC.
  • Pomegranites, symbols of fertiltiy, were prizes at the women’s games, along with olive wreaths and a slice of a sacrificial cow.
  • Women were originally the prizes in mens Ancient Olympic chariot races.
  • In the first modern Olympics of 1896, women were not allowed to compete, but there was an unofficial competitor in the marathon, a poor Greek woman who became known as 'Melpomene'. Melpomene’s real name was Stamati Revithi. She was not allowed to compete in the mens race, but ran by herself the next day. The final lap was completed outside the stadium as she was refused entry to the stadium. After her marathon run, athletics officials couldn’t remember her name so they labelled her 'Melpomene', who is the Greek muse of Tragedy. Looking at Stamata Revithi, they could see only tragedy, not her extraordinary feat.
  • Ballooning, croquet and golf (1900) were once Olympic events in which women competed. Please see Statistics for more information.
  • 1900 was the year the World Exhibition was scheduled to take place in Paris, with celebrations and events akin to our own Millennium celebrations. The Olympic Games were taking place at the same time, from 14th May to 28th October and were considered by many to be part of the World Exhibition. Some of the competitors did not know if they were in the Olympic Games or the World Fair. Happily for the women athletes of the time, the all male International Olympic Committee, who were very against women taking parts in sports, had little influence in Paris.

The organisers of the World Exhibition seemed unconcerned about the rights and wrongs of women competing, so their presence was not an issue. To this day there is still confusion as to which events were Olympic and which were World Fair events. So, who were the first female Olympic competitors and champion? For a sport to be Olympic in 1900 it had to be an open sport, amateur and international, not handicapped and not motorised. The long-held view was that women took part in just two Olympic sports in 1900 - tennis and golf. Sports historians now accept that women were involved in the yachting. Old programmes of the Paris Exposition show that women also participated in ballooning, croquet, equestrianism, golf, tennis and yachting. Bearing this in mind, we take the view that all women who took part in these sports were Olympians.

  • Our view is that the first women competitors in the Modern Olympic Games of 1900 in chronological order were: Helen de Pourtales, Switzerland (Yachting), Elvira Guerra, France (Equestrianism), Mme Ohnier and Madame Depres, France (Croquet), Charlotte Cooper, Great Britain (Tennis), Margaret Abbott, USA (Golf), Madame Maison, France (Ballooning).
  • The first gold medalists were: Helen de Pourtales (mixed event) and Charlotte Cooper (individual women’s event). The first team medal was won by Great Britain in 1912, in the 4 x 100 metres freestyle relay.
  • Women’s boxing was included in the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, USA, as a demonstration or exhibition sport. Archery also made its first appearance as an Olympic sport for women.
  • In 1906, in the interim Games in Greece, Danish women took part in a gymnastics demonstration but women had to wait until 1928 before gymnastics became an official Olympic event. The team gymnastic event continued until 1952 when an individual women’s gymnastics event was introduced. In the 1952 and 1956 Olympic Games there was also a women’s team portable apparatus event which was then discontinued.
  • Tennis was the only sport in the interim Games for women but only Greek and French women took part.
  • In 1912 a fifteen year old British schoolgirl entered the modern pentathlon event in the Stockholm Olympic Games, but her entry was rejected. The modern pentathlon for women is to be contested for the first time in the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000.
  • Two swimming events and highboard diving for women were included in the Olympic Games of 1912.
  • Fencing for women arrived in 1924. There was one event, the individual foil.
  • Athletics provided the biggest hurdle of all for women to be accepted into Olympic competition. Women even set up their own Olympic Games during the early 1920s because they were so frustrated at the lack of acceptance. Eventually in 1928 in Amsterdam, the first women competed in 5 athletic events. The successful women’s athletic team from Great Britain chose to boycott the Olympics because they believed women should have been allowed to compete in more events.
  • The first track and field gold medalist was sixteen year old Betty Robinson (USA) who won the 100 metres. Sadly, Betty died in May 1999.
  • There were no women members of the International Olympic Committee from 1896 until 1981!