An Olympic Struggle

By the 1948 Games in London women’s athletics was a fixture of the Olympic programme but the fight to get it there, keep it there, and to achieve some form of parity was a long one.

The modern Olympic Games began in 1896. Based loosely on the Olympics Games of ancient Greece they were for men only. International Olympic Committee founder Baron Pierre de Couberin’s views on women’s involvement were clear:    

Women have but one task, crowning the winner with garlands

IOC Founder Pierre de Coubertin

The influence of such thinking on the Olympic Committee was still apparent in 1919. A request led by Alice Milliat – pioneer of women’s athletics in France – for women’s athletics to be part of the programme in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics was rejected. Requests for inclusion in the 1924 Paris Games were likewise rejected. The French FSFI, retaliated by creating the Women’s World Games – originally called the Women’s Olympics but changed following objections from the Olympic Committee. The first Women’s World Games drew a crowd of 20 000 to the one-day event to watch teams from Czechoslovakia, England, France, Switzerland and USA compete.

Unable to argue that there was no appetite for women’s track and field, the IOC promised to include 10 women’s athletics events in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics programme, but when it came to it only five events were allowed – 100m, 800m, high jump, discus and 4x100m relay. The FSFI were furious and the WAAA boycotted the Games, refusing to send a team. Some nations did send women’s teams to compete, but the struggle was far from over. At the conclusion of the 1928 Games International Amateur Athletics Federation members voted on whether to allow women’s athletics at future Olympics, the vote returned in favour of keeping it, but more than a quarter of members voted to drop women’s athletics from the programme altogether.

The WAAA, not wishing to fall behind other nations, sent a team to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, despite there being only six athletics events for women – 80m hurdles, high jump, javelin, discus, 100m and 4x100m relay. 800m for women had been dropped after 1928, the IOC deeming the distance too much for women athletes.

Over the course of the twentieth century more women’s events were added to the Olympic programme, in some cases as shorter versions of men’s distances, for example the women’s 3000m which was introduced at Los Angeles 1984 as the equivalent of the men’s 5000m. It was upgraded to 5000m for women at Atlanta 1996. 

Women’s Olympic Events. The year in which women’s events were first seen at the Olympic Games and the total number of events women were allowed to compete in.

1928 Amsterdam: 100m ~ 800m (then dropped until its return in 1960) ~ High Jump ~ Discus ~ 4x100m Relay
5 women’s events in total

1932 Los Angeles: 80m Hurdles (until replaced by 100m hurdles in 1972) ~ Javelin
6 women’s events in total

1948 London: 200m ~ Long Jump ~ Shot Put
9 women’s events in total

1960 Rome: 800m
10 women’s events in total

1964 Tokyo: 400m ~ Pentathlon (until replaced by Heptathlon in 1984)
12 women’s events in total

1972 Munich: 1500m ~ 100m Hurdles (replacing 80m Hurdles) ~ 4x400m Relay
14 women’s events in total

1984 Los Angeles: 3000m (until replaced by 5000m in 1996) ~ Marathon ~ 400m Hurdles ~ Heptathlon (replacing Pentathlon)
17 women’s events in total

1988 Seoul: 10,000m
18 women’s events in total

1992 Barcelona: 10km Walk (until replaced by 20km Walk in 2000)
19 women’s events in total

1996 Atlanta: 5000m (replacing 3000m) ~ Triple Jump
20 women’s evens in total

2000 Sydney: Pole Vault ~ Hammer ~ 20km Walk (replacing 10km Walk)
22 women’s events in total

2008 Beijing: 3000m Steeplechase
23 women’s events in total

In the twenty first century parity is edging closer. The introduction of the 3000m steeplechase at Beijing 2008 brought the tally of women’s events to 23 to the 24 men’s events, the 50km Walk being the difference.