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Women and the Olympic Games: Part 1

John Simkin

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I am currently working on some materials on the gistory of the Olympic Games. During my research I have come across some interesting stories concerning women and the games. Please feel free to use the materials as you want. Part II will be added later.

Women and the Olympic Games: Part 1

The Olympic Games began in Greece in 776 BC. Originally the Olympics were for men. However, in 396 BC it was decided that women could take part. The first female champion was Kyniska of Sparta. She won the tethrippon (chariot race). She also retained her title in 392 BC.

In 393 AD the Emperor Theodosius of Rome abolished the Olympic Games. Theodosius was a committed Christian and considered the games to be part of a pagan ceremony.

The first modern Olympic Games took place in 1896. It was decided that women should not be allowed to compete. However, children were welcomed and 10 year old Dimitris Loundras of Greece won the parallel bars competition.

A women was one of the prizes for the marathon. Georgios Averoff promised his daughter’s hand in marriage, along with a dowry of one million drachma. As an extra incentive, Ionnis Lambros, offered an antique vase for the man who won the race. Others offered gifts of a barrel of sweet wine, 2,000lb of chocolate and free clothing for life.

Thirteen of the seventeen starters were Greek. These men had taken part in several trial marathons. The favourite for the race was Edwin Flack, an Australian accountant who had won both the 800 meters and 1,500 meters. The runners who came second (Arthur Blake – USA) or third (Albin Lermusiaux of France) also entered the marathon. The fourth entrant, Gyula Kellner of Hungary, was the only non-Greek entrant to have previously run a marathon.

Over 100,000 people turned up to see the marathon on 10th April, 1896. Albin Lermusiaux took an early lead. At the half-way stage he led his nearest rival, Edwin Flack, by nearly two miles. The other two non-Greeks were in 3rd and 4th place. However, because of their previous experience, they knew the leaders were going too fast. Blake was the first to collapse with exhaustion. Lermusiaux was the next to go and this enabled Flack to build a large lead. But then he began to weaken and the crowd when hysterical when Spiridon Louis, a 24 year old shepherd from the village of Amarousion, a man who had only finished fifth in the official trial, gradually began to catch Flack. Louis went past the exhausted Flack, with five miles to go. Flack collapsed soon afterwards and had to be revived with a drink of egg and brandy.

When Spiridon Louis entered the stadium, women in the VIP stand took off their jewellery and threw it on the track in front of their champion. His time of 2 hours 58 minutes 50 seconds was a new world record. It was thirteen minutes faster than Louis had ran in his trial. Greek runners also finished second and third. However, Belokas was disqualified when it was discovered that he had taken a ride in a carriage in order to get past Gyula Kellner of Hungary.

Spiridon was already married and had to refuse the dowry of one million drachma. He also gave the antique vase to a museum. Spiridon also refused the gifts of free clothes and meals. However, King George I of Greece insisted he take a gift of money. Spiridon used this to buy a horse and cart to transport water to his village. Spiridon Louis never ran again.

The 1900 Olympic Games was held in France as part of the Paris World’s Fair. Woman were invited to compete for the first time. Of the 1,225 competitors, only 19 were women. The first female champion was Charlotte Cooper of the UK who won the tennis competition.

Ethelda Bleibtrey of the United States was an interesting competitor who took part in the 1920 Olympic Games. The previous year she had been charged with swimming nude on a public beach. In fact, she had been caught taking off her stockings on Manhatten Beach. At that time, New York City Council insisted that women wore swimsuits that covered all their skin. Bleibtrey went onto win gold medals in all three women’s swimming contests and broke the world record in every one.

The 1928 Olympic Games were held in Amsterdam. It was one of the most harmonious in history. Women were allowed to compete in gymnastics and in field and track events for the first time. As a result the number of women participants rose from 136 to 290.

The winner of the 100 meters was the sixteen year old Betty Robinson. She had only been running in track events for four months. Robinson was a student at Thornton High School, Chicago, when her biology teacher saw her running for a bus. He got the impression that she was running faster than anyone else he had ever seen. The teacher measured out 100 meters along the school corridor. When he timed her run he realised he had been right. She had her first race on 30th March, 1928. Robinson broke the world record in her second race. The Olympic final was only the fifth race of her life. She beat the Canadian, Fanny Rosenfeld in the world’s best time of 12.2 seconds.

Three years later Robinson was nearly killed in a plane crash. She was unconscious for seven weeks, having sustained multiple injuries to her arms and legs. When she came round she spent six months in a wheelchair. It was two years before she could walk normally. Her injuries meant that she could no longer assume the crouched starting position for sprints. This did not prevent her competing in relays and in the 1936 Olympic Games was fit enough to become a member of the gold medal winning 100 metres team.

The longest distance race for women was the 800 meters race. Lina Radke of Germany won the race in the world record time of 2 minutes 16.8 seconds. Radke collapsed after winning the race. Some critics claimed this was evidence that women should not be allowed to take part in such “feats of endurance”.

The Daily Express expressed concern that women cried when they won and cried when they lost. Harold Abrahams, the former Olympic champion argued: “With women, their extra intensity and their over-exaggeration of the importance of the occasion combine to produce a condition of mind and nerves that somewhat throws them off their balance.”

The Daily Mail claimed that women running the 800 meters would “become old too soon”. The Daily Telegraph correspondent wrote: “To run roughly half a mile at breakneck speed is surely too much for any girl.” This view was shared by Henri de Baillet-Latour, the President of the Olympic Committee. He called for all women’s sports to be eliminated from the Olympic programme. Eventually it was decided to ban all women’s races longer than 200 meters. This rule applied for the next 32 years.

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