Olympic Gender Parity: A Marathon, Not A Sprint

Pictured here in 1920, Alice Milliat (1884 – 1957) was a rower who pioneered the cause of women in the Olympic Games. Picture: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

27 July 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a little-remembered female rower and sporting pioneer.

“Impractical, uninteresting, clumsy and, I don’t hesitate to add, inappropriate” was the view of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, when asked about the possibility of events for women at his revived games. The role of women, he felt, was simply “to crown the victors.” 125 years on, Team GB has taken more women than men to the Tokyo Olympics. 

Of the 376 athletes selected to represent Britain, 201 are female (53.5%) and 175 are male (46.5%). The GB Rowing Squad of ten boats is formed from 24 women and 21 men. A recent Guardian article on UK Sport’s aspirations for Tokyo noted “the definition of success has now broadened to include measures such as inspiring moments from female athletes across multiple sports”. 

In 2014, the European Commission defended equality in sport and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) added gender parity to the 2020 Olympic agenda. Overall, 49% of all those taking part in this year’s Games will be women. However, getting to this stage has taken thirty-two Olympiads.

Despite de Coubertin’s reservations, a few women did take part in the Olympics from the second games in 1900, but only in “feminine” sports practised by aristocratic women. At various times, these included figure skating, archery, tennis, sailing, croquet, golf and horse riding. The figures for the number of women participating in the early games were: 1900, 22; 1904, 6; 1908, 37, 1912, 47.

The Stockholm Olympics of 1912 were the first that permitted women (twenty-two in total) to compete in a demanding sport – that of swimming. This picture shows the victorious British 400 metres women’s relay swimming team.

The First World War proved that women were not as fragile as many supposed, but the 1920 Antwerp Games still refused to admit women to most sports requiring strenuous or sustained effort. In response, the remarkable Alice Milliat (née Million), treasurer and later president of the Fédération française du sport féminin, founded the International Women’s Sports Federation (FSFI) in 1921. 

The FSFI organised the first Olympic style games for women in Paris in 1922 and this attracted 77 female athletes from Britain, Switzerland, Italy, Norway and France. In 1926, the second “Women’s World Games” attracted 100 entries from nine nations including the Frenchwoman, Marguerite Radideau, who ran the 100-yard dash (91.44 metres) in 12 seconds (the current men’s and women’s world records are just under 10 seconds). There were two more Women’s World Games in 1930 (200 participants from 17 nations) and 1934 (200 participants from 19 nations).

Following de Coubertin’s departure from the IOC, the 1928 Amsterdam Games allowed female athletes to compete for the first time in the 100 metres, 4×100 metres relay, 800 metres, discus and high jump. The IOC proposed further reforms, but on the condition that the FSFI women’s games cease. However, the fact that 1934 was the last “women’s Olympics” was probably more due to Milliat retiring from the front-line of sports politics than any IOC concessions. 

While Alice Milliat had started something that could not be stopped, progress was slow. Women composed 13% of the athletes in Tokyo in 1964, 23% in Los Angeles in 1984, 34% in Atlanta in 1996 and 44% in London in 2012. Since 2007, the Olympic Charter has stated that: “The IOC’s role is to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women”.

Christine Scheiblich of the GDR, winner of the women’s sculls at Montreal 1976.

As to women rowing in the Olympic Games, London 1948 allowed women’s canoeing (a K-1 500 metre event), but it was not until Montreal 1976 that women’s rowing events took place. On the Inside The Games website, David Owen has written about how this came about.

Although the first Women’s European Rowing Championships had taken place in Amsterdam in 1954, the International Rowing Federation (FISA) acted much as if women’s international rowing had nothing to do with them. Owen holds that it was the Soviets that were the first to seriously promote this cause, and, by the late 1960s, got the enthusiastic support of an initially sceptical Thomi Keller, the FISA President. Owen:

It was less than surprising that the Soviet Union should be in the vanguard of this particular push for gender equality. Prior to the emergence of East Germany in the latter part of the 1960s, Soviet oarswomen were utterly dominant.

In the decade after the first (Women’s European Rowing Championships), Soviet crews captured 42 of the 50 titles. What is more, 50 per cent of those that got away were won by the same individual: (Kornelia) Papp, the Hungarian single sculler. On four occasions, on either side of Papp’s span of invincibility between 1958 and 1961, Soviet crews accomplished the grand slam….

This record of success sparked rapid expansion of women’s rowing in Eastern Europe. Elsewhere, however, stagnation or even regression was reported.

The caption under Kornelia Papp’s picture written by the boys at Rowing magazine in 1960 reflects a typical attitude of the period.

By 1968, Keller gained an influential ally at FISA in the form of West Germany’s Claus Hess, another strong advocate of women’s rowing. The tide of opinion was turning among rowing’s blazerati and, while lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for change, FISA began to put its own house in order. This included putting a woman in charge of FISA’s Women’s Rowing Commission and making progress towards women’s events in the Rowing World Championships, though something finally achieved only in 1974.

Cutting a very long story very short, in 1970 Keller proposed to the IOC the inclusion of six women’s events at the Olympic Games. Owen:

“In our opinion, there is no valid reason for rejecting the request”, (Keller) argued with the zeal of the recent convert. “We would add that the Olympic rowing programme has not been extended since 1924.”

At the time, the IOC were refusing all requests for new events on the grounds that the Games were already too large and too costly but continuous, sophisticated and complex lobbying by FISA eventually paid off. In Montreal in 1976, eighty years after the modern Olympics began, there were events for women’s singles, doubles, quads, coxless pairs, coxed fours and eights. Women’s Olympic rowing may have been late on the start, but its time had finally come.

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