'Football is quite unsuitable for females'
Women haven’t always been welcome at the Olympics, for reasons of decorum, menstruation and the real fear of them turning into men – but times have changed, writes NIAMH GRIFFIN
THE OLYMPICS AND women have a troubled relationship. The ancient games were just for men. As far as women were concerned, only virgins and prostitutes were allowed to watch. Oh, and women were prizes for the male charioteers.
When the first modern games were held, in 1896, the ghost of jealous husbands past lingered in shape of their founder, Pierre de Frédy, the Baron de Coubertin. His new slogan should have read: “Faster, higher, stronger . . . as long as you’re male.” The authors of A Proper Spectacle: Women Olympians 1900-1936 write of how one woman, Stamati Revithi, ran that first marathon course all by herself the day after the main event.
By 1900 women were slowly sneaking past the baron. His conviction that an all-boys club was best threatened to deprive us of Nadia Comaneci on the bars in 1976, Kelly Holmes’s victories in 2004 and the hope of Katie Taylor in 2012, only 108 years since women’s boxing was introduced as a demonstration sport, at the St Louis games.
But to be fair to the baron, his thoughts weren’t that out of step with the times. In his book Making Sense of Sports, Dr Ellis Cashmore quotes a doctor who wrote in 1897 that cycling for women was an “opportunity for frequent and clandestine masturbation”.
And then there was menstruation. Dozens of writers claimed this caused hysteria and other mental imbalance, meaning that participation in sport was clearly out of the question. Of course, old photographs reveal another possible threat of fainting: women were expected to compete in corsets, not to mention full-length skirts, blouses and hats.
A cynic could observe that, when it came to staffing munitions factories during the first World War, there were no worries about women’s strength.
In the 1920s and 1930s women’s soccer also fell foul of the medics. While women’s soccer will be a close battle in London, with 12 nations vying for gold, led by the US, Japan and Brazil, in 1921 the English Football Assocation banned women from playing on men’s pitches. “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged,” went the explanation.
Some would say that attitudes in certain sports haven’t really changed. In 2005 the president of the International Ski Federation told National Public Radio, in the US, that female ski-jumpers weren’t allowed to take part in the Winter Olympics because the sport was not medically appropriate for ladies. He has since been overruled.
Another idea beloved of early 20th-century scientists was the theory that participation in sport would turn women into men. Theories abounded on facial hair, broadening shoulders and deeper voices after “excessive exercise”.
That focus on femininity was still clear in 1956, when the first Irish woman went to the Melbourne Olympics. The Irish Times then described the sprinter Maeve Kyle as “trim and pretty, in white hat, blazer and white skirt”.
Before we get too complacent about modern attitudes, think of the battle waged by boxers just last year against compulsory skirts. Or the obsession with beach-volleyball players’ shorts.
Insisting on such a narrow definition of womanhood means the slur of “gender cheat” still carries weight. And this is very much a modern issue, with the International Olympic Committee announcing this week that an “investigated athlete may be declared ineligible to compete in the 2012 OG Competitions” if she has too much testosterone. In the interests of fair play, it should be noted one of the German high-jumpers at the so-called Nazi Games of 1936 was later revealed to be a man.
But times have changed in many ways. The reintroduction of the 800m in 1960 was the precursor to the marathon in 1984, and female triathletes came in with the men in 2000.
Ireland’s first Ironman winner, thanks to her victory last weekend at Ironman UK, Eimear Mullan, says this event isn’t on the games’ schedule, for either sex, and believes they lose out to the shorter Olympic-distance triathlons. (An Ironman consists of a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and full marathon). But the respect is there. “The women’s side is very competitive, so we get just as much respect as the men. In a lot of sports, people might know the male champion and not the woman – but that’s not how it is in Ironman. We are like a triathlon family,” the Antrim woman says.
Why is it such a big deal to have women in the Olympics? “The Irish team is led this year by Sonia O’Sullivan, so it’s an opportunity for young women to see some great role models,” says a spokesman for the Irish Sports Council. In other words, if you don’t see it, you don’t know what’s possible – not to mention the fact that events in the Olympics get more funding.
While this is the first games with women on every national team – earlier this year Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on females competing in the games, and Qatar and Brunei will also be sending female competitors for the first time – and the first with women in every sport, a British canoeist took a court case this month asking why women’s canoe is not on the schedule as well as women’s kayak. There are still 30 fewer women’s events than men’s overall.
And there are lingering throwbacks to the earliest Olympics. The president of the IOC presents the men’s marathon medal every year in memory of those ancient Greeks – but not the women’s.