'An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting , unaesthetic and improper.' - Baron Pierre de Coubertin

 

Tina Hynestraces the fight for full equality for women at the Olympics, which is yet to be won. However at Beijing, for the first time, women will make up almost 50 per cent of the participants at the Games.

THE IOC (International Olympic Committee) strongly encourages by appropriate means, the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures . . . with a view to the strict application of the principle of equality of men and women. - Rule 2, paragraph 5 of the Olympic Charter. 1996.

In Beijing, for the first time, women will make up approximately 50 per cent of the Olympic Games participants. But equality at the Olympics, as in every other area of life, has had to be fought for and has been achieved, not by the efforts of the IOC, but by the efforts of women's-rights groups, women's sporting organisations and individual women

In ancient Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, women were forbidden to compete, so a group of women from the city of Elis set up their own games, which were held every four years.

The first modern Olympiad took place in Athens in 1896 and again women were barred. Pierre, Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, believed "an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper."

But a Greek woman named Stamati Revithi, who was refused entry to the marathon, ran by herself the following day. The final lap was completed outside the stadium as officials refused her entry. As officials couldn't remember her name they called her Melpomene, the name of the Greek muse of tragedy. It would take nearly 100 years before women were finally allowed to run an Olympic marathon race, at Los Angeles in 1984.

In 1900 women were finally allowed to compete in tennis and golf and soon afterwards in archery, gymnastics, skating and swimming. These developments occurred as a result of pressure put on the IOC by national sporting bodies and federations and not because of any positive action by the IOC.

In 1912, a 15-year-old British schoolgirl, Helen Preece, sought to enter the modern pentathlon at the Stockholm Games but de Coubertin passed the buck to the local organising committee, who refused her entry. It would be another 88 years before women competed in this event, in the Sydney Games.

Women found it particularly difficult to break into athletics, and for a time in the 1920s an alternative Olympiad was held for women, spearheaded by Alice Milliat of France. These games were such a success the IOC had to negotiate with Milliat about allowing women into Olympic track and field.

Eventually the IOC agreed to let women compete in 10 events in the 1928 Games but, at the last minute, they changed this to five events. In protest, the successful British athletics team boycotted the event in the only ever feminist boycott of the Olympic Games.

The depression of the 1930s and the turmoil of the second World War meant women's participation did not increase greatly in those decades. It was not until 1956 in Melbourne that Ireland's first female competitor, Maeve Kyle, made her appearance. The Irish Times noted that Kyle "looked trim and pretty, in white hat, blazer and white skirt."

Later, Maeve was to recall how Lord Killanin and Arthur McWeeney, the lone Irish journalist covering those Games, helped the Irish team find their feet and submit the correct documentation, including bringing Maeve along for the obligatory sex test.

Gender testing - strangely enough only to see if women were women and not to see if men were men - was only discontinued after the 1996 games in Atlanta.

It was not until the feminists of the 1960s and early 1970s began to campaign for greater equality that women's participation began to take off.

In 1960 the 800-metre race for women was reintroduced having been dropped in 1928 after the winner, Lina Radke-Batschauer of Germany, collapsed with exhaustion following the race. That men routinely collapsed after running middle-distance races was conveniently ignored.

In the 1970s the formal ban in some African countries, such as Kenya, on married women competing was lifted, and in 1984 women could finally compete in the marathon, dispelling forever claims that such an event would damage their health or would not be popular enough to justify its place in the schedule.

For some women, however, the struggle still is not to compete but to be allowed to compete. In some Muslim counties women have to fight for their place at the Games.

In 1992 Hassiba Boulmerka became the first Algerian to win an Olympic title having been forced to move to Europe to train to avoid persecution from fundamentalist groups who thought she showed too much flesh when running.

This year 25-year-old Ruqaya Al Ghasara from Bahrain will run in the 100- and 200-metre events in traditional Islamic dress, thereby becoming the first Muslim woman from an Arab country to compete. In an interesting clash of cultures Al Ghasara has run with the Nike swoosh logo on her hijab.

Over the coming weeks women will compete in all but three of the 28 Olympic disciplines, the exceptions being canoeing, baseball and boxing. Ironically, Ireland would have one of the stronger competitors in women's boxing; Katie Taylor is the world champion at her weight.

However, before we relax and congratulate ourselves on women's progress at the Games, it is worth noting that there is still some way to go to achieve complete equality for women in the Olympic movement.

Although things have improved, the struggle for inclusion is far from over.

As we watch what will no doubt be a glittering opening ceremony we should note that no women will be walking behind the flags of Saudi Arabia, Brunei or the United Arab Emirates, as these countries do not allow women to compete.

Interestingly, the IOC charter states that "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, sex or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement."

Whether that nettle will be grasped by the IOC remains to be seen.

After all, it might be said that their own house is not in the best of order. There were no women members of the IOC prior to 1981 and even now its executive board boasts just one woman out of 15 members.

Closer to home, the Olympic Council of Ireland has two women on its executive of 13. Also, although the IOC began a campaign in 1981 for more women to be included on its council, currently only 15 of 113 members are women. So, yes, women have come a long way from Ancient Greece, where they were prizes in the chariot races, but the prize of full equality at the Olympics may still have to be won.