The first modern International Olympics were held in Athens, Greece in 1896 with no female competitors allowed. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee said that female athletes would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.” But in 1900, a few early female Olympians got through the door to compete in five sports in which their legs could be “aesthetically” covered by long skirts. From their first heats, these early female Olympians showed the committee once and for all that women are at least as exciting to watch as the boys.
To his credit, Coubertin, an educator and historian successfully spearheaded a revival of Olympic competitions of the ancient Greeks. In spite of his dusty ideas about women athletes, he certainly got the ball rolling. He believed organized sports were democratic in that they crossed class lines and promoted cultural understanding that could lessen the chance of future wars. Coubertin also believed that the true spirit of athletic competition is not in the winning, but in how athletes play the game. That said all players must compete to win!
Early Female Olympians Struggled For Their Chance In 1900
The Games of the II Olympiad were part of the Paris Exposition Universelle–the World’s Fair. The games were held between May 14 and October 28, 1900. Twenty-two brave women stepped up to the plate in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris, France although several were unaware they were in the Olympics due to a lack of communication. Out of 997 athletes, they represented 2.2%. They competed in tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf.
Some Early Female Athletes of the 1900 Olympics:
Tennis: Charlotte Cooper (winner, tennis singles), Great Britain–plus other female competitors. July 11.
Golf: Margaret Abbott (winner) USA, plus other female competitors, Oct 3.
Yachting: Helen de Pourtales, (winner, part of a crew) Switzerland May 22
Equestrian: Elvira Guerra, France. There may have been another woman also competing in the equestrian events. May 31
Croquet: Mme Ohnier, Madame Depres, and Mme Filleaul Brohy, France, Jun 28. According to SportsReference.com this was the only time croquet was included as an Olympic event. None of them placed in the top three.
Early Female Olympians: Hélène de Pourtalès-Yachting
Hélène de Pourtalès, April 28, 1868 to November 2,1945. She was born in the United States as Helen Barbey, but married into the Pourtales family. In 1896 Europe’s most prominent families were known for their personal flotillas. Among them were members of the Swiss Pourtales family.
The 1900 Olympics had 150 yachting competitors from six countries. Since the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU) was not yet formed, each yacht followed rules from their area. That undoubtedly led to some confusion on the water. Additionally the boats were not standardized as they are today. Instead, they were placed in ‘Ton’ categories according to the Godinet rule.
Hélène de Pourtalès was a crew member of the Swiss boat Lérina. Her husband Hermann was helmsman. His nephew, Bernard, was also a crew member. Together, they won the first of the two regattas in the 1-2 ton class. In a second race three days later they placed second in that same class.
Early Female Olympians: Charlotte Cooper-Tennis
Charlotte Cooper, September 10, 1870 to October 10,1966.
Born in England, Cooper was considered one of the country’s best tennis players. She won five singles titles in Wimbledon Championships in her career. She was also the first female Olympic tennis champion in 1900. Cooper competed in lawn tennis, singles and mixed doubles with Reginald Doherty as her partner. She won first place in both events—all while wearing a long dress.
Early Female Olympians: Margaret Ives Abbott-Golf
Margaret Ives Abbott, June 15, 1878 to June 10, 1955. The daughter of novelist Mary Ives Abbott, she came to Paris with her mother in 1899 to study with Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin. As if that wasn’t enough, she and her mother entered a golf tournament. She won the women’s nine-hole golf tournament, with a score of 47. Her mother tied for seventh place. It was the only time a mother and daughter competed in the Olympics.
According to most accounts, the games were so poorly organized that they were unaware they were entering such an historic event. Abbot died not knowing she had actually won an Olympic game.
Early Female Olympians: Elvira Guerra-Equestrian
Elvira Guerra, born 1855 in St. Petersburg Russia. In 1937 she died in Bordeaux, France where a street is named after her. The local archives refer to her as a “famous Italian circus horse rider.” She was the niece of Italian born Alessandro Guerra, one of the greatest circus owners of the 19th Century. He was the main attraction in circuses across Europe, performing on galloping horses. He also established the famed Cirque Olympique of Saint Petersburg.
For women who loved horseback riding in the 19th century, the circus was the best place to practice their skills. By the time Guerra entered the 1900 Olympics, she had established her reputation as a great performer. She rode into the ring sidesaddle, then danced and performed acrobatic tricks on the horse’s back. An article about Hengler’s Grand Circus, in The Times, Dec. 27, 1882 refers to her: “the terpsichorean (dancing) powers of the pretty horse “Sylvan”, admirably controlled by Mlle Elvira Guerra.’
Riding sidesaddle in the Olympics, she finished ninth in the Hacks and Hunter combined event. The official Olympic report lists 50 men and one woman as entrants, although there is no record of how many of those actually competed. Some believe that a second woman might also have entered. Although Guerra did not place in the top four, we commend her courage!
The International Olympic Committee later rejected Hacks and Hunters as an official Olympic sport.
Early Female Olympians: Women’s Olympic Games/World Games
Originally titled Women’s Olympic Games, the event was established in 1922 to address the lack of women’s athletic competitions in the International Olympics. Specifically, founder Alice Milliat objected because women’s track and field events were excluded from the Olympics. When the International Olympic Committee objected to the use of the word “Olympic” the name was changed to Women’s World Games.
This event was held until 1934, after which women’s events were more widely included in the International Olympics.
Our Thanks To Coubertin
The 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first in which women competed in every sport in the program.
Yes, Coubertin excluded women in 1896 as “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect” but it was his vision of international athletic competitions that gave women a fighting chance to prove him wrong.
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