Much of my attention this week has been focused on the Olympics in Rio. They are quite a relief from the two political conventions we just watched because in the Olympics, people keep moving instead of talking and we can see for ourselves who is winning. There is no need for lengthy commentary about who said what and who scored points against an opponent. There is something very satisfying about a clear cut win like Katie Ledecky’s brilliant 800-meter swim that smashed the world record and won her another gold medal.
Women weren’t always so prominent in the Olympic Games. In the ancient games, of course, only men were allowed to compete and when the games were reinstated in 1896, the organizers thought it would be foolish to allow women to compete. Four years later, however, a few women managed to participate in the 1900 games in Paris—22 women out of a field of 997 athletes.
The first time the Olympic Games were held in the United States—in St. Louis in 1904—the only sport open for women was archery. Those games were among the most informal and disorganized of games because very few athletes were willing to make the long trek to St. Louis to participate. Almost everyone who took part was an American and a true amateur; many signed up at the last minute without training or knowledge about how to compete.
As the twentieth century went on, more and more women took up athletics and lobbied for a chance to compete in the Games. Some of the obstacles for women athletes were bizarre. In 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm, women were allowed to participate in swimming, but America did not send any of its female swimmers. The reason? American organizers would not
allow women to compete in any sport in which they could not wear long skirts. Although, as you can see from this picture, the swimsuits of 1912 were very modest by today’s standards. The UK women’s team won the medals that year.
What women athletes wear has always been an issue at the Olympics. This year, for the first time, all of the countries that have Olympic Committees have sent both men and women to the Games. For the first time, women from Saudi Arabia have been allowed to participate. This means that some of the Muslim women have competed while wearing outfits that look quite different from many of their European and American counterparts.
It is a pleasure to see the freedom women have finally found, being able to wear gear that makes them comfortable while competing on even terms with all participants. Three cheers for freedom of choice!