The dazzling display that marks the beginning of the Olympic games whenever they are played has become traditional. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people around the world watch on TV screens, tablets or phones to see the athletes march into a massive stadium carrying the flag of their country. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime-moment for the athletes. But the Olympics were not always such a high profile occasion. The first American woman to win an Olympic event won it in a contest that was so low key she wasn’t even sure that the golf game she won was part of the Olympics.
There was no ceremony to mark the opening of the Paris Olympics of 1900. There was no closing ceremony either and the winners did not receive medals—they received one of a variety of knick-knacks provided by the sponsors.
How is that possible? Well, the 1900 Olympics in Paris were only the second in the series of modern Olympics, which had started in Athens in 1896. When 1900 rolled around, Paris was holding a large World Exhibit and the Olympics became a kind of sideshow to that. Various events were run from May until October in different venues around Paris. Spectators and even participants were not always sure which events were part of the Olympics and which were unaffiliated athletic contests. The event was quite disorganized, but one innovation that was made has lasted—it was the first time that women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. Women have been a prominent part of the Olympic contests ever since.
America’s first female Olympic champion was Margaret Ives Abbott. She was a young society woman from Chicago who played golf for pleasure and was very good at it. In
1900, she was in Paris studying art and heard there was a golf contest, so she signed up. Her mother, also an excellent golfer, participated in the contest too. 1900 was the first year that golf had been part of the Olympic program and for many years it was the only time. Not until 2006 was golf reintroduced as an Olympic sport.
Margaret won first place in the golf tournament and was given a porcelain bowl in recognition of her achievement. But there was no huge newspaper coverage, probably no photos, and certainly none of the adulation that Olympic champions win today. Margaret Abbott, who was 22 years old at the time she won her award, continued to live the normal life of a prosperous young woman. She married the journalist and author, Finley Peter Dunne in 1902. He was creator of the well-known “Mr. Dooley” essays, humorous commentary on politics and life of the early 20th century.
It wasn’t until almost fifty years later when scholars put together a reliable history of the Olympics that the Paris 1900 games were fully recognized. And Margaret Ives Abbott finally received full recognition. Because she died in 1955, it seems unlikely she was even aware that she was America’s first woman Olympic winner. Such a mistake would never happen today when all the events are filmed and a full historical record kept of the games. Women who win medals get full recognition of their achievements. The Olympic games have come a long way—and so have women athletes. But let’s not forget to honor Margaret Ives Abbott, a leader in the recognition of women athletes.
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!