From Banned to Superstars, History of Women in the Olympics

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From Banned to Superstars, History of Women in the Olympics

By Alessandra Bryant

The Olympic Games has long been considered a symbol for global cooperation, comradery, and friendly competition that provides us the chance to take pride in our nations. But it hasn’t always been an inclusive space for the largest segment of our population: women.

Banned from the first global event, women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics until 1900; making up only 22 of the 997 contestants and participating in only five of the 19 sports in the program. Although women have participated in all but one of the modern Olympics, women have continued to fight for equal representation and treatment during the games.

Over 100 years later at the 2012 Olympic Games, women were able to compete in all sports in the Olympic program. This year, almost 49% of the athletes competing in Tokyo are women, which is up from the 44.2% who competed in the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. We acknowledge that the Olympics has come a long way, with more women competing now than ever before and record numbers of young women and girls participating and earning medals In addition, some of the biggest starts of the games – such as Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles – are women. But even with all the progress, much more must be done to ensure women and people of color are treated, represented, and supported equitably in the field of athletics.

Even today, top women athletes are dealing with unfair and outdated regulations which infringe on their rights to bodily autonomy. Earlier this week, the Norwegian Beach Handball team was fined by the European Handball Federation for wearing shorts rather than bikini bottoms, although men are allowed to wear loose fitting shorts four inches above the knee. Similarly, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) is currently reconsidering a ban on the “Soul Cap,” which is a larger swim cap designed with Black hair concerns in mind. Additionally, two women runners from Namibia were disqualified from participating because their natural testosterone levels were deemed “too high” for them to compete. You might be thinking, what do all of these incidents have in common? Men don’t have to play by these same rules.

Women shouldn’t be dealing with these issues in the 21st Century. It is disappointing that women are still fighting to wear what they want and exist in their bodies without external policing or judgement. Women should be empowered to choose clothes and uniforms that make them feel good in their bodies, especially when said uniforms offer no foreseeable competitive advantage. These sexist and culturally insensitive decisions don’t allow space for women or people of color equal opportunity to participate.

It’s time for us to reject the double standard. It is time for women and people of color in athletics to receive the same funding, rules, freedoms, equitable treatment, and opportunities that their counterparts enjoy. It is misogynistic — and quite frankly transphobic – for women’s testosterone levels to be tested and used for disqualifications while men are not held to the same standard. We must do better advocating for equity in treatment for all genders in the Olympics and beyond.

You can begin working towards this change by signing petitions for legislation like The Crown Act to end hair discrimination in the workplace, schools, and pools. Join or create spaces for critical conversations in your local communities and speak out on social media on what change you want to see for women and people of color. Partner with other changemakers who believe it’s important to include eliminating racism and empowering women in their priorities for creating a more equitable world. Lastly, stay tuned with how YWCA is speaking up and out for women at the Olympics on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!

We are so proud of all the women, girls, and people of color competing in the Olympics! Their drive to represent their countries and participate in the games despite the challenges of the last year is inspirational. To further celebrate and support these sheroes, join us in the fight to eliminate racism and empower women in athletics and beyond.