Via Power Plays, a report on the 100-year fight for gender equality in Olympic track and field:

Hi, friends! So, somehow, we are 19 (NINETEEN) days away from the opening ceremonies of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. This Olympics is being touted as the first one to reach gender equality, which is cool, I guess, but goodness did it take too long, and also there are a couple of caveats we’re going to have to address.

Over the next few weeks here at Power Plays, we’ll be looking through the archives to explore the history of women at the Olympics. And we’re going to start with track and field, since athletics are pretty much the heart and soul of the Summer Games, and also because I got the idea for this series when I was watching Team USA’s Olympic track and field qualifying meet.

Most of the posts in this Olympics-centered #FromtheArchives series are going to be for paid subscribers only, but I’ll keep this one free so you can get a taste of what it is we’re doing. If you have the means, I’d appreciate you getting a paid subscription, they keep the lights on!

And look, I highly recommend you stick to the end of this one, both because you love me, but also because of this teaser:

‘Participation of weaker sex in 1928 classic may be possible’

The first modern Olympics took place in 1896. There were 241 athletes competing, all of which were male. In 1900 in Paris, women finally made their Olympic debut, but there were only 22 of them (2.2% of all the Olympians that year) and they were only permitted to compete in sailing, golf, tennis, and croquet. (We’re going to be revisiting the 1900 Olympics in another newsletter, don’t worry.)

By 1920, there were 65 women in the Olympics, with women now permitted to compete in archery, swimming, and diving. But women were still banned for the track.

In 1922, there started to be inklings that change was coming.

Here’s an article from the Kansas City Star on Friday, April 28, 1922 with the subhed, “Participation of Weaker Sex in 1928 Classic May Be Possible.”

The article is a bit blurry, I know, but it mainly talks about the IAAF taking over control of women’s athletics internationally, and the AAU considering doing the same in the United States.

Notably, the United States was behind many European countries (especially France) when it came to women’s sports, and there was concern as to whether the United States would have female athletes ready for the Olympics in 1928, because they hadn’t even held national meets yet.

‘The unusual growth recently in feminine athletics’

In late 1922, the United States started getting its act together. The AAU voted to take over women’s athletics, and a national girls’ track association was formed in December to oversee interscholastic and intercollegiate women’s track events.

But in April of 1923, the IOC decided that in 1924, women’s Olympic events would be confined to tennis and swimming. (Golf and archery weren’t part of the Olympics anymore in 1924.)

Still, women’s athletics started to explode in popularity so much after the United States finally provided it with infrastructure that on June 3, 1924, the American Olympic Committee had to issue a press release saying that despite an apparently widespread impression that events for women are included in the Olympic track and field program at Paris, as a result of the unusual growth recently in feminine athletics,” women would not be competing in athletics in Paris.

How embarrassing to have to issue a press release reinforcing sexism.

‘The success of the effort is doubted by the men who have expressed opinions’

One year before the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the inclusion of women in the athletics program was STILL up for debate. But women — especially French women, who had actually organized the Women’s Olympic Games in 1922, which we will get into in another newsletter — were not giving up the fight.

Here’s an Associated Press article printed in the Daily Nonpariel in Council Bluffs, Iowa on February 5, 1927, “Women seek Olympics.” It’s short, but the kicker packs a punch.

“The success of the effort is doubted by the men who have expressed opinions.”


But, alas, the endeavor WAS successful after all! In 1928, women were allowed to compete in *five* track and field events — 100 meters, 800 meters, high jump, discus, and 400 meter hurdles. (For comparison, the men had 22 events.)

British women actually boycotted because they were so upset over the limited number of events!

‘American girls with their flapperish ways do not appear to be very good athletes’

At the U.S. women’s track and field trials in July of 1928, 246 women competed for a spot in the historic Games.

Here’s another AP piece published in the Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa on July 10, 1928, previewing the U.S. women’s athletics team headed to the Olympics. It is written by the head coach of the women’s track and field team.

I know that article is long, if you don’t have time to read it all, just hone in on the lede:

“American, girls with their flapperish ways do not appear to be very good athletes; therefore they may prove surprises in the 1928 Olympics.

“I am not looking for any great success at Amsterdam but fair results may be expected for the peppy Yankee girls kept in remarkably good training while chasing elevators and trolleys to and from their work and while sprinting about the dance floors during their off hours.”

Again: This was the COACH OF THE WOMEN’S TEAM writing this. Cool.

‘Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women’

At the Games themselves, the Americans actually did have some success! Elizabeth Robinson won gold in the 100m in 12.2 seconds, which was a world record. She was only 16 (!!) at the time.

Here’s a fun article on Robinson from the Sun-Journal in Lewiston, Maine on August 1, 1928.

Of course, the most infamous women’s athletics event at the 1928 Games was the 800m. Lina Radke of Germany won the event in 2:16.9, taking seven seconds off of her world record in the process, and all six of the top women finished under the previous world-record pace. It was a thrilling culmination of the first women’s athletics competition at the Olympics.

But after the race, male journalists expressed outrage and concern at how exhausted these women were after running the grueling race.

I couldn’t find any of the actual newspaper clips, but Runner’s World did a good breakdown of the coverage and its aftermath back in 2012. Here are a couple of excerpts of the sensationalized spin via The Growth Occassion:

Knut Rockne, yes the famed football coach, reported for the Pittsburgh Press that five women collapsed, and that, “It was not a very edifying spectacle to see a group of fine girls running themselves into a state of exhaustion.” John Tunis reported for the New York Evening Post, “Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape.”

Of course the stories of the collapsing and exhaustion were greatly exaggerated, but the damage was done, and the women’s 800m was scrapped from the Olympics for the next 32 years.

‘Finnish girls desired to leave track and field efforts to men’

In fact, *while* the Olympics were going on, the IOC held a vote on whether women’s athletics should stay in the Olympics going forward. While some were pushing for at least 10 women’s events going forward, some were pushing to reinstate a complete ban.

Here’s an Associated Press piece published in the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York on August 7, 1928:

Equality with an asterisk

Ultimately, in 1932 only two events were added for the women’s athletics, the 80m hurdles (which would become the 100m hurdles in 1972) and the javelin, bringing the total women’s events in 1932 and 1936 to six. In 1948, the long jump, shot put, and 200m race were added, bringing the total to nine.

The 800m was added back in 1960; the 400m and pentathlon (which became the heptathlon in 1984) debuted in 1964; as did the 1500m and 4x400m relay in 1972; the marathon and 400m hurdles in 1984; the 10,000m in 1988; the 5,000m and triple jump in 1996; the 20km race walk, pole vault, and hammer throw in 2000; and the 3,000m steeplechase in 2008.

This year, the women and men in athletics will both have the opportunity to compete in 25 events — two of them being mixed events, the 4×100 relay and marathon race walking relay. (The men’s 50km race walking event was dropped for this Olympics so official gender parity could be touted.)

However, notably, the women can only compete in the heptathlon, not the decathlon, though advocates are trying to change that!

‘Eat? They are terrible — like wolves!’

These gains are only possible because of legends like Lucienne Laudre, who unapologetically ran and jumped when so many wanted women to sit still and do nothing but serve.

Here’s one of my favorite archival find of all times, from the Hull Evening News in Hull, Humberside, England on August 14, 1928.


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