Swimming Leads the Way in Olympic Equality

Swimming Leads the Way in Olympic Equality

By Phillip Whitten//Guest Contributor  | Monday, September 11, 2017

You could tell Pierre was angry. Very angry.  

He had just returned from a meeting of the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – in his view, another of those interminable ‘do-nothing’ meetings that accomplish precisely nothing, but take the entire weekend to do it.

“It’s the women again,” he said, his voice bitter from the accumulation of decades of frustration. “Since I remain unalterably opposed to including women in the reconstituted Olympic Games for men, they now are saying they want their own damned ‘Women’s Olympics.’ Can you imagine the gall of these… these creatures? What’s next on their shopping list?  Half of the Eifel Tower?  Come to think of it, why not their own women’s Eifel Tower?” 

Sensing he was on a rhetorical roll, he persisted. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  An Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper.”

A century ago, Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, and his colleagues on the IOC, may have been dead set against including women in the Games, but the tides of history were pulling them in the opposite direction.  When the Games, scheduled for Berlin in 1916 were called off, it was in the wartime environment that women on both sides of the conflict proved their worth. Even de Coubertin was impressed with the women’s performances.  In fact, he was so impressed, he modified his views. Slightly.

“Women can take part in organized games, such as football,” he conceded. “They will thus be fittingly honored, but in the second rank. I, personally, do not approve of the participation of women in public competitions, which is not to say that they must abstain from practicing a great number of sports, provided that they do not make a public spectacle of themselves.  In the Olympic Games, as in the contests of former times, women’s primary role should be to crown the victors.” 


The Olympics Reborn
What de Coubertin thought was important.  After playing the key role in the formation of the IOC in 1894, he teamed up with Greece’s Crown Prince Constantine to turn his dream of reviving the Olympic Games into a reality. Amidst nearly universal forecasts of failure and doom, he out-maneuvered his detractors, and after lying dormant for more than 1,500 years, the Olympic Games returned to the land of the living in April 1896.

Inexplicably, swimming was not a part of the original competition, but the Ancients did get one very important matter right. In modern times, the Games have been suspended due to the first and second World Wars. The old-time Greeks were smarter than that. If a war was being fought at the same time the Olympics were scheduled to be held, an “Olympic truce” was called and fighting ceased for the duration of the Games.

The First Modern Games
In 1896, however, swimming was very much a part of the revival of the Olympic Games. On April 11, four events were contested in the icy waters of the Bay of Zea: the 100, 500, and 1200- meters freestyle, plus the 100-meters freestyle for Greek sailors only. In all, about 240-285 male athletes from 13 countries participated in a program of 43 events in nine different sports.  No Trials were held for the Games of 1896. The United States team, for example, consisted mainly of businessmen and college students who happened to be in Greece at the time the Games were held. 

The inaugural Olympic Games were an unqualified success, but the next two Games – held in Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904 – can fairly be characterized as unmitigated disasters. Meanwhile, women kept petitioning the IOC, imploring the Lords of the Rings that they be allowed to participate. But de Coubertin – an enlightened man in so many other ways – was absolutely adamant: No Women. He reiterated:  the inclusion of women “would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.”

Still, the times, they were a-changing, and so the IOC allowed an occasional women’s exhibition event. 

The Games of 1912 saw the first significant participation by women.  In swimming, two women’s events were added to the program: the 100 meter  freestyle and the 4x100 meter freestyle relay.  That gave the women two of the nine aquatic events, or 22.2 percent.  Australia’s Fanny Durack set a world record (1:19.8) in the prelims of the 100, then went on to take the final, becoming the first female swimmer to win Olympic gold. 

With Durack’s victory, feminists increased their pressure on the IOC. Finally, surprisingly, their efforts began to bear fruit. To be sure, progress came at a glacial pace and the IOC continued to reflect societal attitudes towards women’s ability to engage in vigorous exercise.

A perfect example: The IOC approved a women’s distance event for the Games of 1920, but it wasn’t the same distance the men had to swim.  Noooooooooooooo!  Fearing that women might balk at matching the men’s distance, and that overstraining their weak, feminine bodies might result in an inability to bear children, they limited the new women’s distance event to a (are you ready?) 300.

Sometimes you just want to grab those guys by their bejeweled lapels, shake them and scream: “Don’t  worry! It’s okay to change the race to 400 meters.  Believe me. They can handle 400 meters!  They can all make the additional 100 meters!  And they still will be able to have kids!” To its credit, four years later in 1924, the IOC increased the distance in the women’s distance event from 300 to 400 meters.

The twentieth century witnessed dynamic growth for almost all athletic endeavors, with swimming 
among the leaders. The Olympic symbol –five interlocking rings on a field of white – emerged on the 
morning of January 1, 2001 as the second most recognizable symbol on the planet, behind only the
Christian cross. As for the Games, they transformed themselves from an obscure, cultural oddity to
global icon.

Meanwhile, female athletes – especially swimmers -- were making significant progress on the road to
athletic equality.  From an ignominious beginning of two events in 1912, they achieved de facto parity.  
with men at the Tokyo Games of 1964, with 8 of the 18 events, or 44.4 percent. The next quadrennium
witnessed the largest-ever increase for both male and female swimmers, as the 1968 Games in Mexico
City added six women’s and five men’s swimming events to the program, raising women’s events to 48.3
 percent of the total.  There they would remain for 28 years before taking that final step, but at the  
Centennial Games held in 1996 in Atlanta, it finally happened: With 16 events for men and 16 for women, women achieved complete equality with men. At least in the sport of swimming.

Since the Atlanta Games, growth in the number of events has been slow but steady.  With the IOC’s recent approval of the 800 meters freestyle for men and the 1500 for women, the Tokyo Games will feature 36 swimming events.  The likelihood is that only three more events will be added, probably in the near future: 50-meter sprints in the fly, back and breast.

It’s been a long and winding road – no, a veritable second Hundred Years War -- but we have resolved all issues, from physiological to cultural, concerning women’s participation in competitive swimming.

You’ve come a long way, baby.
 

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