Women at the Olympics: the first female athletes to win gold at the Games

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The 2020 Olympic Games might not be happening, but we can still celebrate the amazing women who have competed. This is the story of the first women to win. 

The 2020 Olympic Games are postponed, meaning that we aren’t getting to spend our summer watching amazing sportspeople as we shout and scream and cheer at our TV sets.

It makes this year the sixth disrupted year since records began: the 1916, 1940, and 1944 Games cancelled due to war, and the 1980 and 1984 Games boycotted on a mass scale due to the Cold War.

We’re undoubtedly missing out on some of the best spectating there is to be had, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t look back with fondness, especially at the athletes that broke records and the rulebook. For example, the first women to break ground by participating in – and winning! – the Games. 

When did the first women compete at the Olympics?

The first official modern Olympic Games dates back to 1870, but it was another 30 years before the first woman would compete in the 1900 Games in Paris. Yet only 22 female competitors took part compared to 975 men. 

One of those women was Hélène de Pourtalès. An American-Swiss citizen, she competed for Switzerland’s sailing team as a crew member on the boat Lérina. On 22 May they competed in the 1-2 ton class sailing race, a 19km course which de Pourtalès and her team won, making her the first woman to win a medal and the first woman to take home gold at an Olympic Games. 

Charlotte Cooper
Charlotte Cooper, the first British woman to win gold at the Olympics

Also competing during these Games was Charlotte Cooper. An English tennis player, she was known for being “a superb volleyer and played an attacking game, rushing up to the net at every opportunity,” according to the Olympic committee.

On 11 July 1900 she proved just how good she was: competing against America’s Marion Jones, she won the women’s tennis final 6-1, 6-4 to become the first woman to win Olympic gold in an individual event, and the first British woman to take home a medal. 

Cooper went on to remain one of the best tennis players of the 19th century. Her 11 singles finals between 1895 and 1912 was a Wimbledon record, which she held until it was equalled by Martina Navratilova in 1994.

Are the Olympics equal? 

It wasn’t until 2012 that every single competing country sent a female athlete to the Olympics. That same year, the addition of women’s boxing meant that female athletes were able to compete in all the same sports as men, but there are still more events for men than women. 2016’s Rio Games included 161 events for men, 136 for women and nine mixed, but some of the events were promised to have changed for this year’s Games. 

Let’s be honest, in 2020, sport is by no means equal. Women’s football doesn’t make the same money or pay the same salaries, TV coverage for female sporting events remains significantly lower than male events and, according to the BBC, the International Olympic Committee has admitted that female participation in the Games is “low”. But it’s changing: in fact, in 2016 the most decorated athletes were the US women’s team. 

Looking to 2021, the athletes we are most excited to watch include the fastest British woman ever, Dina Asher-Smith, and the British women’s football team, who will be competing in the Olympics for the first time ever. Sport will only truly be equal when watching women compete is as mainstream as watching men. The Olympics offer that prime time viewing, and we can’t wait to cheer on all athletes at next year’s Games.

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).