Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

From the early female football pioneers to the female face of e-sports — Chapter 1

Posted on 8 March 2019 by Emilia Ottela

Chapter 1: The history of women in sport

Establishing the modern Olympic Games the celebration of male athletes

“Sport is one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls,” declares the mission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Gender equality is part of the essence of life. It is about human rights. And in 2019, it should be a given in the world of sport. But it is not.

Gender equality has been a hot topic within sport in recent years. A closer look at the history of women in sport gives an explanation of why the sporting world is still struggling to achieve an equal and diverse environment.

In 1892, Baron Pierre de Coubertin proposed the establishment of the modern Olympics. Over the following few years he tried to find support for his idea. At that time, he did not consider that women might be interested in participating in those Games.

“Impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper.” This is how Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, described women’s sport.

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According to Coubertin, women had one job, but in his opinion, it was not to participate in the Games.

“Women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands.”

In 1896, 312 athletes competed in the inaugural Olympics, hosted in Athens. Unsurprisingly, none of them were women. This was the time when the whole concept of the modern sports movement was established.

Nonetheless, women got to participate in the second edition of the Olympics hosted in Paris in 1900, even if it was only a handful of them.

Regardless of what happened in Paris, Coubertin’s stance on whether or not women should participate in the Olympics did not change. In fact, in 1912, he declared that “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism” was the reason to start the Games.

Slowly, more and more women got involved and in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, women represented 10% of the athletes. It took 32 years to double that number.

Since then, the number of women participating in sport has increased and a gender balance has nearly been achieved in the Olympics. But it’s been a long, hard road.

Women’s football was the exception to the rule in the early nineteenth century

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries women’s football was almost as popular as men’s, and it was growing rapidly. British Ladies’ Football Club was founded in 1895 by a few early female football pioneers.

During World War One women’s football became huge. This happened because the men’s league was suspended between 1914-15. At that time, women’s football was quite informal and ladies played the game during lunch breaks and after work. Gradually more women got interested in football and tournaments were organised in order to fund charities.

The popularity of female football reached its peak in 1921. However, despite its popularity, the general consensus was that sport was for men only and football in particular was not suitable for women. At that time, the FA was also concerned about the declining popularity of the men’s game. As a result, they banned women’s football.

The ban remained for 50 years until 1971 when the FA encouraged worldwide football associations to once again promote the women’s game.

Billie Jean King fought against the gender pay gap

Amongst the world’s 100 highest paid athletes on the Forbes 2018 list, there are no women. It was the first time since 2010 that not a single woman appeared.

In 2017, Serena Williams was the only woman who appeared on the list. Last year, she dropped out after giving birth to her daughter.

When looking back in history, it is not surprising that it is a tennis player who fights against men in the money list.

In 1973, the Women’s Tennis Association was founded by a female player, Billie Jean King. She was the woman who initiated the fight against the gender pay gap and for a more equal world of sport. She was a champion on and off the tennis court.

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In her career, Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles. At Wimbledon, she was unbeatable 20 times. In 1966, she became the world number one. She felt: “Unless I was number one, I wouldn’t be listened to.”

The U.S. Open was the first major tennis tournament that gave equal prize money to women and men. It was King who lobbied for that to happen. It is said that, as a five-year-old, she told her mom: “I am going to do something great my life.” She certainly did.

Women in Sports Management

Nonetheless, the participation of women in the Olympics and in sport overall has increased, and the gender balance is almost achieved, sports management is lacking women in the top positions.

The first women needed to wait almost 100 years to become IOC members and especially members of the IOC Executive Board. And still until today, neither the IOC or FIFA have ever had a woman leader. Under seven per cent of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) presidents are women. This means that only 17 NOCs are led by a woman worldwide.

In February 2018, the IOC published 25 action-oriented recommendations for gender equality in sport.

“I firmly believe that sport is one of the most powerful platforms for promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls,” said the IOC President Thomas Bach at the time the recommendations were published.

The recommendations are good and action-driven. But now, someone needs to put them into practice.

Earlier this year Niina Toroi, the Chair of the ENGSO Equality Within Sports (EWS) Committee told the Sports Gazette:

“One needs to have courage to speak out and act. This issue has been recognised too long, but concrete actions have been missing.”

She is one of the key persons organising a European-wide sports leadership programme called ‘New Leaders.’ The programme is a  joint educational effort of the IOC and the European Olympic Committee, and it is organised by the Finnish Olympic Committee.

According to Toroi, “the heart of the programme is to implement the IOC Gender Equality Recommendations into action.”

The programme started in January 2019 and it is a good example of concrete actions that need to be done to achieve more equal sports management.

Featured photograph/Wikimedia Commons