Monday July 16, 2012
Changing times for women
WHETHER it was Romanian gymnast Nadia Comanechi earning a perfect 10 score in 1976 or American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner breaking the 100m record in 1988, women have always made their presence felt at the Olympics. Or have they?
In 1928 women were running the 800m race for Olympic Gold. It was won at world record pace. Several athletes collapsed at the finish. Male officials were horrified at the unlady-like exertion and banned the event! It took 32 years for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow women to run more than half a lap again.
When they did in 1960, the 800m winner was Lyudmyla Shevtsova of the Soviet Union. Greater distances soon followed. In the mid 1970s, the first big star of women’s middle distance running emerged from the Soviet Union. Tatyana Kazankina won both the 800m and 1,500m in 1976.
Muslim women had it even tougher. Nawal El Moutawakel had a lot to overcome. She was the first Moroccan and Muslim woman to win a gold medal.
“For Muslim girls, any activities outside the house are very hard for us. My parents would have to give their permission if I wanted to do any sport. It was important that my parents trusted me.
“My father always had to accompany me when I went for training, especially if I was participating in a national competition. He would always tell me that one day I would become a world champion, and that with God’s help, the eyes of the world would see that an Arab girl could make it,” said El Moutawakel.
In Los Angeles, El Moutawakel qualified for the final of the 400m hurdles.
“As I ran, I had this feeling of responsibility towards Morocco, and her people who were starved of victory. I saw my father, may he rest in peace. And I said to myself you must win, you must come first. So I ran with rage in my heart.”
El Moutawakel’s victory made her the best-known and most popular figure in her home country.
The widening of the circle of Olympic events has given a sporting chance to new nations over the years. Indonesia, up to a point, had little success. Then badminton joined the Games in 1992. Susi Susanti of Indonesia met the Korean Bang Soo-Hyun in the final.
“Was I certain to win? Not really. I had often met Bang Soo-Hyun before. Was I nervous? I was not that nervous, but of course, the tension was there,” said Susanti, adding, “I was very proud o win the first gold for Indonesia, and for the whole of South East-Asia.”
In 1998, China’s first love of table tennis was finally introduced to the Olympic programme. Since table tennis joined the games, Chinese women have won five out of the six gold medals available. They have made an impact on many other sports, too, though.
Perhaps the most impressive and most controversial progress made by Chinese women has been in swimming. In 1992, Zhuang Yong had the chance to win China’s first swimming gold in the blue ribbon event, 100m freestyle.
“At the time, I felt I had trained as much as I could. At that point, it depends on your performance on the day ... on luck,” said Zhuang Yong. Her luck held as she was China’s first gold medallist in the pool. A new super power had arrived.
From being non-existent in the 1896 Games, women’s participation in the Olympics has changed drastically over the last century, most significantly in the last 30 years.
There is, however, always room for further development and the IOC is dedicated to promoting women in sport. To this end, the Women and Sport Working Group was established in 1995 and has been a fully fledged IOC Commission since 2004.
“It’s a fundamental human right. Women are 50% of the world population, and they bring a lot of assets to sport. They bring their own personality, their own way of practising sport,” said Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC.
“I remember the eternal discussion of whether women were fit to run the marathon, I look at what they are doing now, they are running under 2:30 (two and a half hours) and good international times, even under 2:20. I mean, no one would ever have believed that 20 years ago.”
Towards the end of the 20th century, the number of women competing at the Olympics and the events open to them kept increasing with each successive Games.
With the addition of women’s boxing, the 2012 Games in London will have women competing in every sport on the Olympic programme for the first time in history.
“I’ve said that by 2020, women will flat out win marathons. It’s a matter of time and belief. So often we tell people, especially women, these are things you can’t do. I look forward to the day when a girl grows up believing in herself, not paying attention to the things that will hold her back so she can be free to be herself.
“The body is a remarkable thing and if we allow ourselves to explore the extent of what we can do and stop having barriers, stop saying women should do this, that or the other, there is a whole world of opportunity out there,” said Anita De Frantz, Olympian and first female vice-president of the IOC in 1997.
● Catch Story Of Women At The Games Pt 1 on ESPN (Astro Ch 812) at 9pm on Thursday.