The Challenges of Female Olympians Throughout History

It is the summer of 1968. The Olympic Games are to be held in Mexico City, Mexico. Women have been allowed to officially compete in the modern Olympic Games since 1900, although it will be another 16 years before women are allowed to compete in an Olympic marathon event. 

Women have begun to enjoy more and more inclusion in Olympic and internationally recognized competitive sport, and as a result, ‘sex tests’ or ‘nude parades’ as the media has dubbed them, begin cropping up. Pitched as a way to ‘protect the sanctity of female sport,’ these sex tests force female athletes to undergo invasive genital inspection to prove their status as biologically female. 

There is a pervasive belief that biological males will infiltrate female sport. These sex tests purportedly keep the games fair, but their insidious subtext is clear: the only way women’s sports could be advancing at their current rate is if men are masquerading as women. Female strength can only advance so far. 

The Olympics is built on a foundation of sexism, racism, and transphobia. Female Olympians may take to the world stage to perform unfathomable physical feats, but the road to such an opportunity has been fraught with obstacles, and the finish line remains shrouded in prejudice.

Strong (for a girl)

Fast-forward to the present day, as we’re in the lead up to the postponed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Nude parades may be a Ghost of Misogyny Past, but they have been replaced by hormone testing and transphobic whistleblowing. 

Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi have been barred from competing in the 400 meter race due to naturally occurring high testosterone levels and their refusal to take medication to alter it to meet World Athletics standards. These women are not the first, and likely will not be the last; Kirsten Wengler, María José Martínez Patino, and Caster Semenya are just some of the female athletes penalised and failed by sex tests in competitive sport. 

These limitations do not stop at hormonal or chromosomal composition. Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast in history, was openly criticized and penalized for successfully becoming the first woman to perform the Yurchenko double pike in competition in May 2021. 

We are seeing a tee-tow line of women being told they can now be world class athletes—provided their hormonal composition is decidedly feminine enough, their skill sets curtailed rather than revolutionary. 

Baron Pierre de Coubertin is regarded as the father of the modern Olympic Games. A French educator and second president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he possessed a stringent and restrictive view of the future of the Olympic games; namely that competitors should be white, upper-class, and male. Coubertin went on record proclaiming that “no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.” 

While Olympic historians are of two minds if one or two women (Stamata Revithi and Melpomene) unofficially ran in the 1896 Olympic marathon, one thing is for certain; while Revithi and Meloponeme (believed by some historians to be the same woman) clocked a competitive finish time, the IOC refused to acknowledge its legitimacy. 

The Victorian cult of invalidism 

Sport has been historically gendered and exclusionary in Western history. The twentieth century ushered in an era where men were deigned it appropriate to prod at the genitals or question the chromosomal makeup of the ‘fairer’ sex. Transphobic hysteria still plagues modern sport, supported by the same oppressive patriarchal structures that have convinced half of the population they are weaker or physically limited by virtue of their sex. We can learn a lot about the current state of gender hysteria in competitive sport by examining our history. No period of time is more glaring to me than to the Victorian era, a time that encouraged learned feminine physical weakness both socially and medically. 

This era can be easily summarized by things such as the widespread access of the bicycle, the birth of the modern Olympic Games, and a cis heterosexual male obsession with fertility and menstruation. The Victorian era ushered in a world that actively encouraged the cult of invalidism, a world of learned weakness and restrained or ‘frozen’ movements in an active attempt to attain higher levels of socially prescribed ‘desirable femininity.’ During a time when the world was on the brink of massive industrialisation and social change, the Victorians were hard at work maintaining the status quo of weak women and strong men by weaponizing women’s reproductive abilities against them. 

Dislodged uteruses and periods, oh my!

It was a common belief amongst physicians of the time that strenuous physical activity put a woman at risk of dislodging her uterus, rendering her infertile. This fear of infertility was leveraged by the eugenics movement, calling for white women to abstain from activities that would impact her ability to ‘carry on the white race.’ 

Cycling, which was ushering in a new era of freedom for women, was criticised as posing potential harm to female rider’s perineum and vulva. Moralists feared that the vibrations from cycling would induce orgasms for women, and that cycling during menstruation would increase the risk of infertility. Such fear mongers would be positively mortified by modern day spin classes. 

When one’s uterus wasn’t being dislodged, Victorian medicine still zeroed in on the womb as justification for the physical restriction of female bodies. It was believed that the “tissues” of an adolescent girl were immature and weak, putting them at risk of fainting spells. Some Victorian physicians went so far as to advise that girls going through puberty rest “a year before and two years following puberty” to adequately recover. 

Vassar College barred entry from female students due to the belief that walking up flights of stairs would be far too physically strenuous for a menstruating student. It was best that young women seek their education in schools safely on the ground. 

Play like a girl

I was born eight years after the inclusion of the first women’s marathon in the Olympic Games. As an athlete, it can be easy to overlook just how recent women’s inclusion in competitive sport is. It can be even easier to brush off how damaging sex tests, infertility myths, and penalizations for ‘unfair’ skill can be, to everyone from professional athletes to the little girls glued to the screen watching Simone Biles make history. 

I grew up with phrases like “girl push ups” and “throwing like a girl” peppering my physical education. I was barred from climbing rope or playing American football while in school due to my gender, but overall I have been incredibly fortunate to have had coaches who saw my small hands, short stature, and love of pink sportswear and still saw potential rather than limitations by virtue of my sex. I have been permitted to thrive in a world where on average, by age 14, girls’ self-esteem is reported to be 27 percent less than that of boys. 

Physical literacy should be encouraged and enjoyed by people of all ages and walks of life. For far too long that pleasure has been denied to half the population, utilizing myths of infertility, inherent physical inferiority, and transphobic signalling to keep women frail. 

I am not advocating that we boycott the Olympics, but I think it is important that we approach the games with a critical lens. Please tune in, cheer on your country’s representatives, feel inspired and joyous. But when the Games are over, when you’re next in the gym or scrolling aimlessly through fitness influencers on Instagram, take a moment to reflect on the fight for physical equality. 

Spare a thought for the women whose physical excellence was barred from the Games due to perceived inferior genitalia, for all the women whose genitalia has since been invaded to eventually participate. We have made great strides, but we still have so far to go.

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