Are the 2012 Olympics the Year of the Woman?

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This year’s Olympic Games have been called “Year of the Women,” by Time Magazine, but have women really made that much of a splash in the Olympics? Let’s take a look at the history of women in the Olympics and whether or not it really is “Year of the Woman,” and if it is, does this mean this is as good as it gets for female athletic competitions?


History of Women in the Olympics

In the ancient Olympics, women were not allowed to participate in the games.

  • In the first games of what we call the “Modern Olympic Games” held in Athens – 1896, women did not participate. International Olympic Committee (IOC) founder, Pierre de Coubertin said women’s inclusion in the games would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”
  • The first women to compete were in the 1900 Paris games. Women were allowed to compete in lawn tennis and golf. However, there were three French women competing in croquet and at least one woman sailor as part of a mixed crew.
  • In 1912, women competed in swimming for the first time. There were no female American swimmers because they were required to wear long skirts in the games.
  • In 1928, women competed in track and field events for the first time; however, so many collapsed at the end of the 800-meter race that the event was banned until 1960.
  • Women’s shooting events were first included in the Olympics in 1984. There were three events: three position rifle, air rifle and sport pistol.
  •  In 2000, women were allowed to compete in weightlifting.
  •  In 2004, women were allowed to participate in freestyle wrestling.

2012 Firsts

Wojdan Shaherkani, one of Saudia Arabia's first female Olympians
  • First modern Olympic games in the last 116 years that women have participated in every sport. Boxing is the last event to allow women to compete this year.
  • First time that the US has more female athletes than male. Russia and China also sent more ladies than gents this year.
  • There are three Muslim countries that are sending their first female athletes to the games. Saudi Arabia is represented by Sarah Attar, (dual citizenship in Saudi Arabia and America) who competed in the 800 meter track and field race, and Wojdan Shaherkani, who competed in judo. Qatar allowed one of its three inaugural female athletes, air-rifle shooter Bahiya al Hamad, to carry in the flag during the opening ceremonies. Out of Asia, Brunei sent their first female athlete, Maziah Mahusin, who also carried her country’s flag during the opening ceremonies.
  • Malaysian markswoman, Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi, competed in the games nearly 9 months pregnant. She is due in September.

Inequality in Olympic Coverage

Although women athletes from across the globe are making remarkable accomplishments this year, take a minute to consider the media coverage.

In Saudi Arabia, only one newspaper covered the nation’s first female athlete’s events. “We were the only newspaper to write about it,” said Khaled Al-Maeena, editor of the English-language publication Saudi Gazette. “I believe these girls are heroines, and we should celebrate as a nation. Unfortunately, other people do not agree.” What’s worse is the Twitter campaign that ensued with the hashtag “prostitutes of the Olympics,” originated in Saudi Arabia.

According to Yahoo! Sports, the father of judoka Shaherkani contacted the country’s interior minister to demand action against those who had insulted his daughter. Under Saudi law, punishment for insulting a woman’s honor and integrity can be up to 100 lashes.

That type of blatant sexism is only in countries known to oppress women, right? Think again.

According to a study by University of Delaware professor James Angelini published in Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, there are big differences in the way the media covers the Olympics. “It’s all about luck with the females. It’s all about ability with the males,” said Angelini.

Reported in Science Daily, the gender-based study found:

  • When female athletes succeed, commentators tend to focus on luck and less on physical ability.
  • When female athletes fail, physical ability and commitment are noted.
  • When male athletes succeed, commentators applaud their skill and commitment to the sport.
  • When male athletes fail, it is not necessarily about their failure, but about how their competitors succeeded.
  • In 2010, 75 percent of the most-mentioned athletes were male.

Gender Testing

I thought it was ridiculous when I was prepping to go into the Marine Corps that I had to subject myself to the military’s gender testing. Turns out the test I had to take, spreading my legs so a doctor could validate that I had all the required lady parts, was mild compared to what some female athletes are subjected to.

In the 1936 games, Stella Walsh (born Stanisława Walasiewicz) of Poland took second place in the 100 meter dash. The gold medalist in the event, American Helen Stephens, was forced to take the first at-event gender test. She passed the test and kept her medal. Forty-four years later, Walsh was killed in an armed robbery and her autopsy revealed “ambiguous” sexual features.

Perhaps the most famous, and possibly most rumor based is the story of Dora/Heinrich Ratjen. In 1936, the German high-jumper competed in the 1936 games as a woman and later revealed that she was a man. The story goes that the Nazis forced Ratjen to compete as a woman to gain more medals. The reality discovered by journalist Der Spiegel in 2009, is that Ratjen is intersex, or more commonly known as a hermaphrodite, who was mistaken at birth. Ratjen was raised as a girl, believed she was a woman when competing.

Starting in 1968, all female athletes were subjected to gender tests because the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were suspected of entering male athletes in women’s events to gain an edge. The New York Times reports, “At first, women were asked to parade nude before a panel of doctors to verify their sex. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, officials switched to a chromosomal test.” The IOC stopped mandatory gender testing in 1999. Individuals may still be tested if suspected of gender fraud per the IOC regulations.

While these tests never resulted in the discovery of a man posed as a woman, it did find and disqualify many women with genetic disorders. Eight athletes were barred from the 1996 Atlantic Games, but later allowed to compete because the IOC medical commission did not consider their birth defects to give them an unfair advantage.

This year at the London games, the IOC implemented a new testing policy that measures testosterone levels of female athletes, rather than DNA. The testing is performed only if questions are raised about a female athlete’s performance, and must be requested by a chief medical officer of a national Olympic committee or a member of the IOC’s medical commission.

According to the IOC regulations, “the performance of male and female athletes may differ mainly due to the fact that men produce significantly more androgenic hormones than women and, therefore, are under stronger influence of such hormones.”

The IOC also notes, “Nothing in these regulations is intended to make any determination of sex. Instead these regulations are designed to identify circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible (by reason of hormonal characteristics) to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games” in the female category.

Gender testing is prevalent in female competitions outside the Olympics as well. In 2009, Caster Semenya was forced to take a gender test after winning a gold in the World Championship in the women’s 800 meters with a time of 1:55.45. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, banned Semenya from competing for 11-months while they tested her hormone levels to see if they exceeded the male threshold. Since then the IAAF has stated that for a woman to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold.

In a CNN article, Dr. Eric Vilain, a UCLA medical geneticist who served as a medical adviser to the IOC on its new policy for testing female athletes for “hyperandrogenism” meaning producing too many male hormones, said it would be “extraordinarily difficult” for women to reach the male range threshold for testosterone, which is not spelled out by the IOC because of differing lab testing methods. He also stated, “There’s no simple test to determine gender, so what we’re left with is an imperfect system.”

Gender testing in professional athletes is discriminatory and basically punishes women who break records that committees apparently believe that women are incapable of breaking. Men have never had to undergo any type of gender or genetic testing in the modern Olympic games.

Not Feminine Enough

I was at a bar watching a track and field race with my boyfriend and some other male friends. One of the guys comments, “I don’t care how flat-chested that girl is, she’s hot for an athlete.” I cringed and knowing I was outnumbered kept my mouth shut as all the guys nodded in agreement.

Women can’t win. If we loose weight we’re too skinny, if we gain weight we’re too curvy, if we do this we’re too that, etc. It took me a long time to realize that the only standard that mattered was my own, and even being conscious of the fact my opinion of my body is the only one that matters, it is still difficult to hear comments putting down athletes as I consider myself to be an amateur athlete.

Looking at the issue more closely, we have a Turkish newspaper article titled, “Womanhood is Dying at the Olympics” by Yuksel Aytug. Thankfully, the article received heavy criticism for lines such as, ‘Broad-shouldered, flat-chested women with small hips; [they are] totally indistinguishable from men.

“Their breasts – the symbol of womanhood, motherhood – flattened into stubs as they were seen as mere hindrances to speed.” He added that the appearance of many female Olympians was ‘pathetic’.

Women weightlifters are under the most scrutiny for their looks. British lifter Zoe Smith was bullied online after appearing in a documentary prior to the games. She responded with a poignant blog entry stating:

“The obvious choice of slander when talking about female weightlifting is “how unfeminine, girls shouldn’t be strong or have muscles, this is wrong”. And maybe they’re right… in the Victorian era. To think people still think like this is laughable, we’re in 2012! This may sound like a sweeping generalisation, but most of the people that do think like this seem to be chauvinistic, pigheaded blokes who feel emasculated by the fact that we, three small, fairly feminine girls, are stronger than them. Simple as that.”

Furthermore, weightlifter Sarah Robles, the strongest woman in America, lives in poverty in order to train for the Olympics. Unlike other athletes who get million dollar endorsements, Robles receives $400 a month from U.S.A weightlifting but struggles to fit in outside work around her training schedule. Her coach volunteers his time to train her and she gets discounted groceries and supplies from her community. Robles is not only a talented and dedicated athlete, she is beautiful even if she isn’t posing for the cover of magazines yet. Like so many women, sports have given her confidence in herself. In her own words she says, “I still have bad thoughts about myself, but I’ve learned that you have to love yourself the way you are. I may look like this, but I’m in the Olympics because of the way I am.”

Too Pretty?

And of course on the other end of the spectrum, female athletes are attacked for being too pretty as well. In a highly criticized article in the NY Times that was followed with an apologetic letter from the editor, Lolo Jones was attacked for her marketing campaign:

Still, Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim — to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.

Jere Longman writes. Furthermore he goes on to say:

Women have struggled for decades to be appreciated as athletes. For the first time at these Games, every competing nation has sent a female participant. But Jones is not assured enough with her hurdling or her compelling story of perseverance. So she has played into the persistent, demeaning notion that women are worthy as athletes only if they have sex appeal. And, too often, the news media have played right along with her.

Jones placed 4th in the 100 meter hurtles, beating her personal record which according to Fox News is still losing. Their headline reads, “Lolo Jones Can’t Win for Losing.” What, competing in the Olympics for the second time and beating a personal record is losing? I wonder if the writer of the article has ever competed in the Olympics?!


I hope that the fact that Time’s declaration of this years Olympic games as “Year of the Women” doesn’t mean we will stop making strides towards gender equality in professional sports. We have come a long ways as female athletes, but we still have a long ways to go. I am in awe of every single woman who has competed regardless of their “beauty,” “femininity” or country they represent. Every single one of them has done an outstanding job to represent women of the world.


Additional Resources: Top End Sports.

Photos provided by Creative Commons 2.0 by the following:
Featured Image by Ian Patterson
1900 Women’s Tennis is in Public Domain
Wojdan Shaherkani by Martin Hesketh
Zoe Smith by Londonyouthgames
Lolo Jones by KDSanders


Lisbeth Prifogle is a freelance writer, Marine officer, and globetrotter currently in San Diego, CA. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles and a BA from DePauw University. Lisbeth spent six months in Iraq and is working on a memoir about her experiences. She keeps a blog titled The Next Bold Move and her work can be found in the 11th issue of Poem Memoir Story, The Splinter Generation, and In the Know Travel. Lisbeth has had problems balancing hormones since she was a teenager and is constantly researching and exploring natural remedies including diet, exercise, and alternative medicines.


  1. I’m glad you pointed out that just making it to the Olympics is a feat. I’m saddened to hear so many forget that fact. For example, my grandmother was watching the games the other night and had commented about how disappointed she was that America kept losing. I had to point out that all these athletes are the best in what they do & coming to the olympics give them a chance to compete with others in their top category, globally. If that’s not considered as already winning, then I don’t even want to watch the games and listen to commenter’s who think the same way. I think way too much emphasis is put on how many medals our nation or that nation has brought home. To witness the human body undergo so much stress to complete a feat so great, that should be celebrated more.

    Going back to the gender testing, that’s beyond disturbing. Are we then to say that for every woman that has a hormonal imbalance, is then not worthy to compete? I understand that they now are arguing if she passes a make threshold, but what about conditions such as PCOS where you are generating more androgens? I know it’s an extreme ‘what if’ scenario, but let’s say you had one female athlete who had a severe case of this condition and her testosterone was all over the charts (which if you think about it, an athlete with potential wonky hormone levels is not far-fetched to begin with given the strenuous regimen) and so then it’s determined she wasn’t capable of qualifying because it didn’t fit someone’s standards of what the female body should possess? That just screams red flags all over to me. 1) You’re allowing someone else to determine your worth not necessarily as emotion, but just as your physical identity in the world, 2) This gives IOC the opportunity to raise or lower their threshold whenever they want which leaves potentially a lot of athletes in trouble for disqualification.

    Having a profession within the medical field doesn’t make you wordly of the human body. It sometimes just means you’re just really good at comparing your test results to a predetermined chart which from there you translate to the patient what type of condition they may have and follow an already written protocol of how to “fix,”

    Good article Libby, thanks for writing this!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. You bring up good points on the hormone testing. Nowhere in my research did anyone actually prove that women with higher levels of androgens actually increased their performance. The argument that men are more athletic solely because their different hormones is not really a valid reason, in my opinion at least.

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