IWD: Celebrating the growth of women in sport

Today marks International Women’s Day 2021. Its aim is to celebrate women’s achievements and increasing visibility, while calling out inequality. In the sporting world, the mission if IWD is to celebrate women athletes and applaud when equality is achieved in pay, sponsorship, and visibility.

History of women in sport

Women’s sport can be traced back to the 6th Century B.C.. The ancient Olympic Greek games were initially organised to honor the 12 Olympian Gods of Greece, 5 of which were women (Hera, Athena, Artemis, Demeter, and Aphrodite). Whilst the Greek government banned all women from participating in the games, the 5 female Greek gods formed their own competition – ‘The Heraean Games’. The competition consisted of one event annually; However, was formed to allow women to compete in sport.

Fast forward to the 19th Century, women in sport began to grow. As a tribute to the women who have contributed to, grown and defined excellence in the sport, we celebrate some of the incredible women who helped shaped todays sporting world, despite the many obstacles faced.

1902: Madge Syers - The first woman to compete at the Ice Skating World Championships, where she beat two men to take the silver medal in 1902. This prompted a separate ladies' championship to be created and the London-born skater went on to win the first Olympic gold in the event in 1908.

1917: Dick, Kerr Ladies - Formed by munitions factory workers in 1917 to raise money for wounded soldiers, the Preston-based female football team ended up gaining a huge following. They played in front of 53,000 people at Everton's Goodison Park and took part in the first women's international game against a France XI. The Football Association banned women from playing in 1921 but they continued to play across the world, going more than 200 games without defeat.

1926: Gertrude Ederle - The first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1926. The American was 20 when she completed the feat in 14 hours and 30 minutes to beat the men's record by more than two hours. During some of the hardest moments of her swim, when her trainer tried to get her to give up, she said: "I'd just look at him and say, 'What for?'."

1948: Fanny Blankers-Koen - At the age of 30, the Dutch mother-of-two became the first female athlete to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, in London in 1948. The sprinter set 20 world records during her career.

1956: Althea Gibson - The first black Grand Slam winner in tennis. She won the French Open in 1956, followed by Wimbledon and the US Open the following year. She made more history in the 1960s by becoming the first African-American competitor on the women's pro golf tour.

1967: Kathrine Switzer - The first woman to run in an official marathon in 1967 in Boston. At a time when marathons were considered too far for women to run, German Switzer disguised her identity on her application in order to receive a race number. Race official Jock Semple attempted to wrestle the number off her but he was tackled by Switzer's boyfriend and she went on to finish the race.

1967: Beryl Burton - During her cycling career, Leeds' Burton won more than 90 domestic championships as well as seven world titles. Among her many achievements, she broke the women's and men's 12-hour time trial record in 1967, recording 277.25 miles.

1973: Billie Jean King - Considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time, American King won 39 Grand Slam titles in singles and doubles competitions. The founder of the Women's Tennis Association is a vocal advocate for gender equality and campaigned for equal prize money during her playing career. She famously beat former world number one Bobby Riggs in the 'Battle of the Sexes' exhibition match in 1973.

1975: Junko Tabei - The Japanese mountaineer was a 35-year-old mother of two when she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1975. She was also the first female to climb the highest peak on all seven continents.

1976: Nadia Comaneci - The first gymnast to achieve a 'perfect' 10 at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976. The Romanian's first 10 came on the uneven bars, and she went on to achieve six more on her way to three golds and a bronze at the Games.

1980: Mary Decker - The first woman to run a mile in under 4.5 seconds.

1991: USA Women - In 1991, the first Women's World Cup was played in China. The USA took their first of three titles with a 2-1 win over Norway. They remain the world number one side.

1999: Carolina Morace - In 1999, the first woman was appointed to coach a men's professional football team in Italy.

2014: Amelie Mauresmo - In 2014, the French tennis coach became the first female to coach an elite male tennis player, Andy Murray.

2019: Serena Williams - In 2019, the athlete became the only woman in Forbes list of top 100 highest paid athletes in the world.

2020: Naomi Osaka - Not long after, elite tennis champion, Osaka, also became one of the highest paid athletes in the world alongside Williams.

Growth of women’s sport

Women’s sport has started to thrive even without fully funded systems and infrastructure. The continual growth of the women’s game has resulted in a massive increase in exposure over the last decade resulting in increased participation, the interest of larger sponsorships, and improvements surrounding the inequalities in sport.

A few achievements to celebrate:

  • The Olympic Games were once only for male athletes. In 2016, the Rio Olympic Games set a record for the number of participation of women in the event. 5,176 out of the 11,444 athletes competing at the games were female.

  • The FIFA Women’s World Cup in France 2019 was the 8th Women’s World Cup. The final between the United States and Netherlands was recorded as the most watched match in the Women’s World Cup history, up by 56% compared to the 2015 final, receiving an average live audience of over 82 million.

  • Tennis is another major sport which has seen incredible growth in the women’s game. Ticket sales for the women’s singles final of the 2015 US Open sold out faster than the men’s game, a first in tournament history. Not only this, but Tennis stars Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams are the highest-paid female athletes.

Although the obstacles faced by women in sport won't disappear overnight, things are moving in the right direction. And Sporting Her are here to do our part in supporting women and girls in sport the best that we can!


Thanks for reading 💚

Follow Sporting Her on social media, links below: