Reference Entry

Olympic Games and Amateur Sports, Participation in

Pam Gill-Fisher

in Black Women in America, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195156775
Olympic Games and Amateur Sports, Participation in

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The history of black women's participation in the modern Olympics is one of struggle and discrimination. The founders of the modern Olympics in 1896 had no intention of women—white or black—being full participants in the games. Following societal norms at the time, a woman's role was to be supportive of men, not to compete alongside them.White Women's Participation in the Olympic GamesThe first Olympics in 1896 had no women competitors, even though one woman, Melpomene, tried to enter the marathon. She was refused but ran unofficially and finished the last lap outside the stadium by herself. The 1900 Olympics had nineteen women participants in three events—golf, lawn tennis, and croquet. Margaret Abbott became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she won the golf competition. An art student in Paris, Abbott won with a score of forty-seven over nine holes.In 1904, at the third Olympic Games, women were allowed to compete in archery. By 1908 the number of female athletes increased to 36, compared to 1,999 male competitors. Madge Syers became the first woman figure skater to win the gold medal in the 1908 games. Two additional sports, swimming and diving, became Olympic events in 1912, and 57 women from 11 nations competed. won an Olympic gold medal at age fifteen, in the games of 1952 at Helsinki. She was on a relay team led by Mae Faggs. Courtesy of Tennessee State UniversityIn a move that set back the efforts of American sportswomen, the United States Olympic Committee voted in 1914 to formally oppose women's athletic participation in the Olympic Games. The floor exercise portion of the gymnastics competition was the only exception, and women were required to wear long skirts. At the same time, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), in contrast to the United States Olympic Committee, sponsored its first swimming championships and allowed women to register and compete.The 1916 Olympics were cancelled due to World War I. At that time, no African Americans—male or female—had ever competed in the Olympic Games. It would take societal change to open the doors for blacks—especially black women—to compete in sports at the highest levels.During the war, the United States government found that too many American soldiers were not physically fit. To address the issue, the government began to sponsor sports programs for the general population and created organizations such as the National Amateur Athletic Foundation (NAAF). The NAAF established various divisions with different missions for men and women. The Women's Division emphasized fitness while denouncing competition for women. With more and more women interested in fitness, facilities intended for women's use were needed. To meet that need, the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) emerged to establish facilities for women across the United States in public parks and schools.Black Women's Participation in the Olympic GamesDespite disparities in Olympic competition caused by World War I and the U.S. ban on female participation, women's events were added to the 1920 Olympics, and American women gained full status. However, it was not until the 1924 Olympics that African American men went to the games. The first African American women did not compete until 1932. Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes were the first African American women to qualify for the United States Olympic team. While they qualified as members of the 400-meter relay team, they were replaced in the race with white runners whom they had beaten in previous competition. Undaunted, Pickett qualified again in 1936 but was once again replaced in the race by a white woman.In the early decades of the twentieth century, black women were able to make their greatest progress in track and field due to support from the Amateur Athletic Union and black colleges such as Tuskegee Institute and Tennessee State University. Major Cleveland Abbott was the coach of Tuskegee's program and the primary reason for its success. He provided training for black women athletes at the collegiate level that was unique for the time. Abbott did not subscribe to the notion that women were the “weaker sex”; instead he believed that women should be physically active. Major Abbot's daughter Jessie left Tuskegee and became the track coach at Tennessee State. Using her father's ideas, she turned the Tigerbelles into one of the most successful programs ever.In 1939 Alice Coachman (who was trained at Tuskegee) won the first of her ten national high jump titles. In 1946 she became the first African American woman to become a member of the United States All-American Track and Field Team. By 1948 nine of the twelve members of the women's Olympic track team were black. As a member of that team, Coachman became the first African American female to win an Olympic medal and the first to win an Olympic gold medal when she won the high jump. Additionally, Audrey Patterson (who trained at Tennessee State) won a bronze medal in the 200 meters. Though segregation was still an instrumental part of American society, President Harry Truman invited Coachman to the White House when the games were over. In 1956, Nell Jackson, a 1948 Olympian, became the first woman and first African American woman to be named an Olympic track and field coach.After the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, in which African American women showcased their skills, determination, and grace, female African American athletes began to set new standards of excellence within amateur sports. Wilma Rudolph first participated in the 1956 Olympics. However, it was not until the 1960 games that she attained legendary status by becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. Earlene Brown, Mae Faggs, Willye White, and Mildred McDaniel also earned Olympic fame with medal performances that year. In 1961 Rudolph received the Amateur Athletic Union's James Sullivan Award as the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.At the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Wyomia Tyus and Willye White excelled in track and field. White became the first American woman to compete on five Olympic track and field teams. She was also a member of thirty-nine international teams and held the American record in the long jump for sixteen years. Tyus left her mark on the Tokyo and Mexico City Games when she became the first woman to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 100-meter dash.In the years following Mexico City, black women athletes continued to compete in—and succeed in—the Olympic Games. Track and field continued to draw top athletes, including such standouts as Evelyn Ashford, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Gail Devers, and Marian Jones. However, black women also established themselves in other Olympic sports. Women such as Cheryl Miller and Cynthia Cooper, Ruthie Bolton, Brianna Scurry, and Venus and Serena Williams won Olympic medals in their sports.Title IX's ImpactParticipation expanded greatly over the last three decades of the twentieth century for black women—and women in general—due to Title IX, federal legislation that required equal opportunity for women at the high school, collegiate, and Olympic levels. Congress passed Title IX as a part of the Education Amendments of 1972. This legislation stated that, “No person in the United States, shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any education program or activities receiving federal financial assistance.”When President Richard Nixon signed the act, 31,000 women were involved in collegiate sports; spending for athletic scholarships was less than $100 thousand, and the average number of sports offered by colleges for women was 2.1. There were a total of 817,073 girls participating in high school sports. The landmark legislation, combined with Billie Jean King's win over Bobby Riggs in the widely viewed “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973, connected women's sports to the women's rights movement. The two historic events led to more women demanding equal opportunity, equal treatment, and equal pay in the sports world.The 1980s saw tremendous growth in the total number of girls and women participating in all levels of sport. By 1999, 7.5 million girls were playing soccer in the United States. Not surprisingly, the 2000 Olympics added sixteen women's sports and had the highest number of female participants ever. In fact, women composed 42 percent of the total competitors at the Sydney Summer Games in 2000 and 50 percent at the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002. In Sydney, women competed in the same number of team sports as men for the first time in Olympic history. By 2001, there were 2,784,154 girls participating in high school sports, while college participation grew to 150,916.Title IX unequivocally increased opportunities for black girls and women. The increased number of athletic grants-in-aid (athletic scholarships) awarded to women also allowed more to attend college and reach their academic and athletic potential. Title IX created these new opportunities; unless the law is diminished by congressional or presidential action, the number of black women taking advantage of those opportunities will continue to increase.See also Sports and Track and Field.

Reference Entry.  1578 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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