After being postponed for a year, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are now in full swing. Although this year’s games are different due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still full of history making celebrations from some amazing female athletes. Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made history for winning the Philippines’s first Olympic gold medal. Japan’s Momiji Nishiya became the first gold medalist in the women’s street skateboarding event at just 13 years old. She is also Japan’s youngest gold medalist. Taking silver was Brazil’s 13-year-old skateboarding phenom Rayssa Leal, who is now Brazil’s youngest medalist in history. Winning gold in the gymnastics women’s individual all-around was USA’s Sunisa Lee. She is the first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic team and the fifth straight American woman to win gold in the women’s individual all-around.
In honor of these achievements, we take a look at some of the early women pioneers from the Paris 1900 Summer Olympic games, the first time women were allowed to compete in the Olympics. During these games, women were only allowed to compete in five sports: golf, lawn tennis, sailing, equestrianism, and croquet. Of the 997 athletes competing, 22 were women.
The games were stretched out over a six month period from May 14 to October 28, 1900. Taking place as part of the 1900 Paris Exposition, there was much confusion about schedules and events, with some athletes not even aware that they were competing in an Olympic event!
Hélène de Pourtalés
Image: Lérina / Wikimedia Commons
Amongst the first women to compete in the 1900 Summer Olympics was Hélène de Pourtalés, who represented Switzerland as a crew member of the Lérina. The Lérina won the gold medal in the first race of 1-2 ton class, making her the first female Olympic champion. Three days later, the Lérina placed second in a second race amongst that same class. For de Pourtalés, the Olympics was a family affair. Her husband, Hermann, served as helmsman and their nephew Bernard served as another crew member.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
English tennis player Charlotte Cooper became the first female Olympic tennis champion and the first individual female Olympic champion when she defeated Hélène Prévost in the final in straight sets. She also won gold for mixed doubles with Reginald Doherty as her partner after a straight-sets victory against Prévost and Harold Mahony. Interestingly, the pair had defeated Doherty’s brother, Laurence, and Marion Jones in the semifinals. The Olympics would not be the only titles under her belt. Considered to be one of the best tennis players in England, Cooper would also win five singles titles at the Wimbledon Championships during her career. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013.
Image: The Milwaukee Journal, January 24, 1902 / MyHeritage SuperSearch
Margaret Abbott was the first American woman to win an Olympic championship and she didn’t even know it. Abbott was born in Calcutta, India but raised in the United States. Her mother, Mary Abbott, was a writer and literary editor of The Chicago Harold. Both women were avid golfers and members of the Chicago Golf Club.
In Paris at the time, Abbott and her mother decided to sign up for a women’s golf tournament. Unbeknownst to them, the international tournament was actually the women’s Olympic golf tournament. The event was held at Compiègne, north of Paris and was limited to a nine-hole course. Abbott came in first with a score of 47 and was awarded with a “bowl of old Saxon porcelain mounted in chiseled gold.” Her mother came in seventh.
Image: New York Tribune, October 7, 1900 / MyHeritage SuperSearch
Abbott died in 1955 never knowing that she had won an Olympic event. It wasn’t until 80 years after the event that her role in Olympic history was uncovered.