Women in the Summer Olympic Games, 1896-2008

By: Ava Paradise & Mikayla Bogart


We began this project with many questions about the factors that go into the Summer Olympic Games. As an international event that is known worldwide as a uniting force in society, we thought it would be interesting to explore the inner workings and truths about not only the trends and facts, but also about the concerns and social forces that guide its existence. With the limited data that we set out to analyze, we found compelling answers and realizations about specifically the role of women in the Olympic Games. We found answers to questions we had not foreseen and also struggled to make true sense of complicated data. However, because our question and focus on women in the Olympics has been a highly contested topic in our society, we eventually came to many conclusions and answers about the reasons women were not and are now included in the Olympic Games (to a certain extent, at least). The two main datasets that we used to analyze and visualize these questions were “Summer Olympic medalists 1896 to 2008” from The Guardian and a World Bank dataset on GDP per capita for countries across the globe. Analyzing both datasets allowed us to connect the facts about the participation and medalists of the Olympic Games, as well as dive deeper into the contexts for which they are based on. We found interesting conclusions on the gender makeup of the Olympic Games and hopefully offer insight into what we can learn from the past, and how it informs the future of not only the Olympics, but of gender equality around the world.

About the Data:

The Guardian: The Guardian is a British daily newspaper with two international website editions in Australia and the United States. We found our main dataset, “Summer Olympic medalists 1896 to 2008” on theguardian.com in a featured article that was visualizing the dataset. A journalist conducted their own study based on the extensive and complex dataset on the Summer Olympic medalists from all competing countries since its conception.

The World Bank: We used a dataset from The World Bank, which offers free and open access to data on development for countries around the world. We wanted to pair GDP levels with our data to see if there was a correlation between the medalists, country of origin, and that country’s’ GDP per capita. We found through extensive outside research that external factors such as GDP and literacy rates can be attributed to the participation and success of Olympians. Visualizing both sets in Tableau confirmed those beliefs.

Women and the Summer Olympic Games 1896-2008:

Sports are an activity unique to human beings. They are engraved in the culture of each country and serve as an opportunity for individuals to set and accomplish their own goals for the sheer satisfaction of winning. However, throughout the years, sports have become more than that. Sports now serve as a way to bring people together to share a common passion and support others. In 1896, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founded the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The Olympic games have now become the largest sporting event in the world with a purpose to promote peace and unity within the international community through the medium of sports. However, from its origination, the Olympic Games has facilitated a conversation about a major social issue, gender inequality, as it has once left out 51% of the human population: women. In this review of data on the medalists of the Olympic Games from 1896 to 2008, we will look at the history of women’s involvement in the summer Olympic Games and the trends and patterns we’ve found of the changing role of women in the Olympics worldwide.

Figure 1.1 is a general map of the participating countries with medal winners from the years 1896-2008. This map shows the range of countries and how all medals were distributed throughout the conception of the Summer Olympics. Countries like the United States, France and Germany have medalist number—in the 1,000s and higher—while nations like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria have numbers in the single digits. By knowing this simple fact, it is clear that many circumstances affect the number of medals won for participating countries. We will explore those external factors later, but it is important to notice the vast differences between many countries and medals won. By looking at the accompanying pie chart, we can better visualize the number of medals won by countries in relation to the others. The pie chart shows all countries in proportion to how many medals were won. We see that the top 5 countries that have won the most medals–including Bronze, Silver and Gold– as of 2008 are the United States with 4,335 medals, United Kingdom with 1,594, France with 1,314, Italy with 1,228, Germany with 1,211, and Australia with 1,075 medals. On the lower end of the spectrum we find twenty nations that are tied with 1 medal won. These nations include Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Niger, Senegal, Sudan and more. Nations with the largest amount of medals tend to come from western nations and bigger world powers. Nations that are smaller in size, and are not as developed are set at the lower end of the spectrum in terms of medals won.

This analysis of Figure 1.1 has not yet factored in gender, the main variable we are analyzing in this paper. When factored into the already disproportionate number of wins by certain nations, the presence of women medalists within those countries brings forth even more interesting analysis on the social and economic influences that affect the Summer Olympic games and how they have changed from 1896 to the present.

The first Olympic Games in 1896 explicitly excluded women from participating because the founder of the Olympic games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was not in favor of women’s involvement in sports. In the 1912 Olympic Review, Coubertin defined the Olympics as, “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, art for its setting and female applause as reward.” He believed that a woman’s sole purpose was to conceive many children of high quality and encourage them to excel in sports rather than participate themselves. (Anita L. DeFrantz, “The Changing Role of Women in the Olympic Games). But by the end of the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth century, industrialization and the impact of the social reform through the women’s movement changed the passive role of women to an active role, especially in sports.

Figure 1.2 shows a time series of the representation of both men and women medalists in the Summer Olympics from 1896-2008. Here, we can visualize the changing gender dynamics originating from the beginning of the Olympics to present-day. During the first Olympic games in 1896, there were no women medalists, due to the fact that women were not invited to the games, and 151 men. It begins in 1900 when women start to enter the Olympics, with the number of women medalists increasing until 2008 where the ratio between men and women is almost equal. This not only shows the progress that society has made with the inclusion of women in sports and world events, but it also highlights the process by which it occurred. Women were included in the Olympics but it happened incrementally according to Figure 1.2. From 1900 to 1924 the number of women medalists increased by only 40 participants. Relative to men which increased by 332 participants. It wasn’t until the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia where the ratio between female and male medalists started to level out with 1,126 men and 889 women and ultimately 1,110 men and 932 women in the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing, China. While the ratio of men to women has decreased, it is still not completely equal. This is due to many factors including the participation, or lack thereof of women in certain events which we will see in Figure 1.3.

The 1900s marked the beginning of social change for women in the Olympics. Women first took part in the Olympic Games in 1900 at the Games of the II Olympiad in Paris, four years after the first Olympic Games took place. In this Olympics, 22 women out of a total of 997 athletes competed in five sporting events: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian and golf. But only golf and tennis had events for women only (IOC 4). Figure 1.3, an interactive time series that shows the different sports in the Summer Olympics, the years they were introduced to the games and the ratio between men and women medalists is important in locating when women became predominant in the games and in what sports. Figure 1.4 can be observed along with Figure 1.3 as it is also an interactive time series that looks at specific countries and their ratios between men and women medals won. There are many significant time periods where women were included in certain sports during the Olympic games. By analyzing the trends over time of female participation in Figure 1.3, we can see how the climate of women’s involvement in the Summer Olympic Games has transitioned to be of more equal nature. However, we can also see that certain sports are still strictly male in representation and that even though women are a more fundamental part of the games, they are still not completely equal.

In 1904, archery was added for women during the St. Louis Olympic Games. Archery continued to include women through 1908, and tennis continued through 1924. Women also took part in yachting and figure skating at the 1908 Games. In 1912, the International Swimming Federation was the first to promote women’s involvement actively as it voted to include women in the swimming event. This opened the way for other international governing bodies to follow, but they followed extremely slowly (DeFrantz 20). Women continued to be excluded from other events such as track and field because members of the International Olympic Committee believed women were too frail to compete in long races, such as the 800-meter race.

In response to these exclusions, Alice Milliat of France established the Federation Sportive Feminine internationale (FSFI) in 1917 to oversee national women’s athletic competition and include international competition. This organization contributed to a major breakthrough for women’s participation in the Olympics as the FSFI started to gain popularity and recognition from the public and the men’s international governing body, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). 1912 marked the first time women were included in swimming events; however, women in the United States were not allowed to participate in events where their legs could not be covered up. Here, we see social implications that affect the participation of women athletes. The FSFI conducted the first Ladies Olympic Games in 1922 in Paris, and similar games took place every four years until 1934. In 1926, 10 countries competed in the Sweden Women’s World Games; then in 1930 17 countries competed in Czechoslovakia; and lastly in 1934, 19 countries competed in England (Hargreaves 1). The amount of women’s events rose from 5 to 15, with 19 countries participating (DeFrantz 20) The ladies’ games attracted attention from 25,000 spectators and because of such large crowds, it proved the success of women’s athletics leading the IAAF to want to take control of women’s affairs and push for Olympic recognition (Hargreaves 1). In 1984, women’s shooting events were introduced in the Olympic games which included three events: position rifle, air rifle and sport pistol.  In 1996, women’s softball was added to the lineup of sports, and marked the first all-women events (Figure 1.3). Badminton and Tennis were also the first sports to have mixed doubles events. Countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France and other Europeans countries were among the first to include women (Figure 1.4). In 2000, women were included in the weightlifting and in 2004, women’s wrestling (Figure 1.3).

While there are many conclusions that can be drawn by looking at specific sports women were included in and the years in which they were included, there are also external factors such as country size, GDP, culture and gender inequality indexes that can influence the number of female Olympic participants sent from each country, as well as the number of female participants who receive medals. In our data, we found correlations between these external factors and the number of female participants sent from each country. Since we cannot conclude that correlation equals causation, especially due to the fact that the number of medals won does not affect a countries’ GDP, we will examine the relationships and make educated inferences. First off, we found that country size positively correlates with the number of female participants who are sent from each country and win medals. Data from Figure 1.1 shows that the larger the country, for example, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany and Australia, the more participants, and specifically women participants are sent. Data from Figure 1.4 then shows that there were 1,215 female medalists from the United States, 258 from the UK, 111 from France, 362 from Germany and 428 from Australia.  Another external factor, GDP, influences female participation from a particular country. Figure 1.5 looks at the individual GDP per capita of competing countries from the years 1960-2014. Because our Olympic data only reaches 2008, that is what we focused on when drawing connections between the two variables. By analyzing the map in Figure 1.5, it is clear that countries in the West (including the United States and European nations) have the highest GDP per capita. By comparing this map to the other visualizations, those countries also have the highest number of medalists and participants in the Olympic Games. It is fair to draw the conclusion that countries with higher GDP per capita also have more resources to send individuals to the Olympics (Figure 1.5). These countries also have more social and economic freedoms including women’s rights. Because of these external sources, we can attribute the Summer Olympic Games to be a representation of the changes happening within certain countries on social, economic and political levels. Countries in the West have consistently had higher GDP per capita based on the data (Figure 1.5). Countries in the Middle East however have lower GDP per capita and less female medalists. This also has to do with Muslim society and their views of women. Based on our outside research, we found that this is another huge factor in the participation of women in the Summer Olympic Games and which needs further exploration.

According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, female success and inclusion are not only functions of a country’s size, wealth and host advantage, but also based on a more complex process involving the socioeconomic status of women and a country’s broad societal attitudes on gender issues. In this article they find that female labor participation and educational attainment are positively correlated with participation and outcomes (Noland 45). This claim is also supported from data obtained by the United Nations Human Development Report on Gender Inequality Indexes. When comparing our summer Olympics data to the Gender Inequality Index research, we found that the countries with the lowest Gender Inequality Index are the countries that send the most female participants. According to a SAGE article in the Journal of Sports Economics called “Guys and Gals Going for Gold: The Role of Women’s Empowerment in Olympic Success”, a study done by Johnson and Ali (2004) found that greater gender equality is consistently and significantly associated with both higher Olympic Participation and winning medals. They found that women not only experience positive effects from gender equality but greater equality is also associated with greater success for male athletes as they found that male athletes generally do less well in countries that are more unequal, even after controlling for variables such as GDP.

In terms of Gender Inequality Index, they found that countries with more gender inequality (GII values closer to 100) send fewer female participants than countries with more gender equality (GII values closer to 0) (Lowen 265). Gender Inequality Index is a key component here because it influences a country’s GDP and economic and educational development. Through an analysis of our data and research, it is fair to say that societies that incorporate women into the workforce more equitably tend to generate more resources and improve economic growth because gender equality allows women to feel empowered. This type of growth may not even be captured in a country’s GDP data because it can include expanded opportunities for recreational and personal pursuits such as elite athletic training and competition for the Olympics.

The Summer Olympic Games have made significant strides in gender equality and the inclusion of women since its conception in 1896 in Athens. A limitation of our dataset was that it did not include the most recent Olympic Games, the 2012 London Olympics which marked a turning point for gender equality in sport around the world. However, even with these great strides, the Olympic games are still not completely equal among men and women. It is important to look at the external factors that might effect certain countries participation and inclusion of women. For example, social and religious limitations of Middle Eastern countries have inhibited many female participants from being allowed to compete. The lack of resources from smaller nations with lower GDP per capita also presents constraints, which effects the amount of medals won. And larger, more powerful nations continue to be the leaders in the Olympic Games. Our dataset gave us insight into the true relationship between men and women in the Olympics, how women’s involvement came to be, and how we may think about the future of women in the Olympics.

Works Cited

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