Picture by 2016 Getty Images

International Women's Day 2021: Seven iconic female Olympic medal firsts

On International Women's Day, we celebrate these seven iconic women's medal firsts in Olympic Games history.
By ZK Goh

International Women's Day falls on 8 March every year, and to mark the occasion, Olympic Channel has selected seven iconic Olympic medal firsts achieved by women that you should know about.

This is by no means an exhaustive list – many successful female Olympians have set records and firsts in their own right, whether that be in their sport or for their country.

What all of them have in common, aside from being female, is their achievements have left a lasting mark on their sport, country, community, or sometimes even continent.

The seven athletes are listed below in chronological order of their achievement.

Stay tuned to Olympic Channel throughout the month for more International Women's Day specials.

Nawal El Moutawakel (Morocco), athletics, Los Angeles 1984

El Moutawakel's triumph in the 400m hurdles in 1984 made her not only the first female Olympic champion in that event, which was making its debut, but also the first Arab Muslim African woman to win an individual Olympic event.

It was something of a shock win; the Iowa State University student had only recorded the 12th-fastest time in reaching the semi-finals of the World Championships the year prior.

Yet, she ran a new personal best by half a second in Los Angeles, winning Morocco's first Olympic gold medal and, at that time, just their second ever medal.

It was a triumph that led to her receiving a congratulatory phone call from the country's king.

Her win inspired other Arab women; Algeria's Hassiba Boulmerka went on to win the 1500m at Barcelona 1992 while Syria's Ghada Shouaa became the heptathlon champion at Atlanta 1996.

Now a member of the IOC Executive Board, she continues to push for gender equality.

Derartu Tulu (Ethiopia), athletics, Barcelona 1992

Tulu, who was 21 in Barcelona, was the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

The Ethiopian grew up in a farming family in Bekoji, a village that has also produced Kenenisa Bekele. In Barcelona, she stunned the world by clinching gold in the 10,000m race.

While she wasn't the first black woman to win Olympic gold – U.S. high jumper Alice Coachman had done so at London 1948 – what was notable and symbolic about Tulu's win was, perhaps, the circumstances surrounding her victory over silver medallist Elana Meyer of South Africa.

They had matched each other nearly lap for lap until Tulu pulled away with one lap to go, crossing the line in a personal-best time.

Meyer, a white South African, embraced the first black African female champion and the pair took a victory lap together. It was South Africa's first Olympic Games after its ban due to Apartheid, and the gesture was a strong symbol of friendship and anti-discrimination.

Speaking to the BBC in 2017, she said: "Because I didn't speak English at the time, I didn't understand what she (Meyer) was saying to me. I only spoke to her in signs. Since then, we have gotten to know each other and after I studied some English, we even started calling each other.

"We became friends and she's the woman I admire most."

Tulu went on to defend her title at Sydney 2000 – the first woman to win the 10,000m twice in a row – and won bronze in 2004 after having given birth to her first child.

She was also a noted cross-country runner and marathoner, winning the London, Tokyo, and New York City Marathons during her career.

"After I won gold in Barcelona, many women runners started thinking that it is possible to win big competitions."

Those women runners include three of her relatives – the Dibaba sisters, who between them have won six Olympic medals including three golds for Tirunesh Dibaba.

Icho Kaori (Japan), wrestling, Athens 2004 – Rio 2016

Winning an Olympic gold medal is impressive. Winning four even more so. Winning four in a row at four different Games in individual events?

Icho has done exactly that in the middleweight (three golds) and lightweight freestyle wrestling categories, beginning in Athens in 2004. And she's not done yet.

Her triumph in Rio, having moved from 63 kg to the 58 kg class, made her the first woman in any sport to win gold medals in individual events at four consecutive Olympic Games. Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst would repeat this feat at PyeongChang 2018 to become the first female Winter Olympian to do so.

The only other women to have won golds at four Games in a row all did so with at least one of their gold medals coming in a doubles or team event.

Yuna Kim (South Korea), figure skating, Vancouver 2010

Kim became the first figure skater from her country to win a medal when she won gold at Vancouver 2010.

Even before the Olympics, Kim was already wildly popular in South Korea, especially after her 2009 World Championships win.

Japan's Asada Mao – the 2008 world champion – was also hotly favoured to challenge for gold, and Kim had the added pressure of bearing the weight of the Japanese-Korean historic rivalry.

However, Kim skated perhaps the best routines of her life, setting scoring records that would stand for some six (free skate) to seven years (total score).

She remains one of her country's highest-paid athletes, even in retirement, and was the final torchbearer, and Olympic cauldron lighter, at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.

Kim also stays involved with her sport, running the 'All That Skate' annual exhibition alongside her mother.

Nicola Adams (Great Britain), boxing, London 2012

When women's boxing was approved to join the Olympic programme in time for the London Games, all eyes were on the host nation Great Britain and its long history of successful amateur boxers.

Adams, then the reigning EU and European amateur champion in her under-51 kg weight class, immediately became the home country's big hope to win the first women's gold.

And she did it in style, beating three-time world champion Ren Cancan of China in the final in front of 16,000 delirious fans.

Four years later in Rio she successfully defended her title, becoming the first British boxer to do so at an Olympics in 92 years and also the first female boxer to do so.

She retired from the sport in November 2019 for medical reasons, and has since done media punditry work, including for the Olympic Channel.

Mariana Pajón (Colombia), BMX racing, London 2012 – Rio 2016

Only one Colombian, male or female, has won more than one Olympic gold medal: Pajón.

She achieved the feat when she successfully defended her London Olympics BMX racing title in Rio, an impressive achievement in a notoriously unpredictable sport.

Speaking to the Olympic Channel last year, she explained: "The sport is very extreme and it's a lot of trial and error."

Pajón's success has also paved the way for young girls in Colombia to take up the sport.

"I'm a girl who joined a sport in which there were no girls; I opened the path so others could be there and had the chance of dreaming of becoming bikers," she said.

While injuries – some serious, leading her to consider retirement – affected her after Rio, she made a successful comeback to the UCI BMX World Cup circuit in 2019.

Simone Biles (United States), artistic gymnastics, Rio 2016

Biles is now considered perhaps gymnastics' greatest of all time, but at Rio 2016 she made Olympic history becoming the first non-European women's gymnast to win four golds at a single Games.

In Brazil, she just the fifth woman to reach that four-gold plateau at a single Games.

However, the previous four – Larisa Latynina (Soviet Union) and Agnes Keleti (Hungary) in 1956, Vera Caslavska (Czechoslovakia) in 1968, and Ecaterina Szabo (Romania) in 1984 – all represented the traditional gymnastics powerhouses of Eastern Europe.

Biles' achievement also makes her one of only four American women to win at least four golds at one Olympic Games, along with swimmers Amy van Dyken (1996), Missy Franklin (2012), and Katie Ledecky (2016).

Since Rio, she has become the top-medalling gymnast – male or female – in Artistic Gymnastics World Championships history, having won her 25th World medal in Stuttgart in 2019.

In Tokyo, she could pass the all-time record for medals won at the Worlds and Olympics combined. She currently has 30, three fewer than Vitaly Scherbo.