At the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, women were finally allowed to take part in athletics events. There were five of them: the 100m, the 4x100m relay, the high jump, the discus and the 800m – the latter being a very special case. To understand why women had to wait until the Games of the IX Olympiad to take part in this sport, but also in gymnastics, we asked Richard Budgett, the IOC’s Medical and Scientific Director and an Olympic rowing champion in 1984.
“At the start, over 100 years ago, ideas about society and medicine were very different from today,” he explains. “This was particularly true in the social environment of the aristocratic elite who practised gentlemen’s sport, with women having to be protected because they were delicate. There were also the notions of chivalry, gallantry, etc. That was how things were seen in these circles. The same was true of Pierre de Coubertin and the IOC members.”
“And the medical profession was wrong as well,” he adds, “believing that physical exercise was dangerous for women, and that too much effort would harm their reproductive functions. Sport was for everyone, certainly, and Baron de Coubertin himself encouraged women to practise it; but there was this idea that competition and intense efforts were not for women… Which is totally wrong, of course. Then there were more progressive voices in the IOC in the 1920s, and this led to women being included in several sports.”
A superb 800m final won by Lina Radke, but…
America’s Betty Robinson was the first female Olympic 100m champion, with Canada winning the women’s 4x100m relay. Another Canadian, Ethel Catherwood, won the first high jump competition, while Poland’s Halina Konopacka won the discus. And on 2 August 1928, with the stands packed in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium, it was time for the women’s 800m final.
The best time in the heats and the first Olympic record were set by Germany’s Marie Dollinger. There were nine women in the final. The race produced some extraordinary tactics by the runners as they sought to take the lead. The 25-year-old German, Lina Radke, produced what would be the decisive movement by taking the lead and opening up an eight-metre gap on the back straight of the last lap.
Trained by her husband, she glanced over her shoulder several times as she approached the finish line but nobody could catch her, despite the last-ditch efforts of Japan’s Kinue Hitomi and Sweden’s Inga Gentzel, who had to settle for silver and bronze. Radke beat the world record with 2:16.9, but it was the obvious signs of extreme fatigue among the other competitors which made the front pages of the newspapers.
Anita DeFrantz: “Fabricated facts…”
IOC Vice-President Anita DeFrantz told the story in the July 1997 issue of the Olympic Review: “At the centre of the 1928 controversy was the women's 800-metre run. The administrators, members of the IOC and the media apparently had decided that women were too frail to compete in a race as long as 800 metres. As a result, the reports from the 1928 Games not only distorted the results of that race, but in some cases completely fabricated facts to support their viewpoint. The tragic result was that the event was removed from the Olympic programme and was not reinstated until 1960.
“John Tunis, a prominent sportswriter of the day, portrayed the 800-metre event as follows: ‘Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape.’ Unfortunately for Mr Tunis, the camera and motion pictures had been invented by 1928. Photographs and film, as well as Olympic Games records, clearly indicate that only nine women started the race, not 11. Furthermore, all nine of the women finished the race. The winner, Lina Radke of Germany, set a world record. She and a few of the other competitors were understandably spent after racing at a world-record pace. Some of them lay down beside the track, but none of them dropped out or collapsed from exhaustion.
“And yet, members of the press chose to write what would suit the purpose of the male-dominated administration, and effectively prevented women from competing in any race longer than 200 metres in the Olympic Games for the next 32 years.”
Richard Budgett: “Women have more endurance than men”
For his part, Budgett notes: “The fake facts, the medical profession’s anxiety were linked to the supposed danger of long-distance races for women. We know that everyone can collapse exhausted. If it happens during the race, that is cause for concern; but if it’s at the end, that’s perfectly normal after a huge effort. It was a misinterpretation of the vulnerability of women by the medical profession. We have since realised that women can take part in this kind of competition perfectly safely. Now we know that, like men, women can train hard if they eat and recover properly. There are no longer any restrictions in any sport. And today we’ve almost reached total parity. It’s taken a long time!”
Radke was thus Germany’s first female Olympic athletics champion, and the only 800-metre gold medallist until the Soviet Union’s Ludmila Shevtsova won her race at the 1960 Games in Rome.
But it was not until 1984 and the gold medal for America’s Joan Benoit that women could run the marathon at the Games. As Budgett concludes: “We now know that women have greater endurance than men, especially over very long distances. They are not as strong, but that has nothing to do with judging whether it is appropriate or dangerous to practise an endurance sport. And that applies to contact sports, too! Women used not to play rugby. And today, as we saw at the 2016 Games in Rio, it’s fantastic to watch!”