International Women’s Day – female Olympic athletes who changed the game

From Serena Williams to Yusra Mardini: Find out more about the women who broke barriers and inspired the world.

By Ekaterina Kuznetsova

Take a look at these inspiring women who’ve contributed to the Olympic movement and beyond.

Not only do they break barriers within sport but they also help to tackle stigmas on what women can do. Their strength and determination serves as an example to women all over the world.

But what lessons do they teach us?

Serena Williams – Wind of Change

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Serena Williams' reputation has surpassed the remits of tennis- she has become an icon for women all over the world.

The four-time Olympic champion wore a catsuit upon returning to Grand Slam tennis but the new dress code wasn't taken well by officials and she was told that the players "must respect the game and the place."

But Serena stood firm with her decision to wear what she wants for a sporting match. Williams told Reuters that the catsuit is practical and helps her with blood clots. “It’s a fun suit, but it’s also functional so I can be able to play without any problems.”

Serena Williams during the 2018 French Open

Under the WTA's new rules, as of 2019 a player's ranking freezes in the event of injury, illness or pregnancy. As part of the modifications, players returning from pregnancy or long-term injury will be able to use their special ranking at additional tournaments and for seeding purposes. For pregnancy, that time period now begins at the birth of the child, and players can use that special ranking for three years.

These changes, the organisation says, will make it easier for women who want to start a family to return to competition. Williams took a break when she was ranked No. 1 in the world but when she returned to play in March after giving birth to her daughter, she was unseeded at both Indian Wells and Miami, losing early in both tournaments. “I think having gone through the experience myself really opened my eyes up to me and, would I have done it sooner had there been different rule changes? I don't know," Williams told CNN.

Williams shares her views openly on many issues, including breastfeeding.

Ramla Ali – Hit Like a Girl

Ali moved to England from Somalia as a war refugee. She won the 2015 Novice National Championships and then the 2016 England Boxing Elite National Championship. For a long time her family didn’t know she was boxing and her parents didn’t even know when she won the national title! Being the first Muslim boxing champion was not exactly the future Ramla’s parents had imagined for her.

‘“My mum… in her eyes to be a good Muslim girl you have to be fully covered. But I think just different things work for different people. It was the fear of community my mother had. For her it would mostly be: ‘What would people think?’”

She started boxing by chance, as a result of feeling overweight and being bullied at school.

“I started going to the gym. Back then there was no Instagram to tell you that these are workouts you should do so you just kind of had to guess what you are doing and to me it wasn’t fun as a kid. I did boxing class and I was like: ‘Wow, this is amazing, I love it.’” – shares Ramla on the Olympic Channel Podcast.

“I didn’t have friends in school, but I made friends in boxing. It gave me community, it gave me a second family.”

Raising awareness for the Somali community as well as raising awareness for sport and women in Africa, she hits like a girl. Listen to Ramla’s story on how boxing changed her life and what her mother’s reaction was after she found out what her daughter was up to.

Ibtihaj Muhammad - Breaking New Ground

The American fencer has been a trailblazer for Muslim women in sport.

At Rio 2016 the Team Sabre bronze medallist became the first US athlete to wear a hijab at the Olympics and one year later she had a Barbie designed after her.

Time Magazine has named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2016. The 33-year-old has become a public speaker and serves as a sports ambassador with the U.S. Department of State's Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative.

In 2018 she released her debut memoir 'PROUD: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream' and openly voices her opinion on social media.

Chloe Anderson – Be Who You Are

In 2016 the International Olympic Committee advised that transgender athletes can compete without undergoing surgery. This made history in the sports world.

While Chloe Anderson made her own history, becoming the first transgender athlete on the inaugural sand volleyball team in the University of Santa Cruz in the US, finding her place in life was not easy. But as Chloe reveals in “Identify” the documentary, she “finally became the person she always wanted to be.”

"I always wanted to be feminine, I always wanted to be a girl. I realized what I was feeling was being transgender."

To find out how Chloe embraced her identity and found the courage to live her best life, check out our exclusive series.

Kristina Vogel – Never Give Up

The German cyclist was in a training accident four months after she became World Champion for the 11th time. Her acceptance of her condition won the respect of many but it’s her lack of anger which is most surprising.

“I don’t need to forgive (the person with whom I collided) because I have no anger about him,” Vogel said on the Olympic Channel Podcast.

Vogel’s absence is a huge loss for Germany.

“One of the things that hurts me the most is that I am not there for the people.”

But the two-time Olympic Champion remains optimistic about being on-hand to give advice to teammates who may need it in Japan.

“I think I will travel to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. I’m not a competing athlete. But I am not away from the world of cycling.”

Marit Bjorgen – Be the Best

Marit Bjorgen is now a retired Norwegian cross-country skier but her name will always have a significant place in the world of skiing as well as in Olympic history.

She grabbed a record 15th Winter Olympics medal, winning the 30km cross country event, which saw Norway win the most medals at PyeongChang2018. With all of her Olympic accomplishments, she became the most successful Winter Games competitor of all time (and that’s not even counting her numerous World Cup wins). Bjorgen is also the second most successful woman at either the Summer or Winter Games, trailing only Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina with 18 medals.

"You have been a source of inspiration and a role model, you made us jump with joy and scream with excitement," former Norwegian Prime Minister and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on his Twitter account.

If excellence had a name, it would be Marit Bjorgen. Relive her historic gold medal moment here.

Yusra Mardini – Courage Has No Age

At only twenty years old she has already left her mark in the history of sports and human rights. Syrian refugee and swimmer Yusra Mardini was given a standing ovation at the Rio 2016 Games just one year after helping a sinking boat carrying refugees in the Mediterranean to safety.

Yusra shared her incredible story in a book called ‘Butterfly’ and soon a movie will be released about this young inspirational swimmer. The film will tell the true story of Mardini, who fled Syria in 2015, traveling first to Lebanon and then to Turkey where her family took a small boat intended for the Greek island Lesbos. During the journey the boat’s motor failed, prompting Mardini and her younger sister Sara to get into the sea and swim the boat to safety, a grueling endeavor which took more than three hours. Mardini, her sister, and her parents eventually reached Germany where she could get back to training.

Later she became a member of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team, and was then appointed as the youngest ever UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. Her determination to make the world a better place teaches us that courage transcends the boundaries of age. You can listen to the whole story on the #OlympicChannelPodcast where Yusra redefines the word ‘refugee’:

50 per cent – Paving the way for equality

Did you know that the number of female athletes at the Olympic Games is approaching 50 per cent?

Since 2012, women have participated in every Olympic sport at the Games and all new sports to be included in the Games must now contain women’s events. The IOC has increased the number of women’s events on the Olympic programme with the aim of fostering gender equality. Encouraging women’s involvement in sport is a priority set by the Olympic Agenda for Tokyo 2020.

Over the last year, the IOC has picked up the pace in advancing gender equality not just at the Games but also throughout the Olympic Movement and beyond. The Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Buenos Aires 2018 became the first IOC event with an even split of men and women.

Change takes time, but it is happening.

Olympic Channel invites you to the exclusive party for International Women’s Day 2019.

Just go to the Olympic Channel on the 8th of March and join us celebrating outstanding Olympians all day long. Simone Biles, Lindsey Vonn, Yuna Kim and more Olympians who will show you their power, speed and resilience.

Women's Marathon is something you don’t want to miss!


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