Leveling the Playing Field: Women That Changed the History of Sport

Leveling the Playing Field: Women That Changed the History of Sport

Even as far back as the ancient Olympics, sports have been a traditionally male-dominated domain

The existence of female sports in a focused and organized fashion is only a relatively recent movement, starting back in the twentieth century. The first time women ever competed in the Olympics was back in the 1900 Games in Paris―just over 100 years ago.

The 1900 Olympic Games in Paris had over 997 athletes, with 22 of them being women. They made history as they competed across a range of sports, including tennis, croquet, and sailing. If you’re studying a sports journalism masters, researching the most influential women in sports, or just have a passion for sports history―these 22 women are where it all started. They laid the groundwork for women’s sports being mainstream today.

It was only in the 1928 Olympics that there was the first-ever international women’s track and field competition. The battle for achieving equality for women in sports, both in the US and on the world stage internationally, has been uphill for the past century. Even in the past decade, women in sports have had to face a variety of obstacles and challenges, despite the fact the sports industry has become more inclusive and gender-neutral.

From tennis to sprint and every other sport you can think of in between—here is our list celebrating some of the best and most influential women who have changed sporting history forever. These women have pushed for equality in sports through their actions, and athletic skills, breaking down boundaries in the industry.

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson was a professional tennis and golfer, and the first African-American tennis player to compete in the U.S. National Championships. Gibson was a pioneer in tennis, and across sport for breaking down racial barriers, as well as being a role model for so many women to come—including Billie Jean King and Serena Williams.

Gibson’s achievements go beyond just competing in the U.S. National Championships. She was also the first black athlete to claim a Grand Slam tournament—claiming 5 Grand Slam titles in singles. Gibson was also the first African-American member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LGPA).

Without Althea Gibson, women’s sports wouldn’t be where it was today. She was an influential player when it came to breaking down segregation in women’s sports and inspired generations to come.

Serena Williams

Coming hot off the success of Althea Gibson in the world of tennis is Serena Williams. Williams has said in interviews that Gibson was “the most important pioneer for tennis,” and “she was black, looked like me, and she opened up so many doors for the greatest players to come and continue to play.”

Serena Williams wouldn’t be here without Gibson paving the way, and now Williams is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. One of her biggest accomplishments includes ranking No. 1 in the world for 319 weeks.

Williams is also a winner of 4 Olympic gold medals, won 23 Grand Slam titles, and has completed the career “Golden Slam” by holding all 4 majors.

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Serena Williams is such an incredible example of how earlier athletes, like Althea Gibson, changed the history of sports forever. If it weren’t for athletes like Gibson creating opportunities and leveling the playing field, Williams’s sporting career wouldn’t have been possible.

Cathy Freeman

If you want to learn more about sports and Australia, Cathy Freeman is the name to remember. She was Australia’s greatest athletic star in the 1990s and 2000s. Freeman specialized in the 400-metre sprint, competing in multiple Olympic Games.

Cathy Freeman was the first Indigenous Australian person to become a Commonwealth Games gold medalist, which happened at 16 in 1990. Her career is important when looking at the history of sport, especially in the context of changing the field for women and Aboriginal Australians.

Since retiring, Cathay Freeman has started a not-for-profit organization known as the Community Spirit Foundation. The foundation’s programs aim to help support First Nations students around Australia, providing them with more opportunities, and working directly with elders and school leaders.

Alice Coachman

Overcoming segregation and inequality in women’s sports, Alice Coachman became the first black woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal. She is an American athlete, who left a strong legacy, and was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame.

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Along with other female athletes at the time, like Wilma Rudolph, Coachman is also attributed for the popularization for opening the door for future black and female athletes—especially in track and field.

Coachman’s first opportunity to compete on a global stage was in the 1948 Olympic Games in London, where she won the Olympic gold medal in high jump. Since her debut, most of the US women’s Olympic track and field team has consisted of mostly black women. Coachman’s success and legacy are seen even decades later, being a symbol for up-and-coming athletes across the United States and the world.

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph is a barrier-breaking symbol when it comes to sports. Despite being told she would never walk again after contracting polio as a child, she went on to popularize women’s track and go on to win multiple gold medals at the Olympics.

Rudolph claimed the title of fastest woman in the world in the 1960s after her performance in the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Rome, Italy. She was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games.

Due to 1960s Summer Olympic Games receiving worldwide television coverage, her achievements, and story led her to become an international star. She became a role model for black and female athletes across the world, and her success also helped elevate track and field in the United States.

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Hélène de Pourtalès

This list wouldn’t be complete without one of the first women who competed in the first Olympic Games that allowed female athletes, back in 1900. Hélène de Pourtalès was one of the first women to not only compete in the games but also earn an Olympic medal.

Hélène de Pourtalès competed in the 1-2 Ton class for sailing, along with her husband and nephew as part of the crew for the boat Lérina. The boat sailed in two races, receiving gold in the first, and silver in the second.

She was the first woman to ever compete in the Olympic Games, and the first woman to ever receive a gold medal. This would be the start of a massive shift for the sporting world and set up the road to equality for years to come.

The evolution of women in sports is a narrative of resilience and revolution. Icons like Althea Gibson, Serena Williams, Cathy Freeman, Alice Coachman, Wilma Rudolph, and Hélène de Pourtalès didn’t just compete; they transformed the sporting world. Their triumphs transcended personal achievements, challenging societal norms and paving the way for gender equality in sports. These women’s legacies represent more than athletic prowess; they symbolize a relentless fight for inclusivity, inspiring future generations to continue breaking barriers and promoting equality both on and off the field.

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