Feature: the impact of Olympic inclusion on women’s rowing
The London 2012 Olympic Games was considered by some to be the Games when women’s sport truly came into its own.
It was also the first Olympics – due to the introduction of women’s boxing – where all sports had both a male and female equivalent.
The support for women’s events was evident at the Olympic rowing regatta course in Eton Dorney. In front of the predominantly British crowd women’s races like the pair and double sculls were obvious crowd-pleasers.
There is little doubt that the inclusion of women’s rowing events in the Olympic Games benefited women rowers immensely and truly launched it as an elite event. Women’s rowing became part of the Olympic programme in 1976 at Montreal and its inclusion meant that national rowing federations from around the world had a concrete reason to support the women’s events.
The addition of women’s rowing to the Olympic programme was a gradual process and amongst the Olympic sports, women’s rowing, compared to other women’s events, was in the middle of the bunch. Tennis and golf headed the way with women first able to participate at the 1900 Olympics. Then at each subsequent summer Games one or two women’s disciplines were added.
According to Amanda Nicole Schweinbenz, a Canadian feminist theorist, the gradual rate of introduction of women’s sports events was to an extent due to “the socially constructed divisions between the genders, forcing the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the IFs (International Federations) to go to great lengths to modify the events in order to maintain the perceived femininity of female participants.”
The importance of maintaining femininity meant that the women’s sports that were added early on were chosen because they were seen as events where women could retain their femininity in their sport.
Following World War II the Eastern Bloc nations saw sport as a way of expressing their dominance and in these nations, according to Schweinbenz, women’s competitive sport was widely encouraged with females having the same access to resources and financial support as their male counterparts. At the same time, however, female athletes in the West still struggled to achieve equitable access to facilities, equipment, coaching, and financial support.
In the Eastern Bloc female athletes were used as a political tool to strengthen the Eastern Bloc’s influence on the international sport scene (Pfister, 2001). Elite women’s rowing was part of this strengthening.
An East German sports official, Otto Schmidt, noted that “while other nations can produce men’s teams as good as, if not better than ours, we beat them overall because they are not tapping the full potential of their women.” (Riordan and Cantelon).
Great Britain’s top women’s single sculler in the 1960s, Penny Chuter, says she was left to her own devices in her pursuit of rowing racing and often travelled to the Eastern Bloc just so she could compete.
“Because I was good enough to beat women from the Eastern Bloc I was invited to compete in their regattas, and when this happened they paid my full expenses to attend. I therefore competed almost as much in the Eastern Bloc as I did in Western Europe,” says Chuter.
By the age of 23 Chuter had ‘retired’ from competitive rowing, finding the logistical side of competition taking up so much of her time that it left little time to row.
At the 1969 Ordinary FISA Congress the participation of women’s rowing in the Olympic Games was raised. When FISA president Thomas Keller took up the cause, the momentum to have the women’s events included began to build.
An IOC requirement of women being admitted into the Olympics was that they must also be part of the World Championship of that sport. Up until then women were able to compete in a separate event, the Women’s European Rowing Championships, which had been going since 1954. In 1974 women’s events were included in the World Rowing Championships programme.
Not long after, on gaining IOC approval, women’s rowing entered the Olympic programme.
FISA council member Tricia Smith rowed at the Montreal 1976 Olympics for Canada and recalls that, with the exception of Eastern Bloc countries, very few nations yet had a developed women’s rowing programme. “Women in most countries faced challenges within their country’s structure in terms of access to equipment, selection to teams, recognition of accomplishments versus that afforded to men,” says Smith.
Smith says that the lack of equipment was one of the main hindrances to her rowing progress. “We had to raise money and buy our own if we wanted the best equipment (equivalent to what our competitors were using),” she says.
Rosie Mayglothling was a competitive rower in Great Britain through the 1970s to the early 1980s and she noted the impact of women’s events being added to the Olympic Games. “This coincided with many of our clubs accepting women for the first time which also aided the growth of the sport and the rowers available to trial for Great Britain,” says Mayglothling.
At the London Olympics, Great Britain women won gold in rowing for the very first time at the Olympics – and they did it multiple times. One of the gold medallists was Great Britain’s most medalled female rowers, Katherine Grainger.
Grainger, who began rowing in the late 1990s, describes a very different environment to her women predecessors. “I actually do now feel that women have better opportunities (than in the past) in rowing,” says Grainger. “In rowing in this country both the men and women's international teams are very successful and they attract equal funding and sponsorship. The talent ID programmes we have target both men and women.”
Currently at the Olympic Games there are six women’s events and eight men’s events, with female rowers equalling 197, compared to a total of 353 male rowers. Reflecting back 40 years, this is a definite transformation in the world of elite rowing.
Gertrud Pfister, “Sport for Women,” in Sport and Physical Education in Germany, ed. Roland Naul and Ken Hardman, International Society for Comparative Physical Education and Sport Series, (London, 2002).
James Riordan and Hart Cantelon, “The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” 95).
Amanda Schweinbenz, Paddling Against the Current: A History of Women’s Competitive International Rowing Between 1954 and 2003, Thesis for The University of British Columbia, 2007.