By Ria Patel
Every two years, we get to enjoy watching the finest athletes of the world compete for medals and international fame. It became a way for people to share their talents with the world, however, the Olympics weren’t always open for everyone. Keep reading to find how the Olympics evolved to be one of the most inclusive, international competitions in the world.
“Olympism is the philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will, and mind,” quotes the Olympic Charter, the set of rules that governs the Olympics. The sentence embodies the purpose behind the competition held every two years across the world. The first Olympic games were originally held in Olympia, Greece, in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Greeks believed that the human body was the most beautiful phenomenon on Earth, and the Games reflected this ideal as they united the power of the brain with muscular strength of the body.
However, the Olympics serve more than representing the power of the individual; they commemorate the strength of a tight-knit community.
Molly Himmelstein (‘08), St. Mary’s alum and NBC Production Associate who covered the Olympics, states “Athletes travel to the Olympics from all over the world and speak many different languages, but there is a common thread connecting them all when they come together to represent their countries in the world's largest gathering of elite athletes.” It provides a constant in history: no matter the world’s wars or disasters, all people of all nations gather every two years to show their athleticism and patriotic spirit.
But the Olympics weren’t always that way. The first Olympics were limited to the upper class of Greeks, and the modern Games allowed participating nations to exclude people of certain races, genders, or sexual orientations from engaging in the competition. However, as these minority groups found their voices, this soon began to change.
The 1900 Paris Games, one of the most notable Games of all time, was the first Olympic competition in which females were allowed to participate in activities themselves. Although only 22 women participated that year and could only participate in five sports, they represented 2.2% of the athletes that year. Fast forward another century and women now represent more than 40% of Olympic athletes.
However, not all nations initially sent women to the Games. Until 2012, Saudi Arabia prohibited their females from participating in the Olympics. For the 2012 London Games, the country sent track and fielders Sara Attar and Cariman Abu al-Jadail, a monumental decision as Saudi Arabia still strictly limits the sporting opportunities for females. The two runners were an inspiration for girls back home as well as a sign for ultra-conservative Saudi Arabians that change was coming.
Race has also been a reoccurring conflict in the Games. The infamous 1936 Summer Games held in Germany during the reign of Hitler, marked the time Jesse Owens, a black track and field athlete, had accomplished at that time what no Olympian had done before: winning four gold medals at one competition. It is customary of the leader of the host nation to personally congratulate gold medalists; however, solely because he was black, Hitler refused to shake the hand of Owens.
In the last 80 years, though, black athletes have since used their Olympic accomplishments to incite change in their national communities. In the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, many African American athletes were thinking of boycotting the competition in efforts to nonviolently protest against Martin Luther King Jr.’s recent assassination and racial inequality. Although this boycott never ended up taking place, black Olympians used their fame and resulting influence from the Games to speak out against racial inequality across the world.
There was still one notable group that was not allowed to participate in the Games: transgenders. Throughout history, transgenders have been discriminated against and often outright prohibited from participating in the Games. Usually, this discrimination was focused on transgender females who were being called out by their cisgender counterparts for attempting to participate in female events because of a possible unfair advantage in muscle mass. This community has recently striven for their right to participation in their respective gender events and received it in the 2016 Olympic Games.
From the original Games to the recent 2018 Olympics, this competition has evolved from an exclusive event to one that is available to any athlete across the world. Communities have fought for their right to partake in the Games throughout its history, yet there is more progress to come. These communities still feel societal pressures daily not to be able to share their athletic talents with the world. Discrimination about their bodies and genders still exist today. However, these communities have come so far, and they have so much farther to go. Change is on its way.