This is a monumental year for women in sports. First we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark ruling that paved the way for women and girls to thrive in American high school and college sports. Now, even before the summer games of the 2012 London Olympics begin on July 27, women are already breaking records and making history.

For the first time, the United States’ Olympic team comprises more women than men—269 women and 261 men make up the 530-member team, undoubtedly a reflection of the impact of Title IX. And, within the team, two women occupy the titles of youngest and oldest Olympian: 15-year-old swimmer Katie Ledecky and 54-year-old equestrian Karen O’Connor.

This is also a significant year for the global landscape of women in sports. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei—all nations that place heavy restrictions on women’s day-to-day lives—have agreed to send women to the summer games. This means that for the first time in Olympic history, each of the 200-plus participating countries will have a female athlete competing. These are huge advances for women in the history of the Olympics, because, in case we forget, less than 20 years ago, at the 1996 Atlanta Games, 26 countries refused to send women to the Games. And not until the 1984 Los Angeles Games were women allowed to run a marathon. Fast-forward to 2012, and women make up 40 percent of the approximately 10,500 athletes competing in the London Games. There’s a lot of milestones to celebrate this year.

While we wait to see which of these women will make and break records in this year’s London Games, we take a look back at five First Ladies of the Olympics—groundbreaking women, many of whom we hear too little of, who made incredible firsts for women, for their sport, and for their countries.  

Pictured (above right, clockwise from top): Joan Benoit Samuelson, Nawal el-Moutawakel, Fanny Blankers-Koen, and Cathy Freeman. Not pictured: Carla Marangoni

 

1984 – Los Angeles, USA          First Women’s Marathon Gold Medal Winner

Joan Benoit Samuelson, USA

Marathon runner Joan Benoit Samuelson won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the first year that the Olympics allowed a women’s marathon. Her win secured her as the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon champion. Although Benoit is retired from competitive running, she’s still making moves and breaking records on the track. At age 50, she set a U.S. 50+ record at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. And again, when she ran the New York City Marathon in 2009, she broke the 50+ division record.

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1984 – Los Angeles, USA   First Moroccan and First Woman from a Muslim Country to Win Gold

Nawal el-Moutawakel, Morocco

Nawal El Moutawakel, a Moroccan hurdler, won the Gold Medal at the inaugural women’s 400m hurdles event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. As a result, she bears a trifecta of firsts: she is the first female Muslim born in Africa to become an Olympic champion and the first Moroccan and the first woman from a Muslim country to win an Olympic gold medal. Before 1984, no Muslim woman had ever won a gold medal at the Olympic games. In 1993, Moutawakel founded Courir pour le Plaisir, a 5km run for women in Casablanca that is now the largest women’s race held in a Muslim country, with 30,000 women running each year.

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1992 – Barcelona, Spain                First Aboriginal to Represent Australia at an Olympics

Cathy Freeman, Australia

Cathy Freeman was the first Aboriginal to represent Australia at an Olympics—the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She would go on to win a silver medal in the 400m race at the 1996 Atlanta Games and then gold in the 2000 Sydney Games. Because of the racial tensions pervading Australia, Freeman became a symbol of harmony and reconciliation. “No-one ever ran so quickly carrying such a heavy weight,” began a Sportsmail report of Freeman’s 2000 win. “To bear a nation’s expectations is one thing but to shoulder its guilt as well, and still win Olympic gold, is an astounding achievement.” Since retiring in 2003, Freeman has dedicated her time to building bridges in her country, including serving as an ambassador for the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

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1948 – London, UK               First Woman to Win Four Gold Medals in a Single Olympiad

Fanny Blankers-Koen, Netherlands

Fanny Blankers-Koen (1918–2004), the Netherlands-born sprinter, was known as the “The Flying Housewife” and “The Queen with Men’s Legs.” A sign of the challenges women faced in sports in her day, she was chided for being too old (she was 30 at the time) and for leaving her children to compete in the Games. She responded to the criticism by winning four gold medals in the 1948 London Olympics. As a result, she became the first woman to win four gold medals in a single Olympiad and was regarded as the most successful athlete of the 1948 Olympics.

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1928 – Amsterdam, Netherlands  Silver Medal Winner in First Games for Women in Gymnastics

Carla Marangoni, Italy

Italian gymnast Carla Marangoni was only 12 years old when she won silver in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics as part of a 12-member female team. The year 1928 was significant because it was the first Games in which women competed in athletics and gymnastics. Marangoni resides in Pavia, Italy, where she has lived all of her 96 years. Still feisty and outspoken, she shared with the Financial Times magazine, in a June 2012 interview, that she was looking forward to watching the 2012 London Olympics. But first she wrote the Italian Olympic Committee urging them to ensure that this year’s Italian athletes be represented elegantly at the opening ceremonies. “They were behaving like sheep in Beijing,” she recalled.

Image: Carla Marangoni with 1928 Olympic Team (via)

 

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