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In a few days' time, the opening ceremony of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games will take place. This edition is already historic: for the first time, there will be as many men as women taking part in the competition - although there will not be the same number of events for men and women.

It's no secret that women's place in society has only come about - and continues to come about - through battles fought over the centuries. The Olympic Games are no exception.

This is an opportunity to look back over almost 125 years of struggle to achieve (relative) parity, and in particular the central role played by one woman: Alice Milliat.


First participation and resistance

The first modern Olympic Games were organised by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, at a time when women were relegated to domestic roles and the practice of sport by women was not very widespread, if not taboo.

Women took part for the first time in 1900. They represent only 2% of the participants (22 women for 975 men). They had only two specific events (tennis and golf) and could take part in three mixed events (sailing, horse riding and croquet). These five disciplines were deemed to be the only ones compatible with their femininity and fragility[1]. As Pierre de Coubertin explained in 1901 it was considered: "The role of the woman remains what it has always been: she is first and foremost the companion of the man, the future mother of the family, and must be brought up with a view to this immutable future".

In 1910, women were allowed to take part in two swimming events and one diving event, a far cry from the range of events open to men. The mentality was still resistant, particularly on the part of Pierre de Coubertin, for whom the Olympic Games constituted "the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with [...] female applause as the reward" (1912) and "A female Olympiad would be impractical, uninteresting, unattractive and incorrect"[2] .

Society – and especially men – considered more generally that "sport would 'virilise' women's bodies, it would be indecent, it would be harmful to fertility..."[3] .

The rise of women Olympics under the impulsion of Alice Milliat

Despite this context, feminization continued between the wars, with the advent of sportswomen in the 1920s, with women taking part in sport more often and, especially showing it: "these athletes, dressed in shorts, played football or rugby in public, refusing to confine themselves to gymnastics, which was traditionally reserved for them".[4]

The men kept opposing this feminisation, while the women continued to fight for it. A polemic arose.

It was during this period that Alice Milliat made her mark.

In 1917, she was one of the founders of the Fédération des Sociétés Féminines Sportives de France. For her, "Women's sport has the same place in social life as men's sport". But also "the role played by women during World War One invalidated the argument of "natural fragility""[5] .

In 1919, she approached the IOC to ask for women to be included in athletics events. The IOC, led by Pierre de Coubertin, refused[6]

In 1921, she founded the Fédération sportive féminine internationale (FSFI) and organized the first international women's meeting in Monte-Carlo. She stated: "They deny us the right to muscle because they want to remain the strongest. But no matter what they do, our sex will grow biceps and hocks, and that's just too bad for you tyrants! Women's muscle is on its way and nothing will stop it." [7]

The following year, on 20 August 1922, she organised the Women's Olympic Games, bringing together 77 Swiss, British and American athletes. The competition included 11 athletics events.

Although it was a resounding success, the competition was derided by the press: "It also seemed to me that far too many people in the audience only had eyes for the bare legs and thighs and not enough for the movements performed" (Le Miroir des sports). "One cannot imagine a more appalling spectacle of physical decay" (Le Figaro).

This competition upset. Alice Maillat was ordered to stop using the term "Olympic". She renamed the event the "Women's World Games". 

The excellent performances at the Women's World Games and Coubertin's departure in 1925 led to an improvement in the position of sportswomen at the 1928 Olympic Games. 

However, let's not delude ourselves: this partial extension of certain events to women was only due to the organisers' desire to capitalise on the success of the Women's World Games and not to any real desire to be inclusive. In fact, these events caused such a stir that women were banned from certain athletics for many years. 

Alice Maillat was well aware of this, which is why she continued to organise the Women's World Games in 1930. Once again, the Games were a success, prompting the IOC to propose reforms. However, the IOC's proposals required the Women's Games to be discontinued. In response, the FSFI asked for women to be excluded from the Olympic Games so that they could devote themselves to their own Olympics. It was refused.

The Women's World Games were then organised again in 1934.  They were the last. The economic situation in the 1930s and Alice Maillat's health problems precipitated this end.

The new impulse through international organization from the 1970s

Women's participation in the Olympic Games increased during the 20th century, but it was only in the 1970s and 1980s, following United Nations directives affirming that sport was favorable for health and the disappearance of sexist stereotypes, that women's presence and participation in the Olympic Games were really encouraged.

Since then, new commitments have been made notably by the IOC. Especially, the 1990s and 2000s saw a proliferation of initiatives and commitments to promote and facilitate women's access to sport, and in particular to the Olympic Games, with the ultimate aim of achieving parity. The following dates were major milestones:

  • 1991: any new sport seeking to join the Olympic programme must have women's competitions[8]
  • 1994: the Olympic Charter includes the respect of the principle of equality between women and men[9]
  • 2007: the Olympic Charter makes it compulsory for every sport at the Olympic Games to have a women's category; 
  • 2012: first Olympic Games in which women competed in all the sports on the programme[10].

The 2024 Paris Olympic Games are presented as the first parity Games. These will indeed be the first Olympic Games where the number of female and male participants is the same.

However, the situation remains far from equal:

  • the number of events is lower for women (152) than men (157); and
  • despite some progress, the international sport bodies are far from being parity bodies today.


Alice Milliat's tenacity and pioneering efforts have paved the way for gender parity in the Olympic Games, a legacy that will be celebrated at the historic Paris 2024 Olympics. However, despite progress, the quest for true equality in sports continues beyond the symbolic milestone of equal participation.


[1] Women and the Olympic Games | EHNE

[2] Alice Milliat, the forgotten face of women's sport -

[3] Alice Milliat, the forgotten face of women's sport -

[4] Alice Milliat, the forgotten face of women's sport -

[5] Women and the Olympic Games | EHNE

[6] Women and the Olympic Games | EHNE

[7] Newspaper from December 1921

[8] When did women first compete in the Olympic Games? (

[9] Paris 2024 publishes its gender equality index (

[10] When did women first compete in the Olympic Games? (


sport, games, women in sport, olympics, olympicgames