Of the 488 Australian athletes headed to Tokyo, 261 are women. Here are some of the women who paved the way for today’s superstars to shine.
As the pinnacle of many sports, the Olympic Games are a place where extraordinary stories are common—superhuman feats of strength and speed, records broken and medals won.
For women, the Olympic story is one just as often marked by exclusion as it is by triumph. Many women have had to fight just to get the opportunity to compete on the international stage. In doing so, they’ve not only laid the path for today’s Olympians, they’ve contributed to changing society—pushing against social and cultural and political norms that sought to constrain their dreams.
With the Tokyo Games upon us, let’s take a dive into the history books to learn a little more about some of those women who have worn the green and gold.
Fighting to compete: the Australian women’s water polo team
The gold medal game in women’s water polo at the Sydney Olympic Games has gone down in history as one of the greatest sporting moments Australia has ever seen. A literal last second goal from Yvette Higgins secured gold for the Australian team. But the story of that gold medal game begins years earlier when the women of water polo decided that enough was enough.
Men had been playing water polo at the Olympics since the 1900 Games in Paris, but women had been excluded from competition. It was a situation that frustrated the women of the Australian water polo team. Why shouldn’t they too have the opportunity to compete?
So when the IOC visited Sydney in 1997, the team and their supporters swung into action. They had two goals: to crash a press conference and to protest at the airport where they were sure to gain attention from the press.
Australia’s then goalkeeper Liz Weekes was tasked with the incredibly intimidating job of crashing the press conference and delivering a letter that requested the inclusion of women’s water polo in the Olympics. She told the Sydney Morning Herald that as she opened the doors into the room where the press conference was being held “a room of eyes and sea of suits turned and stared”.
“The people just turned on me and I was about to step backwards and go back out,” Weekes said to the SMH. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I can’t do this’. But I felt this shove in my back. It’s the biggest, scariest, best thing I’ve ever done.”
Weekes was kicked out of the press conference. Not that it mattered because part two of the plan was already in action. There was a group of junior and senior players assembled at Sydney Airport to continue the protest and welcome a number of Olympic officials. The protesters wore bathing suits and swimming caps and held signs that said “FINA: Female Involvement Not Allowed.” and “Sydney 2000, it’s time for women’s water polo. Now”. Their protest made it to the news and soon after, with a little help from the Australian Olympic Committee, women’s water polo was added to the Sydney Olympics.
Read more about the determination of the Australian women’s water polo team and their triumph at the Sydney Games at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Dual sport heroine: Nova Peris
When Nova Peris won gold with the Hockeyroos at the Atlanta Games in 1996, she became the first Indigenous Australian to win Olympic Gold. Interestingly, when she won that medal, she was the first mother to win gold for Australia since Shirley Strickland in 1956.
Despite reaching the pinnacle of her sport, Peris was far from finished. She switched from hockey to athletics and won gold in the 200m and 4 x 100m relay at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. At the Sydney Games in 2000, she competed in the 400m (reaching the semi-finals) and was a member of the 4 x 400m relay team who finished fifth.
Doing double duty when it comes to the Olympics is a feat in itself. Peris is one of only six female Olympians to have done so, joining the likes of Lily Beaurepaire, Donna Kite, Fiona Hannan, Alexandra Croak and Jana Pittman.
Peris followed up her impressive sporting career by becoming the first Indigenous woman elected to the Australian parliament.
A sliding doors moment: Doris Carter
Doris Carter was the first Australian woman to compete in a track and field final at the Olympics. But she almost didn’t make it. While the Australian Women’s Amateur Athletic Union was founded in 1932, giving control of women’s athletics to women, that didn’t mean they had control of which women represented the country at the Olympic Games. That responsibility rested with the male associations.
Two names were given to the men’s association to submit for the 1936 Games: Carter and Clarice Kennedy who was the national champion and world record holder for the 80m hurdles. While Carter was given the green light, Kennedy’s name was “lost”. A sliding doors moment that propelled Carter to Berlin and the finals of the high jump where she was a highly-fancied favourite.
Between 1933 and 1940, Carter won five national high jump championships. But, like many of her peers, she was a talented multi-sport athlete, competing not only in high jump but also discus (she was a two-time champion), hurdles, javelin, shot putt and the long jump. She was one of only four Australian women competing in the 1936 Games. In 1934, Carter’s high jump results saw her ranked second in the world. She should have been heading to the Empire Games that year, but selectors made the call to completely exclude women from competition to maximise the number of men who could compete.
While Carter did make it to Berlin in 1936, it wouldn’t be the fairy tale finish she’d earnt and no doubt deserved. Injury affected her performance and she ended up finishing sixth. The result likely stung given that the gold medal winner, Ibolya Csak from Hungary, reached a height lower than the Australian record Carter held.
Carter continued her contribution to athletics long after she retired from competition, serving as president of the Victorian Women’s Amateur Athletic Association for three years from 1945 to 1948. She also served as president of the Australian Women’s Amateur Athletic Union, once in 1948 and then again in 1952, the second stint lasting a decade until 1962.
In this footage from 1936, you can see Doris Carter compete in the high jump at the Berlin Games.
Our first Olympic medallists: Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie
Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack and Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Wylie were the first two women to compete in the Olympic Games for Australia. They were also the first female gold and silver medallists to represent the green and gold and Durack was the first women’s Olympic swimming gold medalist. But their path to the podium was far from straightforward.
The 1912 Stockholm games marked the first Olympics where swimming events for women were included—two races including the 100m freestyle and a diving event. It was an historic decision given that Baron Pierre de Courbertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, opposed women competing at all. That opposition could also be found on home soil.
Durack and Wylie started swimming early. Durack was 11 in 1902 when she swam in the New South Wales Ladies Championships, the same year Wylie competed in an under-10 race where she finished second. Four years later, Durack won her first State Championship. In 1907, Wylie’s father built the Wylie’s Baths in Coogee. It became the training base for the duo who while being rivals, were also friends. The pair were ambitious and competitive, even training with the best male swimmers at Coogee, a decision that put them at odds with the conservative New South Wales Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Association who opposed ‘mixed bathing’ and did not support the pair’s bid for the Olympics.
When 1912 rolled around, with three women’s swimming events scheduled for Stockholm, surely Durack and Wylie would be simple inclusions for the Aussie team. It wasn’t the case, with neither named in the team for Stockholm. As Marion Stell wrote in ‘Half The Race’, the Australasian Olympic Council was not flush with cash and so wasn’t “over-keen to spend what funds they had on women competitors”. What happened next suggests that the New South Wales Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Association and the Australasian Olympic Council were out of step with community expectations.
Durack and Wylie’s exclusion from the Australian team was a “national scandal”. There were protests and rallies and the newspapers covered the issue widely while people sent donations in from around the country, determined that a lack of funding wouldn’t keep Australia’s best swimmers from the Games. The public protests worked. The New South Wales Ladies’ Amateur Swimming Association relaxed their opinion on ‘mixed bathing’ and threw their support behind the women while a lack of funds was no longer an issue. In Stockholm, Durack and Wylie more than earnt the support they received, winning the gold and silver medals in the women’s 100m freestyle.
In recognition of their place in history Durack was inducted into the International Hall of Fame for Swimming in 1967, while Wylie was inducted in 1975. Olympic medallists they may be, but Durack and Wylie’s influence extends beyond a medal. Without them, and their efforts to challenge the social and cultural norms that sought to limit them, would we have a Shane Gould or a Leisel Jones?
An Olympic record never to be broken: Maureen Caird
Mexico City, 1968
Maureen Caird was 17 years and 19 days old when she won gold at the 1968 Mexico City Games. In doing so, she became the youngest track and field gold medallist ever.
Caird was only nine-years-old when she started winning championships. By the time she was 14, she’d collected senior and junior schoolgirl championships in NSW and broken the junior record for the 80m hurdles with a time of 11 seconds. On her way to the 1968 Mexico City Games, Caird’s rivalry with fellow Australian Pam Kilborn intensified—the two running increasingly better times as they sought to match each other. The competition continued in a pre-Games event where Caird shaved a tenth of a second from her record, running 10.5. At the Games, the pair were neck and neck, both running a new Olympic record of 10.4 seconds in the heats. It was shaping up to be an electric final.
Caird was coached by June Ferguson, who had been Betty Cuthbert’s mentor. Ferguson, who wasn’t in Mexico City to see Caird compete, put together a simple plan for the teenager: “Reach the first hurdle in front, and you won’t be headed”. Simple enough! On the day of the final race it rained heavily but Caird took Ferguson’s advice, taking the lead early and never surrendering it. She won the race in 10.3 seconds, equalling the world record and beating Kilborn for the first time ever.
By 1972, the 80m hurdles had been replaced by the 100m hurdles and so Caird’s record will stand forever.