As Sochi Olympics Approach, 9 Landmark Moments For Women In The History Of The Games

On Friday, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics will be upon us, and the Games in recent history have seen more women competing than ever before. The last century has seen triumphant gains for female athletes in terms of both access and acceptance, though more barriers have yet to fall.

So let's take a look at nine important moments for gender equality at the Games, featuring some dynamic, dominant women throughout Olympic history...

1900: Hélène de Pourtalès Becomes First Woman to Win Gold

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The first woman ever to win a gold medal in Olympic competition, Hélène de Pourtalès, was a member of a Swiss sailing team that brought home top honors from the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. It was the first year that women were allowed to participate in any capacity.

Image: Public Domain

1948: Alice Coachman Becomes First Black Woman to Win Gold

At the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Alice Coachman made history, becoming the first black woman to earn a gold medal with a dramatic victory in the high-jump. She notched a 9 foot 6-1/2 leap that her opponent managed to equal on her second try — but Coachman got it on the first.

She may have lost out on the chance for an even more illustrious Olympic career, since the Games were cancelled in both 1940 and 1944 due to World War II.

Image: Public Domain

1960: Wilma Rudolph Shines in Triple-Gold Performance

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The unparalleled female speedster of her day, Wilma Rudolph, followed up a bronze medal relay finish in the 1956 games by securing three gold medals (two individual, one relay) in 1960. She was the first woman, at just age 20, to achieve such track and field domination during a single Olympics.

She accomplished this despite having been struck down by polio at age four, which left her confined to a left leg brace until she was nine, and an orthopedic support until she was eleven. Which is, suffice it to say, more impressive than anything we’ll ever do.

Sadly, she passed away far too young, dying of cancer in 1994.

1984: Cheryl Miller's Team USA Cannot Be Stopped

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When the 1984 USA women’s basketball team won the battle for Olympic supremacy, it wasn’t the sort of hard-fought, zero-margin-for-error experience that makes so many great Olympic achievements. The biggest reason: Cheryl Miller.

A 6”3 tall forward from the University of Southern California, Miller is arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time, once scoring a ludicrous 105 points in a high school game. Her Team USA squad decimated the field of competition, going a perfect 5-0 en route to the gold medal.

Her illustrious place in American sports transcends even her Olympic legacy — she’s also half of the only sister/brother combo in the Basketball Hall of Fame. With apologies to Reggie Miller, she’s the better half.

1988: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a Title IX Hero

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee lit up the Olympic stage in Seoul in 1988, having also won silver in 1984. But a crucial part of how she got there is significant to countless women, and goes beyond her own drive, determination and talent alone.

She was 10 years old when Title IX was passed and signed into law by President Richard Nixon. It was designed to prohibit schools from discriminating between boys and girls in academic programs or activities — athletics included — if federal funding was involved. Several decades on, Title IX remains the most significant public policy in support of athletic equality of women in U.S. history.

In elementary school, Joyner-Kersee recalls, she wasn’t allowed to do anything sports-related but cheerleading. But after Title IX, she was finally allowed to get in the game. She would go on to star at UCLA in track and field, as well as basketball, before making her name as one of the greatest heptathlon and long-jump athletes of all time.

1998: Women's Ice Hockey Included in Nagano, Japan

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The slow march of progress towards female Olympic equality is often apparent in the range — or the limits placed on that range — of events open for female participation. This list of when certain events or disciplines became open to women reads like a bizarre list of sexist assumptions.

Oh, it’s 1917? Women are ready for swimming, but fencing is a no-go.1955? Horse-riding events are all good, but God forbid a woman lace up some speed skates.

This type of thinking is sadly still alive and well, as evidenced by ice hockey — a sport often lionized for its macho ethic and on-ice brawls — being off-limits until the Nagano Games in 1998.

2000: Women's Weightlifting Included in Sydney, Australia

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It took 100 years after Hélène de Pourtalès clutched an Olympic gold medal for the Games to open up weightlifting, that most powerful and intense of contests, to women.

Tara Nott of the United States then won gold in the lowest weight class. Six other women — four from China, which dominated the event — would join her as the cream of the crop of the first women’s weightlifting field in Olympics history.

2012: Women's Boxing Included in London, England

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Twelve years after the inclusion of women’s weightlifting, female boxers were finally able to get in on the Olympic act as well.

It was only at this point that Nicola Adams, a British boxing sensation who’d first stepped into the ring at the tender age of 13, was able to make good on a lifetime of fighting by defeating then-top ranked Ren Cancan of China. She secured the first gold medal for women’s boxing in Olympic history.

Already 29 at the time of the Games, if the IOC hadn’t approved the inclusion for 2012, it’s anybody’s guess if she would’ve reached that height four years later. Which begs the question: why wait?

2014: Women's Ski Jumping Included in Sochi, Russia (Sort Of)

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This year’s Winter Games in Sochi will mark the inclusion of women in ski jump events, rightly hailed as a stride for Olympic equality. But don’t get too excited about this victory just yet — despite the fact that women are now allowed to launch themselves off that enormous ramp, they’re not allowed to do it if they want to cross-country ski afterwards.

That event is the Nordic combined, which now stands as the only event in Sochi which will be entirely, exclusively male. So why, one might ask, if there was no good reason for women being disallowed from ski jumping until now, would they be disallowed from an event which is nothing more than two events they can participate in jammed together?

It’s easy to imagine that the IOC will someday let women into this last bastion of Olympic male exclusivity. But it’s incredibly unjust that athletes who could have participated this year, winning medals for themselves and their countries, will miss out on that chance.