Recognizing First U.S. Women’s Champion Is A Step In The Right Direction
GAINESVILLE — Margaret Abbott may finally be getting the credit she deserves.
Her anonymity is understood though. Even Abbott didn’t know she was America’s first female Olympic champion.
Abbott was a golfer who, in 1900, shot 47 for nine holes during a tournament in Paris. She won a bowl and recalled the victory to her family as just another tournament, although somewhat bigger than the competitions she was used to in Chicago.
Even her living children didn’t know their mother was an Olympic champion until they were contacted by University of Florida professor Paula Welch. A member of the department of exercise and sport sciences, Welch teaches about the Olympics and sport history, but is also somewhat of an Olympic detective.
“I spent about 10 years — not every day of course — tracking Abbott down,” Welch said. “She never knew she was an Olympic champion. It was a piece of Olympic history that I felt people should know more about.”
Now, finally, people do know. Abbott is the featured athlete of the 1900 Olympic games in the official Olympic program for this year’s centennial games in Atlanta. She was one of 11 women who participated in the competition that year, the first year women were allowed to compete.
During the first sanctioned Olympic Games 100 years ago, women were not even allowed to watch, much less participate. By 1900, the women were included in three sports — golf, croquet and tennis, Welch said
But it wasn’t until after the 1900 games were over that the International Olympic Committee decided they would include some of the events as Olympic competition.
Pigeon-flying and fire-extinguishing did not make the cut.
But golf did, as did tennis, which was won earlier in the day by a British woman now
in history as the first female Olympic champion. But Abbott was notable for another reason, Welch said. One of Abbott’s competitors in that Olympic golf tournament was her mother, who shot a 9-hole score of 65.
“It’s the only time a mother and daughter were in the same event at the same time,” Welch said.
Welch said it’s nice to see America’s first female champion recognized, because women have long been excluded from the Olympics.
“As the years progressed, the Olympics were slow in adding women’s sports,” she said. But the opportunities opened substantially in 1928 when women were added to the track and field competitions.
Now, the focus has turned to the Olympic leaders, the International Olympic Committee.
“There is an effort on the part of the IOC to include more women,” Welch said. “But there have been cultural and religious hurdles to overcome.”
Despite the unwillingness of some countries to include women on their Olympic teams, there are more and more opportunities available to women athletes.
For the 1996 games, there are four new sports in which women can compete: softball, soccer, beach volleyball and mountain biking. New sports for men include beach volleyball and mountain biking.
Welch said it’s difficult to say how much more can be done because there are already 10,000 athletes scheduled to compete in Atlanta. But, Welch said, when new sports are added, they include men’s and women’s competitions.
Such a practice would have been unheard of in Margaret Abbott’s day, when women’s sports were reported on the society pages, the Olympics lasted several months as a “side show” to the World’s fair and the Games included competitions such as tug-of-war.
- John Lester