International Women’s Day: Spotlight on great women in sports

written by
Lea Janßen
Steffi Karrenbrock


Today is March 8th, since 1913 this day is marked as International Women’s Day (IWD). The roots of a day to create awareness for the challenges and obstacles women face on a daily basis go even beyond that.

Originating from the growing unrest and critical debates amongst women at the beginning of the 20th century, with the fight for the end of discrimination, the rights to vote, work and hold public office being at the heart of demonstrators and advocators demands, the first IWD was celebrated on March 19th in 1911. The day was then moved to March 8th in 1913 and the UN officially declared the day during its International Women’s Year in 1975. In addition since 1996 the UN announces an annual theme for the IWD, in 2021 the campaigns theme is “Choose to challenge”.


In honour of this day and the way women in their fight for equality have already come, we as a sports club want to highlight some milestones in sports history, where women broke boundaries and went beyond the rules that were set to them.

Gertrude “Trudy” Ederle
Gertrud Ederle has reportedly gone completely deaf. The condition is thought to be due to the intense pressure on the ears during long swims.
Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10212 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0

On August 6th, 1926 the Olympic athlete Trudy Ederle was the first female to swim the English Channel. After one failed try the year before, the American swimmer aced the task and crossed the channel in 14 hours and 31 minutes. She was two hours quicker than any other man before her. Because of horrible weather conditions halfway through the channel, she was asked to quit and get on board of the small boat escorting her. Her reply “What for?” went down in history, her power of endurance was in any case worth more than the roadster car that her dad gave her for finishing the 56km distance she swam. She showed the world what “the weaker sex” is capable of and proved the people wrong who deeply believed that women couldn’t swim the channel.


Larissa Latynina
Larissa Latynina. Photo: Пресс-служба Президента России / Kremlin.ru CC-BY-SA 4.0

The Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina has her name enshrined in sports history for winning an astonishing number of 18 Olympic medals throughout her career. Latynina, born in 1934 in Kherson, participated in three Olympic games: Melbourne in 1956, Rome in 1960 and Tokyo in 1964.

Winning 9 gold, 5 silver and 4 bronze medals, she was for decades the athlete with the most won Olympic medals. This phenomenal record was achieved even though Latynina gave birth to her two children during her active career. Only in 2012 the American swimmer Michael Phelps overtook her record, which stood for 48 years and still leaves her as the most decorated female Olympic winner.


Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King photographed by ©Lynn Gilbert 1978, New York. CC-BY-SA 4.0

Billie Jean King made tennis history. And not just once. Not only is she the record winner at Wimbledon (alongside Martina Navrátilová with 20 titles in various competitions), she is also the oldest individual winner. It was King who founded the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973. She has twice been named Sportswoman of the Year by the Associated Press.
Billie Jean King became world famous in 1973, when she competed against Bobby Riggs in the second „Battle of the Sexes“ in front of more than 30,000 spectators, the second-largest tennis crowd ever. King thus made sports history. Her victory significantly increased the popularity and importance of women’s tennis. Billie Jean King broke another barrier in 1974, as the first female coach of an American mixed tennis team.

She is not only an icon for tennis fans: Elton John dedicated his world hit „Philadelphia Freedom“ to her in 1975, in reference to the Philadelphia Freedoms, the aforementioned mixed tennis team. King is also an advocate of equal rights and has fought for gender equality throughout her life.


Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei in 1985 at Communism Peak (now known as Ismoil Somoni Peak). Photo: Jaan Künnap, CC BY-SA 4.0

Disappointed by the attitude towards female members in the mountaineering clubs she joined since her college time, the Japanese alpinist Junko Tabei founded a club solely for female mountaineers at the beginning of her career.

On May 16th 1975 Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, after the expedition camp was destroyed by a landslide 12 days earlier at a height of 6300m.

After this record Tabei climbed mountain peaks in 70 countries around the world and in 1992 she became the first woman to climb the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on all seven continents of the world.


Martina Navrátilová
Navrátilová in action (1980) Photo: Dijk, Hans van / Anefo

The tennis star was born in 1956 in Czechoslovakia and started her professional career in 1975. During her career she won an unprecedented 59 Grand Slam titles, 167 singles and 177 doubles championships.

With a win at the U.S. Open in 2006 she became the oldest player to ever win a Grand Slam title. Martina Navrátilová had one of the longest active careers in tennis sport history, spanning four decades, when she finally retired in 2006, aged 50. With her skills and speed she lifted women’s tennis to a new level.


Cathy Freeman
Freeman wears a t-shirt with the message ‚Don’t look down on anybody unless you are helping them up.‘ She was a guest of the Australian Government’s aid program to PNG in May 2008, where she met with people living with HIV and AIDS, survivors of
domestic violence and disabled athletes at a games day in Port Moresby.. Photo: Jason Pini/AusAID CC BY 2.0

Cathy Freeman is probably one of the most important track and field athletes for many Australians, and a hero for the Indigenous People. When she became Olympic champion in the 400 meters in her home country of Australia in 2000, it marked the highlight of her athletic career.

But the fastest Aboriginal had not only experienced sporting success in her life, she also suffered from racism. When, as a 13-year-old girl, she received a sports scholarship to the strict and Christian Fairholm Girls College in Toowoomba, she experienced discrimination, including from teachers. Freeman was one of three non-white students among 600 at the time.

Cathy Freeman did not let racism, discrimination and opposition stop her and continued to exercise. In 1992, she became the first Aboriginal to compete in the Olympic Games in Barcelona.Freeman initially became an icon for the Indigenous People (and many Australians) when, after winning the 400 meters at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, in 1994, she not only held up the Australian flag – but also that of the Indigenous People. This gesture even triggered discussions in the Australian parliament. When the Australian team manager forbade her to show the Aboriginal flag again, she ignored him: she also won the 200-meter race and celebrated again with the „forbidden“ flag.

Her greatest triumph was to follow at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Even before the actual competitions began, she became a worldwide symbolic figure when she was given the honour of lighting the Olympic flame. That wasn’t all: on September 25, 2000, she won the gold medal in the 400 meters. The picture of Freeman, once again carrying not only the Australian flag but also the forbidden Aboriginal flag during the lap of honour, went around the world.


„We have come a long way but there are many more female pioneers to come.“

This potpourri of amazing stories of bright shining women in sports history is not an exhaustive list. There are many more female athletes out there who pushed the limits and set out for new horizons. They just couldn’t all be mentioned. And looking back onto the pioneer work these women have done and being alive in a time where Angela Merkel can be the chancellor of Germany or Margaret Heafield Hamilton was able to develop the on-board software for NASA’s Apollo program, many might think feminism has done its deed and we already reached equality and fair chances for everyone. But even in 2021 we are far from that. Sure, during the last century we have come a long way, but there are still many more female pioneers to come, also for the sports world. We can all be curious for them to step forward.

We don’t need flowers and champagne – we need equality

Coming back to the IWD, the day is not just a day to look behind us and be proud of all the achievements we have already accomplished. It’s also a day to look into the future and to shed light onto ongoing discrimination and inequality. In recent years and decades IWD has become more and more commercialised. Companies put out specialised offers for women for a day, products in pink are put on the shelves and women get discounts on things like flowers and sparkling wine. But women don’t want flowers and sparkling wine or pralines in pink wrappers on IWD, women want a fair share of this world and the same chances for their lives. Equality is continuously to reach for and where not possible equity needs to be the goal to lift women in places to enable them to live their daily life at eye level with men.

Let us all not keep the celebration and fight to one day a year. With the theme of this year’s IWD, “Choose to challenge”, we keep on challenging and walking the path to an equal future. We at the Cologne Celtics GAA try to do our part, for example bringing our goals of the 20×20 campaign to life, championing women and girls in sport.

Veröffentlicht von Steffi

Writer + Photographer // Köln

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