By Dirk Smith, MSc, SDL
Every year on March 8th, International Women’s Day is recognized around the world as a significant day in pushing for reforms and changes to promote the role of women as equal contributors in all aspects of society. It started as a part of the women’s suffrage movement and has since grown to become an important part of the international feminist movement. While not recognized everywhere, it is an important day for promoting equal rights and opportunities for women everywhere and has grown to become an important day for recognizing the contribution of women in all aspects of society. Here at Compete Sports Diversity we would like to recognize several important athletes for International Women’s Day who have made a big impact on sports and society.
One of the most important athletes to be included on this (or any) list is also considered one of the greatest athletes (not just female but ALL athletes) of all time. Babe Didrikson Zaharias was an American athlete who excelled in golf, basketball, baseball and track and field during a time when women were generally discouraged from doing sports that weren’t considered “ladylike.” She took home two gold medals and a silver medal at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles where she also set four world records. To this day she is the only track and field athlete (male or female) to win individual Olympic medals in a running, throwing and jumping event.
After her performance at the Olympics, she transitioned to playing golf in 1935 and became the first ever woman to enter the Los Angeles Open PGA tournament and competed against the male athletes, being the only woman to do so for the next 60 years. She turned pro in 1947, she asserted herself as one of the best golfers in the world. In 1948 she became the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Open, but her application was rejected on the sole account that the tournament was only open for men. By the time she retired she had won 17 straight women’s amateur victories, five major championships and won every golf title that was available for a total of 82 golf tournament wins.
Zaharias challenged the misogynist notions of femininity and female athleticism at the time. She was physically strong and straight forward in her expression of her strength and skills. She was considered a sports hero to many, but she was also often criticized for being “too manly” by others. Despite these criticisms, Zaharias stayed true to herself and spent the last years of her life in a romantic relationship with fellow golfer Betty Dodd. Having been diagnosed with colon cancer, Zaharias spent her final years advocating for cancer awareness and raised funds to support cancer research. She is considered one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Currently one of the fastest women in India, Dutee Chand is a professional sprinter who rose to fame when she became India’s first 100m sprinter (male or female) to win a gold medal in an international competition and became the third Indian woman to ever qualify for the 100m at the Summer Olympics. Chand’s speed and strength on the track had raised questions regarding her eligibility to compete following her performance at the Asian Junior Athletic Championships when she won two gold medals. Hoping to compete at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Chand was dropped from the Indian National Team after the Athletic Federation of India claimed that Chand’s hyperandrogenism made her ineligible to compete as a female athlete. This also led her to being dropped from the team for the 2014 Asian Games. The announcement was condemned by intersex advocates and organizations all over the world in violating Chand’s privacy and human rights.
Chand appealed in the Court Arbitration of Sport to challenge the International Association of Athletics Federation’s policy on hyperandrogenism. The court ruled in Chand’s favor due to a lack of evidence over the claim that testosterone improved female athletic performance an cleared her to be eligible to compete again. Chand became the third ever Indian woman to compete in the 100m at the 2016 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but she failed to qualify beyond the initial heats. After being banned in 2014, Chand competed in her first Asian Games in 2018 where she won two silvers in the 100m and 200m respectably.
Chand became India’s first openly LGBTQ+ athlete when she came out as lesbian in 2019 following India’s decriminalization of gay sex in 2018. She announced she was in a same sex relationship but was met with backlash and resentment from her family and community in her home village. She has also been an outspoken advocate for Caster Semenya in the ongoing battles both athletes have faced regarding intersex women and women with hyperandrogenism to be able to compete equally in sports.
Considered one of the first athletes to openly identify as transgender, Renée Richards was a professional tennis player who openly challenged the United States Tennis Association’s policy requiring female athletes to undergo gender testing. Assigned male at birth, Richards excelled in a variety of sports growing up in New York City to the point where she had to choose being playing professional tennis and professional baseball. Choosing tennis, Richards was considered one of the best college tennis players in the country during her studies and went on to pursue medical school and joined the Navy where she continued to excel as a tennis player.
During her college studies, Richards began presenting herself as female and was struggling with mental health issues related to her gender identity as well as the pervading notions surrounding gender transition which was considered socially and clinically perverse. Throughout this time, Richards consulted with different doctors regarding hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery until she fully proceeded with her transition in 1975. In 1976 after recovering from the surgery, Richards applied to play in the US Open as a woman but refused to take the gender verification test required by female athletes and was subsequently not allowed to compete. In turn, she sued the United States Tennis Association and the United States Olympic Committee on the grounds she was discriminated against because of her gender and asserted that participating in the tournament would validate “an acceptance of her right to be a woman.”
During this time, she received a lot of harsh judgment and criticism from the media and fellow athletes who went on to claim many falsehoods about having a transgender athlete competing, including that she had an unfair advantage or that other male athletes would transition solely to compete in women’s sports. None of which turned out to be true of course. In 1977, she won her case when the judge ruled against the United States Olympic Committee and United States Tennis Association saying that both organizations discriminated against Richards and that requiring Richards to pass a gender verification test was unfair, discriminatory and violation of her rights. In her first US Open as a woman, Richards lost in the first round of singles but made it to the finals in the double’s competition.
Richards went on to play until 1981 when she retired as an athlete but went on to coach Martina Navratilova to two Wimbledon titles before returning to practice medicine in New York City where she became the director of surgery at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. She has since been inducted in the USTA Eastern Tennis Hall of Fame and the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.