Imagine this; you were born into the world of 1889. Sydney, where the roads are dusty from horse and cart, wooden ships line the Harbour, men wear suits, ties and top hats, streets are spotless, dad works as a publican and mum stays home to look after you and your 5 siblings.
One summer’s day your parents decide to take you and your family on a holiday; to Newcastle. On arrival, over excited and oblivious to the dangers of the Australian coast line, you head for the ocean’s edge. Within seconds you find yourself in trouble, no longer able to touch the sand with your feet and realizing you don’t know how to swim. The notorious waves of Newcastle beach are pounding upon your head, tossing you around like linen in a washing machine. You are frightened.
This was a defining point in the life of Australia’s first every female Olympic gold medalists, Sarah ‘Fanny’ Durack.
Sarah’s experience at Newcastle beach that day at age 9, provided her with the drive and inspiration to learn to swim and as the family could not afford swimming lessons, she taught herself to ‘dog paddle’ and ‘breaststroke’ by watching others at Mrs. Page’s Coogee Ladies’ baths which was exclusive at the time for women and girls.
Sarah became best friends with another interested swimmer, Mina Wylie whose father owned the Wylie Baths in Coogee. They started training together and before long were successful in many local swimming carnivals.
The Australian Olympic committee went on to announce that Durack and Wylie were both able to represent Australia if women’s swimming was introduced into the next Olympic Games. This was huge news considering in the early 1900’s results from women’s swimming carnivals were not recognized because there were no ladies’ swimming associations. This all changed in 1906 when the NSW Ladies Amateur Swimming Association (NSWLASA) was formed and at its first ever carnival, Sarah won the breaststroke, following in second place was Mina.
Whilst the association was a positive step, organizations were still opposed to mixed bathing and female decency was dependent on the segregation of males and females in the pool. What this meant was men weren’t even allowed to watch a female member of their own family compete in a race.
Fast forward to 2016 for one second; do we still suffer a slight hangover from this attitude towards women’s sport?
In 1910 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced there would be female swimming events at the next Olympic Games to be held in Stockholm in 1912.
The only person standing in their way now was active feminist Rose Scott who despite her advocacy of equal rights for women, she was in strong support of segregated bathing, therefore opposed sending the ladies to the Olympic Games believing it would compromise female modesty and damage their chances of getting married. The ban was also supported by the Catholic Church.
Churches and marriage getting in the way of equality, interesting!
A public debate as to whether the ban was reasonable was fueled by an article written in the Sydney Morning Herald. Public backlash forced a vote on reinstating mixed bathing. The motion was passed; Rose resigned immediately as the President of the NSWLASA and the rest is history. Swimming wasn’t the only sport that Scott didn’t want females to be involved in; she was also vocal in her opposition to women playing rugby league.
I wonder what Rose would think of our successful Australian Rugby League team - The Jillaroos?
The ban had been lifted but the drama of getting the ladies to the Olympics was not yet over. This time it was to do with finances. The male officials decided that they would fund the trip for 5 male competitors to go to Stockholm but there was not enough funding for Durack and Wylie. Fortunately, for Sarah, her successes documented in the newspapers caught the attention of Margaret McIntosh, wife of Sydney sports entrepreneur Hugh McIntosh. Margaret began a public fund to raise the money to send Durack to Europe. Unfortunately, Wylie’s father had to fund her way to the Olympics.
The ladies finally arrived at the 1912 Olympic Games which was a far cry from today’s spectacular. Imagine no indoor pools, line markers, goggles and stream line state of the art swim suits of the Ian ‘Thorpedo’ Thorpe era. Instead it was cold murky water built in an inlet of Stockholm Harbour; no elevated blocks just lane numbers on a wooden deck, no lane ropes or markers, it was so deep you couldn’t see the bottom and you swam in woollen sleeveless garments with an apron.
Mina swam in the first heat which made her the first ever female Australian Olympian however it was Sarah that claimed the gold in the final of the 100m freestyle. Press reports indicated t
hat Durack got off to a good start but the water was so murky she ran into the side of the manmade wooden planks outlining the pool. Despite hitting the wall, Durack recovered to take the win in 1 minute 22.2 seconds securing our first ever gold medal in a women’s Olympic event. Mina came in second, 3.3 seconds later, winning a Silver Olympic medal. This was such a great achievement for Australian Sportswomen; the NSWLASA treated the ladies to a welcome home dinner.
I’m guessing all the media outlets were invited, I wonder who funded this?
So as we look back in history, how far have we really come in Women's Sport? Have a good think about that and get back to us.
Reference: National Library of Australia