The Olympics’ First Female Gold Medalist

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED February 10, 2014
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The 1900 Olympic Games in Paris were the first to allow female athletes — although for most (if not all) of the women who competed, sports were more of a leisurely side note than a lifelong pursuit. For the 22 women who joined up for the Paris games, participation was more a matter of money than world-class skill since their families either maintained French vacation homes or were wealthy enough to fund a European excursion. In “Women and Sport,” Paula Welch and D. Margaret Costa write: “The seven American women who entered the 1900 Paris Olympic Games matched the profile of late 19th-century scions of wealth. They belonged to social clubs; studied art, music, literature, and language; and, through their country club affiliations entered sport from a respectable realm.”

Golf and lawn tennis were the only women-only events at the 1900 Paris Games, and Chicago’s Margaret Abbott, who happened to be studying art in Paris at the time, won the women’s golfing event. Due to the disorganized nature of those early Olympics and the overlapping hubbub of the 1900 Paris Exposition, Abbott didn’t realize she had made American history, twice by becoming not only the first woman score an Olympic win for the United States, but also the first and only Olympic athlete to compete against her mother who also had a country club-groomed knack for golf. (Technically, Abbott wasn’t the first American female gold medalist, since she received a commemorative bowl for it instead, which might be another reason why Abbott thought she had just won a routine golf tournament.

Only hours prior to Abbott’s golf victory, a dynamite British tennis player named Charlotte “Chatty” Cooper made Olympic history as its first-ever female champion. In a women’s singles event, Cooper beat out French player Helene Provost and also went on to win the mixed singles event. With three previous Wimbledon titles under her belt (or girdle?), Cooper already was one of the best female tennis players in the world, and she went on to reach the Wimbledon finals eight consecutive years in a row, a record that wouldn’t be beat until 1990 by Martina Navratilova.

After Cooper died in 1966, her historic Olympic prize was nowhere to be found. Her son suspected Chatty had passed it off to her gardener, as she tended to do with her other tennis trophies.

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