International Women's Day: female athletes who made Olympic and Paralympic history

Excluded from the first edition of the Olympic Games, women fought to consolidate their position in the world of sport and inspired future generations


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They are examples of determination, excellence and the battle for respect and equality. They are inspirational role models. On International Women's Day, Rio remembers some of the athletes who helped consolidate female participation in sport and went down in the history of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Charlotte Cooper

In the first edition of the modern Olympic Games, in Athens 1896, there was no female participation. So the first women's Olympic gold medal was awarded at the Paris 1900 Games. British tennis player Charlotte Cooper, a five-times Wimbledon champion, achieved the feat.

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(photo: IOC)

Maria Lenk

Brazil, however, had to wait another 32 years for its first female Olympian. In the midst of a male delegation, Maria Lenk made history by becoming the first South American woman to compete at the Olympic Games, in Los Angeles in 1932. The swimmer gives her name to one of the Rio 2016 Olympic venues – the Maria Lenk Aquatic Centre will host synchronised swimming and diving.

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(photo: Divulgação/Maria Lenk - A Essência do Espírito Olímpico/Pavirada Filmes)


Sandra Pires and Jackie Silva

However, a Brazilian woman did not reach the podium until 64 years later. Then, like London buses, two arrived at once. Or make that four. Sandra Pires and Jacqueline Silva defeated compatriots Monica Rodrigues and Adriana Samuel in beach volleyball at Atlanta 1996, winning gold and silver for Brazil.

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(photo: IOC/Doug Pensinger)
Nawal El Moutawakel

Nawal El Moutawakel became the first African and first Muslim woman to become an Olympic champion when she won the inaugural women’s 400m hurdles event at the Los Angeles 1984 Games. She was also the first Moroccan athlete of either sex to win Olympic gold, sparking passionate celebrations in Casablanca. Currently, El Moutawakel is the Chairperson of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Coordination Commission for the Rio 2016 Games.


Larissa Latynina

Winning medals was not a problem for Larissa Latynina. In three editions of the Olympic Games (Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964) the gymnast made it to the podium 18 times – earning her the title of most successful Olympian for decades. Only Michael Phelps surpassed the Soviet gymnast, at London 2012.

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(photo: Getty Images/Larissa Latynina)


Ádria Santos

Another frequent medallist is sprinter Ádria Santos. With 13 medals, she is the greatest Brazilian Paralympic medallist of all time.

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(photo: Getty Images/Michael Steele)


Trischa Zorn

However, nobody has a medal collection like Trischa Zorn’s. The US swimmer is the greatest medallist in the history of the Paralympic Games, with an incredible 55 medals (41 gold, nine silver and five bronze). She first competed in the Arnhem 1980 Games and continued until Athens 2004.

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(photo: Getty Images/Scott Barbour)


Zahra Nemati

A medal full of symbolism was won in London 2012. Archer Zahra Nemati became the first Iranian woman to make it to the top of the podium in an edition of either the Olympic or Paralympic Games, becoming a role model for women and people with a disability across the Muslim world.

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(photo: Getty Images/Harry Engels)


Gabriela Andersen-Schiess

But who said that only those who win medals make history? Swiss Gabriela Andersen-Schiess thrilled the world with her entrance to the Olympic Stadium in Los Angeles 1984, when she staggered on to the track to complete the first Olympic women's marathon. A true example of resilience and determination.

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(photo: Getty Images/Tony Duffy)


Nadia Comaneci

Nadia Comaneci won many medals, but that is not the reason for her being one of the most recognisable athletes in the history of the Olympic Games. At the age of 14, the Romanian charmed the world at Montreal 1976 by receiving the first 10 in gymnastics.

Natalie du Toit

At Beijing 2008, South African Natalie du Toit, owner of 13 Paralympic golds, became the first amputee athlete to qualify for the Olympic Games. Natalia Partyka was the other Paralympian who competed at the Beijing Olympic Games.

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(photo: Getty Images/Shaun Botteril)


Esther Vergeer

Wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer is the professional athlete with the longest winning streak in the world: 10 years and 470 games without defeat. The Dutchwoman also owns eight Paralympic medals, won in singles and doubles.

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(photo: Getty Images/Julian Finney)


Yelena Isinbayeva

Besides being an multiple Olympic and world champion, Yelena Isinbayeva broke 16 world pole vault records and is now a politician.

(photo: Getty Images/Alexander Hassenstein)


Josefa Idem Guerrini

German-born Josefa Idem Guerrini is the woman with the most Olympic appearances in history - eight. Competing from 1984 until 2012, the canoeist represented West Germany in her first two Games and Italy in the next six, having married her Italian coach. She won five medals in total (one gold, two silver, two bronze). She also became a politician.

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(photo: Getty Images/Ezra Shaw)



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