A Short History on Gender Equality in the Modern Olympic Games

Authored by Mikkee Hall

Dorothy Poynton mid-high dive during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles where she won her first Olympic gold medal in the high dive competition.

For over a century, the modern Olympic Games has brought the world together through sport. In July 2028, Los Angeles will make history by hosting the Summer Olympics for a third time. Previously hosting the games in 1932 and 1984, 2028 will see the games in the City of Angels for the third time. It is the first North American city to host the games three times, and it is only the third city in the world to host the games three times, following in the footsteps of London and Paris (International Olympic Committee 2021). 

Across the world, Olympiad lovers connect to the games thanks to photographers who capture their heart and preserve a moment in history, like this photo of Dorothy Poynton’s dive that won her the gold medal in 1932. A Los Angeles local, Ms. Poynton showcased her athleticism and grit while winning the gold medal in the high dive with a sprained back in front of her hometown crowd; nevertheless, one sports reporter wrote that she was “still in her teens but rounded like nobody’s business” instead of focusing on her diving skills (Siegel 2019, 169). Ms. Poynton competed in three Olympics in 1928 (Amsterdam), 1932 (Los Angeles), and 1936 (Berlin). Over the course of these three games, she won four medals in diving: two gold, one silver, and one bronze. Despite a focus on a young woman’s “sex appeal,” Ms. Poynton broke several records during her three Olympics, including at just over 13 years old, becoming the youngest U.S. Olympic medalist and defying the long-held stereotypes of a woman’s athletic abilities (Bink 2021). Ms. Poynton and the other women in the 1932 games were often subjected to gender stereotypes, and the women before them fought for their right to compete in the Olympics.

When the modern Olympics commenced in 1896 in Athens, Greece, female athletes were not allowed to compete. Over the next thirty years, the events for women to participate in were limited to golf, tennis, and archery, adding track and field, swimming, and diving in the 1920s (National Women’s History Museum 2016). Despite the strides in the previous decades, women training for the 1932 Summer Olympics almost lost their chance to compete because the International Olympic Committee came close to taking out any women’s events in 1931 simply because athletics were deemed not suitable for women (Pieroth 1996, 50). 

Progress towards gender equality in the Olympics has been slow. As recently as the 1984 games, only 23% of the world athletes that converged on Los Angeles were female. However, gender equality in the Olympic Games is making strides with the 2012 London Olympics seeing female competitors at 44%, and in Tokyo 2020, new fields of competition opened for women in surfing, skateboarding, and karate (Montillo 2019). As Los Angeles looks forward to hosting in 2028, the city describes itself as “a place where everyone is welcome and everyone belongs” (LA28 n.d.) with a more equitable games for all athletes as imperative.


Bink, Addy. 2021. “The Utah Olympian You May Have Forgotten About.” ABC4 Utah. July 24, 2021. https://www.abc4.com/sports/the-utah-olympian-you-may-have-forgotten-about/.

LA28. n.d. “Why Is Los Angeles a Good Place to Host the Games?” Accessed February 20, 2023. https://la28.org/en/faqs/why-is-los-angeles-a-good-place-to-host-the-games-.html#articleIntro.

Montillo, Roseanne. 2019. “Early Olympics Weren’t Welcoming to Women.” Times Union, April 6, 2019. https://www.timesunion.com/sports/article/Early-Olympics-weren-t-welcoming-to-women-13747373.php.

National Women’s History Museum. 2016. “Timeline: Women in the Olympics.” Last modified August 10, 2016. https://www.womenshistory.org/exhibits/women-olympics-timeline.

Olympic News. 2017. “Los Angeles 1932: California Welcomes the World – Olympic News.” Last modified April 22, 2021. Olympics.com. https://olympics.com/en/news/los-angeles-1984-an-indelible-legacy.

Pieroth, Doris Hinson. 1996. Their Day in the Sun: Women of the 1932 Olympics. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Poynton wins diving event. 1932. Photograph. Los Angeles Public Library. https://tessa2.lapl.org/digital/collection/photos/id/102592/rec/1.

Siegel, Barry. 2019. Dreamers and Schemers: How an Improbable Bid for the 1932 Olympics Transformed Los Angeles from Dusty Outpost to Global Metropolis. Oakland: University of California Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvp2n303.