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IOC celebrates 100th International Women's Day

March 08, 2011, 12:19 p.m. (ET)

When Cathy Ferguson was 10 she made a decision that changed her life.

She started swimming at the YMCA in Burbank, Calif.

Seems like an awfully mundane task today, as thousands of young girls jump in pools around the country for lessons and practice on swim teams. But when Ferguson did this, back in 1958, it was long before Title IX was adopted (in 1972), before the Civil Rights movement kicked into full swing, and before many female athletes were able to excel in any sports — let alone at a YMCA — it was quite an anomaly.

“I do know that as a young girl I was looking for a way to express myself and I found that path through swimming,’’ said Ferguson, who later became the first female recipient of the National YMCA Achievement Award.  “Swimming really helped direct my path.’’

Her path led her to the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games, where she earned two gold medals (100-meter backstroke, 4x100 relay).

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Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, Aimee Mullin, Jessica Mendoza, Dominique Dawes and Nancy Hogshead-Makar attend the 30th Annual Salute To Women In Sports Awards at The Waldorf Astoria on October 13, 2009. (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for the Women's Sports Foundation)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a day in which hundreds of events around the world are being held to discuss women’s issues, ranging from medical topics to education to equal rights issues and yes, sports.

In conjunction with this celebration on June 23, the International Olympic Committee will present its annual “Women and Sport’’ awards, which have been awarded since 2000 (under the leadership of Juan Antonio Samaranch) to women or men or organizations that have made a significant contribution to the development of women’s sports in their countries.

The IOC also announced the theme of the 2012 World Conference on Women and Sport which is “Together Stronger: The Future of Sport”. The quadrennial event will take place in the United States for the first time in February 2012 after being staged in Jordan in 2008 and Morocco in 2004. The event will be organized jointly by the IOC, the United States Olympic Committee and the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games.

Women have come a long way, certainly since the time when Ferguson cruised through the pool in Tokyo. For starters, back in 1964, there were only eight swimming events open to women. Next summer in London, women swimmers will compete in 16. On the winter sports front, there is an effort being made to add women’s ski jumping to the Olympic program.

Women are also making an impact off the field. During the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, four-time U.S. Olympic ice hockey player Angela Ruggiero was elected to the IOC’s 114-member board. She became the third American to be voted onto the board and the second American woman joining Anita DeFrantz. Figure skater Michelle Kwan has traveled the world for both President George Bush and President Barack Obama as a sports ambassador. And three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes was named co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

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Figure skating Olympian Michelle Kwan (left) poses with United States women's hockey silver medalist Angela Ruggiero at the USA House on February 25, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. (Warren Little/Getty Images)

It was the work of women athletes such as Ferguson who helped paved the way for the generation of Ruggiero, Kwan and Dawes and for the next generation of young female athletes. In fact, some of that development happened right in Ferguson’s own home.

Ferguson, now the CEO of Girl Scouts Central California South, watched two of her three daughters earn athletic collegiate scholarships and both of them went on to compete internationally in diving. One of her daughters, Allison Brennan, continues to compete today. (Her third daughter, by the way, did not earn a scholarship but was involved in synchronized swimming and dance).

Women’s participation in the Olympic Games has risen steadily over the years. In 1984, when Los Angeles played host to the Games, 23 percent of the athletes were women. By 2008, when the Games were held in Beijing, that percentage had risen to 43 percent. With the addition of women’s boxing to the Olympic program, the 2012 Games in London will have women competing in every sport on the Olympic program for the first time.

A sign that interest among young women participating in competitive sports is strong is this statistic: At the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, held last summer in Singapore, 46 percent of the competitors were female.

The landscape has changed so much for women it’s hard to believe that in 1896, the first year the modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, a Greek woman named Stamata Revithi was told that she was not allowed to compete in the race the next day as the entry deadline had expired. The truth, historians say, is that she was not allowed to race because of her gender. It wasn’t until the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games that women were allowed to compete in the marathon, and that inaugural Olympic race was won by American Joan Benoit.

The benefits of women being involved in sports are numerous and have been well researched and documented. The Women’s Sports Foundation commissioned a report titled “Her Life Depends On It II: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women’’ and an updated version released in 2009 revealed dramatic results. 

Among the findings in the report, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation are as follows:

“Research affirms, even more definitively than five years ago, that engagement in  moderate and consistent levels of physical activity and sport for girls and women is essential to good health and well-being.

“Although more research needs to be done, early studies examining the connections between physical activity and academic achievement show there is a positive relationship between the two in girls and women.

“Females from lower economic backgrounds and females of color engage less in physical activity, have less access to sport and physical fitness programs, and suffer negative health consequences as a result.’’

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Olympic swimmers Donna de Varona and Nancy Hogshead-Makar attends the 31st Annual Salute to Women in Sports gala at The Waldorf Astoria on October 12, 2010. ( Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a swimmer who won four medals (three gold) at the 1984 Olympic Games, understands this all too well. She is now an attorney and prominent advocate of gender equity in sports and a specialist on Title IX.

“What athletics does is very important for women for the rest of her life,’’ Hogshead-Makar said. “A kid who’s in sports will have more education, higher wages and more full-time employment than a kid who is not involved in sports.’’

The Olympic movement provides a unique opportunity to create gender equality, said Olympic gold medalist softball player Jessica Mendoza, who just completed her term as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation (women’s champion boxer Laila Ali is the incoming president).      

“I hope the Olympics will be one place where there can be equality across countries, gender and race, across the board,’’ Mendoza said.  

Over the years, Mendoza has traveled around the world, from Afghanistan to South Africa to Brazil, and has been able to see a wide range of women’s involvement in sports. She has held clinics and seminars in various countries and traveled with her father to Mexico, where her family hails from, to bring equipment to young girls.

“Even when I bring old balls and used bats it’s so amazing how much that can help,’’ Mendoza said.

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Olympic Softball player Jessica Mendoza attends the 31st Annual Salute to Women in Sports gala at The Waldorf-Astoria. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

During her time as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation one of the programs Mendoza worked closely with is called, Go Girl Go! which focuses on the physical and emotional health and well being of girls. Getting girls active is one step. Taking them to a more competitive level is the next, Mendoza said.

As for her own sport, softball, which is no longer part of the Olympic program, Mendoza continues to promote the game around the world. The next opportunity for softball to re-enter the Games is in 2020 and this summer, the IOC will release a short list of sports it will consider for entry into those Games.

There are many gender issues for the IOC to tackle and many of them will be addressed at the upcoming World Conference on Women and Sport, including a call for more women in leadership positions. The last conference held in Jordan in 2008 attracted more than 600 participants from 116 countries.

Organizers of the upcoming Olympic Games in London are hoping to use the movement as a chance to showcase gender equality. In an online posting on Reuters, Tessa Jowell, Britain’s Minister for the Olympics and London, wrote: “I use International Women’s Day to think about the role of women in the Olympics. I think the challenge is to make the Games as much a place for women as men. London 2012 is a unique opportunity to try and change the status quo and smash a few stereotypes so that in the future there are strong female role models for girls growing up – whether on the sporting field, in the boardroom or the construction site; and girls, like boys, are encouraged to aim high and be the very best.’’

And while there is still a ways to go,  Donna de Varona, another Olympic gold medalist swimmer (and a teammate of Ferguson’s) is proud of the fact that U.S. women have helped lead the way for women in the sports arena through efforts such as Title IX, scholarships, prize money in sports and even with women members in sports media. The 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day is yet another opportunity to stop and evaluate how far women have come in the world of sports and what changes need to be made in the future.

So just how does de Varona plan to celebrate the occasion? In historic fashion. She will be traveling to Spain, where the Barcelona Global Sports conference will open with its first women's panel.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.