Monday 22 September 2014


Charlotte Cooper
If one looks at the involvement of women in sports, it is heartening to see the growth across the world -participating in formats which previously were considered for men. The Olympic movement has had its own evolution story when it comes to women's participation and that is only half the story. At the first modern Olympics in 1896, there were 241 athletes who took part and all were men. Compare this with the recently concluded Summer Olympics at London 2012; there were women participating from every National Olympic Committee that had sent its team. That to me happens to be the highlight of London 2012 - never mind the broadcast, internet and all the filtered figures which were reported to an all-time high.

Over the years, women's participation was in parallel to the Olympic movement itself. While the world boasted of well-known male athletes, there was little work done to provide opportunity for women to compete at the big stage. Women's growth at the Olympics was positive with each edition - but very gradual. It was zero in 1896 and in 2012, the women participation was 4,675!

Up until the 1970's, the male participation hovered around 4,000 plus athletes and in comparison the women numbers were less than thousand. This trend continued until Munich 1972 where the total number of women participants crossed 1000 for the first time and 6000 for men. From then on, it has been women participants, that are on the rise while the male participation is pretty much a constant.

These were some interesting stats I pondered over in the morning. These facts were hard to escape when I was remembering my 2005 sports quiz discovery. In 2005, while researching for the college's annual fest, I stumbled upon a lady by the name of Charlotte Cooper - who turns 144 today and has the distinction of being the first individual female Olympic champion.

Women participation at the Olympics was possible only because the games were held in Paris - so said the media and very well-known Olympic critics of that era. Interestingly it was the sport tennis which was very popular among women in the late 19th century though it being very elitist. Cooper, a British born was a Victorian woman first and then a tennis player; this was evident with the outfits that were worn by the tennis playing ladies at that time.

There were other problems that women faced. Charlotte grew up at a time when Women Suffrage movement had began and gathered momentum, demanding equal voting rights for women. She took a liking for tennis at an early age and earned her first victory at the age of 14 - something she considered as a very important moment of her illustrious life.

At the age of 23, she would win her first title at the senior's level which propelled her to the Wimbledon championships, where she would leave an ever-lasting impression on those famous green laws.

It was the year 1893 when Cooper first appeared on the famous grass courts of Wimbledon - a association which would remain till 1919. In those 26 years, a lot of events took place in her life. She had won five-singles titles, eleven finals appearances, two Olympic medals (singles and mixed-doubles), marriage to a solicitor, mother of two kids and the oldest lady singles player to win the coveted Wimbledon trophy - a Wimbledon record which stands to this date (37 years and 296 days). In addition, she was also the runner-up at the inaugural women's doubles event in 1913.

If it was Wimbledon on one side, there was also the Olympics which brought her fame and a legacy which is often recalled when one has to start a chapter on women's evolution in the Olympic movement.

1900 PARIS
The timing of the event could not have been perfect for Charlotte Cooper. One of the top ladies players going into the tournament, she had also been a three-time Wimbledon champion before representing Great Britain at the Olympics.

Six players from four nations (Great Britain, USA, France and Bohemia) participated in the debut programme of women's tennis. Three matches and three straight wins - all it took for Charlotte Cooper to become Olympic's first individual gold medallist defeating France's Hélènè Prévost 6-1, 6-4 . Cooper went on to add another gold medal to her tally and this time it was with Reginald Doherty as the British doubles team won the mixed doubles gold medal as well on the red clay courts of Il Puteaux.

The IOC until 1904 did not start the practice of awarding winning athletes with medals. The winners of the 1896 and 1900 edition were retrospectively awarded and added to the medals tally.  

Charlotte Cooper's biggest contribution towards life is that she inspired a lot of women to take up sports in the early parts of the 20th century. Not restricted to tennis, she also spent a lot of the winter time training by running and playing hockey - a sport in which she represented Surrey. Her sense of hearing was hampered by the time she was 26 and yet this ailment did not deter her to participate in future tournaments and successfully win at Wimbledon and at the Olympics. Growing up, she had the likes of Lottie Dod (5-time Wimbledon winner) and Blanche Bingley (6-time Wimbledon winner) who won regularly; Cooper joined the duo and inspired the next generation of ladies tennis players.

After becoming the Olympic champion, she married a solicitor Alfred Sterry (six years younger) and raised two children Rex and Gwyneth. Marital life with children did not deter her from giving up tennis. She continued playing tennis with best of the players well into her 50's.

Not only she holds the record for being the oldest Wimbledon champ, she also won her final title after being a mother of two and since 1908 only two have managed to win a Wimbledon title - Dorthea Lambert Chambers and Evonne Goolagong Cawley. Charlotte held the record for most Wimbledon consecutive finals appearances (eight) before that record was broken in 1990 by Martina Navratilova when made her ninth consecutive finals appearance against Zina Garrison.

Upon retirement, she took a lot of interest to help the next generation of tennis players and was seen regularly at the championships right in to her 90's. Her son Rex served as a committee member of the All-England Lawn Tennis club for many years while his sister, Gwyneth represented Great Britain in Wightman Cup and also at the Wimbledon.

Charlotte Cooper - one of the first in women tennis to use overhead serves 
The story of Cooper is not just limited to tennis. She happens to be one of the first 22 women who took part in the 1900 Summer Olympics - a number which now is in thousands and increasing with each edition. (Till date 35,510 female athletes have taken part at the Summer Olympics when compared with 108,982 male athletes)

So how do we remember on her 144th birthday - when even the founders of the modern Olympic movement (IOC) have made no mention of her on website or on twitter.

Maybe she is just a name... or a past time story, or a piece of treasure for sports historians and tennis fans, or an example of a balanced lifestyle, longevity; an athlete in possession of a record or a very good trivia question or I am trying to fit in lines to make her life size legendary......... or in simple words, I would like to remember her to be the first talking point if one has to talk about Women at the Olympics! 

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