The history of the participation of women in sport is long, extending at least to the female competitions established in Greek mythology by Hera as an alternative to the male-only Olympics of Greek antiquity. Yet, as with many histories of activities that were regarded as secondary to the more publicized male sports events, hard data concerning female sports participation in many athletic disciplines prior to 1900 is nonexistent.
In many respects, the 1928 Summer Olympics are a point of commencement in the data and goals of women in sport. This event represented the introduction of female sports at the world's most prestigious athletic event. The competition was as global as the era could have ever permitted, and the athletes who competed in the relatively limited number of track and field events open to women at the 1928 Games set definable standards for the women who followed.
The women's sports that further entered the public consciousness in the decades that followed the 1928 Olympics were an extension of individual competitions that served as the trailblazers in 1928. Figure skaters such as Sonja Henie of Norway and tennis players like American Althea Gibson became prominent athletes, although there is no particular evidence that their successes attracted greater female athletic participation in either sport. Until the 1960s, female athletics on the prominent national stages of the United States and Europe, and that of the Olympic world, tended to be those engaged in individual sporting events only.
Significant data concerning female sports began to be accumulated in the 1960s, when women began to participate on a larger scale in team sports. Volleyball was introduced for both men and women at the 1964 Olympics; basketball was introduced as a women's sport in 1976, and field hockey, a popular women's competition in Europe and Asia, was added in 1980.
The advancement of female sports in the United States paralleled Olympic developments. In 1972, the federal government of the United States passed an amendment to its existing civil rights legislation that became universally known as Title IX. Title IX established a legislative framework that mandated that all institutions in the United States that received federal funding for sports of any type were obligated to offer equal athletic opportunities for women as were offered for men. Title IX has proven to be a significant stimulus to the expansion of female sport in America, with its influence felt at every level and sports age group. The most profound example of Title IX's effect on athletics has been in the growth of female participation at the intercollegiate level; in 2005, the National Collegiate Athletic Association published the results of its own studies that illustrated an increase in intercollegiate female sports participation of over 825% since the passage of Title IX.
Studies conducted in nations such as Great Britain and Australia confirm that, like the United States, there are more women participating in competitive sports than ever before. Canadian studies identified a similar trend in the numbers of competitive female athletes. Yet since 1990 there was a parallel reduction in recreational female sports participation for women over the age of 18 years, from 61% to 48%; participation was broadly defined as an exercise or sporting activity in which the person participated at least one time per week.
The running boom of the late 1970s and the early 1980s sparked a corresponding increase in female running participation on a recreational and fitness level. The United States Track and Field Association (USTAF), the sanctioning body for all marathons held in the United States, determined that in 1980, approximately 10% of all marathon participants were women; by 2005, over 40% of marathoners were female, in an environment where overall marathon participation had increased by over 300% over the 25-year period. An example of the significant growth of the marathon as a female sport of choice is the 2005 Nike Marathon for Women, held in San Francisco, where 15,000 female runners entered the race.
Of statistical interest is the median finishing time for the 1980 female marathon group versus the modern runners. In 1980, the USTAF determined that the median female time to be approximately 4 hours, 3 minutes. In 2005, the median was determined to be over 4 hours, 20 minutes. It is clear that marathon participation has been fueled by female interests other than seeking to improve performance as measured on an absolute scale.
When the examples of increased Olympic participation and increased female participation generally are considered together, there is no ready conclusion as to whether increased participation has proven to be indicative of a widespread desire to achieve better female fitness or sport competence. Australia and other nations have identified a persistent gap, often referred to as an under representation, of females in sports coaching, officiating, and administration.
Paradoxically, the increased rate of female competitive sports participation has been paralleled by the rapid global rise in chronic health problems in both genders at all ages. In the Western world especially, poor dietary habits and a lack of exercise are significant contributors to obesity, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and various cardiovascular diseases, and each are as great a health risk for women as they were traditionally for men. The impact of each of these identified conditions is significantly reduced by exercise and good nutritional practices, which suggests that while a minority of the female population participates in sport to a significant degree, increasing numbers of women may lead entirely sedentary lives.