Philip Barker ©insidethegames

It was perhaps appropriate that Brazil's first Rio 2016 gold medal last summer was won by a woman who had encountered great adversity en-route to Olympic glory. 

Rafaela Lopes Silva, a judoka, had grown up in the Cidade de Deus, the infamous City of God favela in Rio. She had overcome poverty and racism to reach the Olympic podium. Disqualified in 2012, she was targeted with racist messages by social media bullies before recovering to reach the 2016 final. There she beat Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia to win gold in the under-57 kilograms category.

"It has been tough but it was worth it," said Silva after her success.

Women were banned from participating in the ancient Olympics in Greece. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Games in the late 19th century, he had no plans to accommodate women on the field of play either. At the first Olympiad of the modern era, held in Athens in 1896, every competitor was male.

"As for the admission of women to the Games, I remain strongly against it," said de Coubertin. "It was against my will that they were admitted to a growing number of competitions.

"Their role should be above all to crown the victors."

For all that, there was no shortage of women who wanted to participate. In 1884, Wimbledon held its first tennis championship for ladies. Long before Serena and Venus Williams, Maud Watson defeated her sister Lillian in the inaugural final.

The match was contested in front of "a numerous and fashionable company assembled at the grounds", according to the Daily Telegraph.

Rafaela Silva won an emotional first home gold medal for Brazil at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Rafaela Silva won an emotional first home gold medal for Brazil at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

Soon Maud would be eclipsed by the exploits of 15-year-old Lottie Dod who beat her in the summer of 1887. 

At Wimbledon itself, Dod overcame defending champion Blanche Bingley in straight sets to win. The Daily Telegraph reported her victory with prophetic words: "As she bids fair to improve further, the young lady will probably uphold the title for some time to come". 

Dod eventually won five singles titles. A great all round sportswoman, she was accomplished at archery and took Olympic silver at the London Olympics of 1908. These contests were held in the centre of the stadium at White City, but there were no concessions to athleticism. The archers wore ankle length skirts.

Progress remained slow and, frustrated by the lack of opportunity, women started to take matters into their own hands. A women's sport movement set up their own Games in the spring of 1921. This was a five day competition held in Monaco and was organised by Frenchwoman Alice Milliat.

She was described as "the soul of the women's sports movement, a living example of modern woman accustomed to all sports disciplines and fulfilling the role which falls to women in this vibrant 20th century".

The Daily Telegraph noted that "the feminine athletic movement has made considerable progress in France".

The Games were an immediate success and were repeated in 1922 when organisers claimed "they would eclipse the success which attended them last year for entries are more numerous." The programme included athletics and swimming, as well as demonstrations of methods of physical education and rhythmic dancing.

Milliat believed that sport "developed personalities, gives confidence and courage and generates a resourceful spirit".

It was a message which had fallen on deaf ears at the Football Association (FA) in England, the oldest governing body in the sport. In 1921 the FA decreed that "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged". 

They imposed a ban on women playing at Football League grounds. This was despite the fact that some women's matches had attracted crowds in excess of 50,000 only the previous year.

Nor were the English authorities alone in their disdain for women. Only in the late 1960s did international attempts to organise women's football bear real fruit. Even then a respected magazine such as France Football could still scoff that "all organised attempts can only be doomed to failure".

"In our opinion football is only for men," the magazine added.

The first unofficial women's World Cup was held in 1971 but it was not until the 1990s that the first tournament took place under the FIFA banner. Olympic recognition finally came in 1996 and female footballers are now the first Olympians called into action at any Summer Games.

Lottie Dod was an early pioneer of women's tennis ©Getty Images
Lottie Dod was an early pioneer of women's tennis ©Getty Images

In cricket there are records of women playing since the early days. In 1803, the Duke of Dorset wrote in the Sporting Magazine that "the ladies have lately given us a specimen that they know how to handle the ball and the bat with the best of us".

Later in the century clubs were organised, but chauvinist attitudes among the men were hard to change.

It was not until 1976 that women were allowed to play a match at Lord's Cricket Ground in London, considered the headquarters of the game.

This was down to the persistence of the late Dame Rachael Heyhoe Flint, the captain of the England team. A journalist who played hockey and cricket at the top level, she proudly led England onto the field for a one day international against Australia, although it would be another two decades before women were able to apply for membership of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). 

It had been Heyhoe-Flint's own request which set the process in motion. Eventually, a vote was taken by the members. When the votes were counted, the women were in at last and in 1999, ten women including Heyhoe-Flint were admitted as honorary members. An MCC women's team was established that summer for the first time. It was something that would have been unthinkable when women's cricket had started organising itself in the 1920s. Back then, they had requested a fixture at Lord's and were met with a cool response. "No dates".

Would-be female Olympians found a similarly intransigent attitude. At the Games immediately following the First World War, the programme for women was very limited but tennis was permitted. The game had a genuine superstar in Suzanne Lenglen of France.

Women had still not been allowed to take part in athletics at the Olympic Games. That changed with the 1926 International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session held in Lisbon. International Amateur Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Johannes Sigfrid Edstrom promoted the admission of women's athletics in "a restricted number of athletic events at the Games".

At the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, they competed in races up to 800 metres but there remained opposition to their continued participation.

At the Session in Lausanne the following year, IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour read a message from Denmark's Ivar Nyholm which told of a meeting of Scandinavian countries "a resolution was passed urging a complete suppression of all women's events from the Games". 

Ernst Krogius of Finland had sent a letter in similar vein, saying that the Finnish Olympic Committee had voted for "the exclusion of women entirely".

Such a draconian measure did not happen but at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, women competing in athletics were restricted to the jumps, javelin throw and no race longer than 200m. Even so, America's Mildred "Babe" Didrikson showed the way with inspirational performances in the Los Angeles Coliseum. For good measure she was also a magnificent golfer.

Some were less than impressed. In the late 1930s, the American sportswriter Paul Gallico wrote in withering terms: "it is a lady's business to look beautiful and there are hardly any sports in which she seems able to do it".

The official Olympic rule book devoted just one paragraph to the participation of women.

"Women are allowed to compete in certain events at the Olympic Games," it read. "The programme sets forth the events in which they may take part".

Rachael Heyhoe-Flint engineered great strides in women's cricket ©Getty Images
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint engineered great strides in women's cricket ©Getty Images

In the 1930s, women were permitted to fence at the Games but they were limited to the foil until as recently as 1996.

The distance restriction of 200m on the track lasted until 1960. They had raced over 800m back in 1928 but when some finishers appeared exhausted, it was used as a pretext to limit the programme.

For all the movements towards sexual equality in the 1970s, sportswomen remained undervalued. The 1939 Wimbledon men's champion Bobby Riggs, now aged 55, was vocal in his criticism of women's tennis. He beat Australian Margaret Court in a match subsequently dubbed "the Mothers' Day Massacre". Riggs then challenged Billie Jean King. This was to be a 'winner takes all' contest with a prize of $100,000 (£81,000/€94,000) at the Houston Astrodome. It took place in September 1973 and attracted huge television audiences worldwide.

King was carried to the court in a sedan chair decorated with pink and white ostrich feathers and Riggs arrived on a bright red rickshaw.

King won all three sets to claim a comfortable victory but later admitted to an "overwhelming feeling of responsibility".

For all her successes, when she played at Wimbledon, the scoreboard still described her as Mrs LW King, using her husband's initials instead of her own. It was not until the new millennium that the goal of equal pay would finally be achieved.

Progress was equally slow in other areas.

Women's rowing did not appear on the Olympic programme until 1976, the first hockey tournament only in 1980 and women cyclists not until 1984 and even then only in a road race. Track events did come later.

It was not until the year 2000 that women's weightlifting and modern pentathlon were finally admitted to the Olympic programme.

It was perhaps not so surprising. There were very few female sports reporters and even fewer in sports administration. 

For the first 87 years of its existence, the IOC did not have any women members. It was not until 1981 that Flor Isava Fonseca of Venezuela and former athlete Pirjo Haggman of Finland were finally co-opted. In time, American rower Anita de Frantz was elected to the IOC Executive Board and more recently German fencer Claudia Bokel and American ice hockey player Angela Ruggiero have both headed the Athletes' Commission.

Women were actually banned from carrying the Olympic flame in the early years, though some did so in spite of official edicts. It was only at the 1956 Equestrian Games held in Stockholm that women took a prominent role in transporting the Olympic Torch. 

Gold medal winning gymnast Karin Lindberg was one of the Torch bearers in the Stockholm Olympic Stadium. It was not until a dozen years later that Mexican 400m runner Enriqueta Basilio would be the first to light the actual cauldron in the stadium. Others, including Japanese skater Midori Ito and Australian 400m hero Cathy Freeman, have memorably done so since.

Some nations refused to include women in their teams. It was not until 2012 that Saudi Arabia's team included female representation. Sarah Attar, an 800m runner, was the first to do so in 2012. She studied in the United States at Pepperdine University.

Nawal El Moutawakel made history for Morocco at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics ©Getty Images
Nawal El Moutawakel made history for Morocco at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics ©Getty Images

"’It is a huge honour and I hope that it can make some big strides for women over there to get more involved in sport," said Attar.

Morocco's Nawal El Moutawakel had taken the same American collegiate path to the Olympics almost 30 years before. She was a student at Iowa State University and astounded many by winning 400m hurdles gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Hers was a groundbreaking triumph, the first woman from the Islamic world to win a gold medal.

"That performance was a giant step to open up a door to millions of people who in the past did not know the beauty and power of sport," she told me.

El Moutawakel broke down further barriers in the world of international sport. She became an IOC member and led the IOC's own Women in Sport Commission, a group which would have been unthinkable in the early years of the Olympic Movement.

"It is going to improve, you have to walk then jog then sprint," she said. "You can feel it and you can witness it, when you see how many women are part of delegations compared to in my period when I was the only female in the Moroccan team in 1984."

Perhaps the greatest breakthrough for women came in that most symbolic of Olympic events, the marathon. 

Nobody would now question the ability of any woman to run the 26 miles and 385 yards but in 1980, a women's race on the streets of London was a trailblazing idea.

"The race is particularly important because there is no Olympic marathon for women," said Women's Amateur Athletic Association secretary Marea Hartman. "I believe the eyes of the world will be focussed on the race."

The IAAF were supportive. "Contrary to the traditional opinion that the physical performing capacity of woman is limited and that she cannot be exposed to greater strain mainly with respect to her endurance, sports physiological research shows completely different results," said the Austrian Professor Ludwig Prokop in their bulletin.

"Under extreme conditions of constant performance, women must even be rated higher than men. Women approach the performances of men as the distances increase and going over extremely long distances they often achieve better results than the men.''

His work concluded that "there are no relevant sports medical grounds against marathon running for women".

Joan Benoit won the first Olympic women's marathon ©Getty Images
Joan Benoit won the first Olympic women's marathon ©Getty Images

The organisers of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were keen to include the race on their programme and when they gave the IOC a progress report before the 1980 Moscow Olympics, they included a report by their own medical director Dr Anthony Daly. He was not even permitted to address the Session.

"The IOC did its best to reject a women’s marathon," claimed Organising Committee President Peter Ueberroth, who recalled "a heated argument on the floor of the Session".

The following spring, when the Executive Board met in Los Angeles, the decision was taken "that the women’s marathon be included on the Olympic programme for the Games but not at the same time as the men".

Joan Benoit wrote her name into the record books as the first female Olympic marathon champion. She had recovered from knee surgery shortly before the US trials and led the Olympic race from the third mile onwards.

"I was able to push from within, I had an innate desire to succeed," she said later.

Later, Ueberroth described the inclusion of the race as "one of the greatest achievements" of the Los Angeles Games.