The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, Greece, April 6–15, 1896. Women athletes could not participate for ninety-four years. Hélène de Pourtalès of Switzerland became the first female athlete to compete at the Olympic Games and the first female Olympic Champion to strike gold.
Hélène de Pourtalès (pronounced El-én day Por-tá-lay) was born in New York, New York on April 28, 1868 to Henry Barbe and Mary Lorillard Barbey.They named her Helen Barbey.
Her father was an affluent financier. Her mother came from a family whose wealth came from a tobacco empire. Helen inherited her passion for horses and love of sailing. Her uncle, Pierre Lorillard IV, lived in Newport, Rhode Island and helped make it a yachting center. He was also a Thoroughbred racehorse owner.
On April 25, 1891, Helen married Hermon Alexander, Count von Pourtalès, (1847–1904). He was a captain of the Cuirassiers of the Guard, a heavy cavalry regiment of the Royal Prussian Army. She became known as Hélène de Pourtalès.
Hélène had dual citizenship, Swiss and American. Her husband had dual Swiss-German nationality. They had three daughters.
In 1896 Europe’s most prominent families had personal flotillas. Among them were members of the Swiss Pourtalès family.
Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), was a French educator and historian, the instigator of the modern Olympic Games, and founder of the International Olympic Committee. He said that female athletes would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”
But in 1900 they allowed a few female athletes to compete as long as their legs were “aesthetically” covered by long skirts. They only allowed women to participate in five out of nineteen sports: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf. Out of 997 athletes, twenty-two were women.
One hundred-fifty yachts from six countries competed at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. Each yacht followed rules from their own area since the International Yacht Racing Union did not yet exist. No rules existed to standardize the boats either. They ordered classes by tonnage.
On May 22, Hélène was a crew member along with her husband’s nephew aboard the Swiss boat, Lérina. Her husband was helmsman. They won gold in the first of the two regattas for the 1-2 ton class boats. In the second race three days later, they won silver.
Hélène was the first Swiss female athlete to go to the Olympics, the first female athlete to compete at the Games, and the first female Olympic Gold Medalist.
NOTE: England’s Charlotte Cooper was the first individual female Olympic champion, as winner of the women’s tennis singles tournament. She also won a gold medal in the mixed doubles.
From First to Current
Hélène de Pourtalès was the first female Olympic Champion to strike gold. But she wasn’t the last. From 1956 to 1964 the Russian gymnast, Larisa Latynina, won fourteen individual medals and four team medals and became the female with the most Olympic medals. This year in Tokyo, almost 49% of the 10,305 Olympic athletes are female. It’s taken 121 years to be close to gender equality in numbers. Someday, hopefully soon, there will be true equality.