Great British Olympians through the decades
As one of three countries to have competed in every Olympics, Britain has a long line of pioneering women.
From one female athlete in Paris 1900 to more women than men for the first time at Tokyo 2020, Team GB’s growth has been fueled by its female contingent.
On International Women’s Day, here’s a look at some of the great British women who have made Olympic history over the decades.
1900 – Charlotte Cooper
Declared completely deaf at the age of 26, Cooper’s exploits on the tennis court still resonate more than a century later.
She holds the distinction of being the first woman to become an Olympic champion with a singles gold medal at the 1900 Games in Paris and was also the first woman to represent Team GB.
It’s fair to say they were different times. Cooper’s nephew Bob Beausire once recounted what his aunt, known to those close to her as Chattie, had done the first time she won.
“She cycled back from Wimbledon to find her brother at home trimming the roses. When he asked her what she was doing, she replied, ‘I just won the championship’, at that moment there he said nothing, turned around and went back to pruning his roses.”
READ MORE: Charlotte Cooper, the original pioneer of women’s tennis
1910 – Beautiful White
White won Britain’s first-ever Olympic diving medal with bronze in the platform event at Stockholm in 1912.
Also a competent swimmer who won international titles in the water, she competed in three more Games and did so aged nearly 34 in 1928.
Diving in the Olympics in White’s day was completely different from what we know – and arguably more difficult, with divers competing on both 10m and 5m rigs.
White’s story is little known, but his name lives on in the sport to this day. The Belle White Trophy is still awarded to the top women’s team in the English Age Group Championships.
1920 – Lucy Morton
Morton was never named as the first British woman to win an individual Olympic title in swimming.
But that’s exactly what she did in the 200m breaststroke at Paris 1924, taking gold as British world record holder Irene Gilbert languished in fifth place.
She was the only non-American winner of a women’s swimming title at these Games – Morton’s victory was so unexpected that Britain’s national anthem was not ready to be played and a correctly sized flag was not could not be found for the victory ceremony.
Morton’s Olympic gold medalist was a guest star on Antiques Roadshow in 2020 when her granddaughter Julia took her on the show for inspection. It was valued by BBC expert Adam Schoon at £15,000.
1930s – Cecilia Colledge
Figure skater Colledge is the youngest athlete to ever represent Team GB.
She was the youngest competitor of any nation at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, competing in the singles event at the age of just 11.
Colledge, who served as a paramedic during World War II, won Olympic silver in Garmisch-Partenkirchen four years later.
1940 – Maureen Gardner
Flying Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen was the undisputed star of the second edition of the London Games in 1948, but Gardner was only a fraction of a second behind her.
Gardner won silver in the 80-meter hurdles at her home Games, edged out by Blankers-Koen, with the two athletes initially credited with a joint world record 11.2 seconds.
The hurdler took up athletics after contracting pleurisy and pneumonia and was advised to try the sport to regain her strength.
Initially trained as a ballet dancer, Gardner went on to found and develop ballet schools in three English cities and Ottawa, Canada, and served as an overseas examiner for the Royal Academy.
1950s – Gillian Sheen
50 years after his first participation in the Olympic fencing programme, Sheen won Team GB its first gold medal.
The 28-year-old beat Romania’s Olga Orban to claim victory in foil.
In the excitement of victory, the British team manager rushed to congratulate her and only narrowly avoided impaling herself on her sword.
Sheen, a dental surgeon, moved to New York and set up an orthodontic practice alongside her husband,
1960 – Mary Rand
The first “golden girl” of British athletics, Mary Rand had one of the finest performances by a British female athlete in Tokyo in 1964.
She broke the world record for winning gold in the long jump, snatched silver in the pentathlon and bronze in the 4x100m relay, showing an incredible variety of form and skill.
The gold medal makes her the first British woman to win gold in an Olympic athletics discipline.
These incredible Games won her the Sports Personality of the Year award, the second woman to win it after Anita Lonsbrough in 1962.
1970s – Mary Peters
Following in Rand’s footsteps, Peters redefined women’s multi-competition and delivered the performance of her life on the biggest stage possible at Munich 1972.
The Northern Irish star outlasted German favorites to break the pentathlon world record and claim Britain’s first multi-event Olympic title.
Peters remained in athletics for many years after her crowning glory as a team leader, including at the Olympics.
1980 – Tessa Sanderson
The success of British women in the Olympics at the end of the 20th century was all about athletics and Sanderson was the next to break new ground for Team GB.
After being devastated not to qualify for the final in Moscow in 1980, Sanderson became the first British woman to win an Olympic title with a gold medal in Los Angeles four years later.
Defined in the public eye by a fierce national rivalry with Fatima Whitbread, Sanderson would become the second track and field athlete from any nation to reach six Olympic Games.
1990s – Sally Gunnell
Gunnell’s dominance in women’s endurance hurdles during this decade speaks for itself.
She remains the only British female athlete to have won Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles in the same event, and the only woman to have done so in the 400m.
Gunnell won a convincing Olympic victory in Barcelona in 1992 and broke the world record a year later.
2000s – Rebecca Adlington
The 2000s heralded an initial burst of Olympic success for British female athletes.
Denise Lewis, Shirley Robertson, Victoria Pendleton and Christine Ohuruogu were among those who dazzled with gold at the Games.
But Adlington’s double gold in Beijing came in a sport where British women had visibly struggled for decades.
With gold in the 400m, Adlington became the first British woman since 1960 to win gold in swimming and then the first British female swimmer to win multiple medals with 800m glory.
2010s – Helen Glover
Like Adlington, Glover broke the glass ceiling for British women on the lake rowing by becoming the country’s first Olympic champion in the sport alongside Heather Stanning.
The gold medal for the women’s pair broke the seal in the London 2012 medal rush and the pair returned to defend their title at Rio 2016.
Glover would also compete at Tokyo 2020 as the first mother to represent Team GB in rowing.
She was joined in Team GB in 2012 and 2016 by so many amazing contemporary women including Jessica Ennis, Laura Kenny, Katherine Grainger, Charlotte Dujardin and many more.
Team GB fielded more female than male athletes for the first time and they delivered countless memorable moments in Japan.
Among them were gold medals in BMX for Charlotte Worthington and Beth Shriever and a historic fifth Olympic gold medal for Laura Kenny in a majestic Madison with Katie Archibald.
🔥🔥🔥@chazworther landed the first 360 backflip – a trick never before done in women’s competition – to win gold.
– Team GB (@TeamGB) August 1, 2021
Hannah Mills also became the most decorated sailor in Olympic history with 470 gold medals alongside Eilidh McIntyre.
The British team has won gold at the last four Winter Olympics and all have been won by female athletes.
This time it was the turn of Eve Muirhead, Vicky Wright, Jennifer Dodds and Hailey Duff who beat Japan in the final to win Britain’s first women’s curling gold medal since 2002.
Sports beat 2022