The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Monday October 1 2018
Dear George P Sir, on page 40, Saturday 22 August, we reported that club men used a derogatory term to describe women’s club members. The journalist based this comment on a website he visited, which said its ethos was “better standards for all”, not “better conditions for one”. We are sorry for any misunderstanding.
In an age of doping scandals and allegations of sexism against sexualising sports, the US men’s tennis team marching in the 1972 Olympics and then throwing the highest finish to the women’s team in 39 years was striking.
“This was an extraordinary moment – I am proud to have been on it,” said 12-times Grand Slam singles champion Margaret Court, who earned an exemption to compete for Australia on the basis that her daughter, Annie, was among the women playing. “We made history as women, and that is all that really matters.”
From that moment on, all major sports recognised and celebrated the female contingent: Danica Patrick, Ashley Judd, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton. The International Olympic Committee – a bastion of white male dominance – reversed a ban on women participating in tennis, which was then later banned at the Tokyo Games.
Hillary Clinton reacts after winning the 2000 presidential election. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
They saw a weapon of discrimination that had been developed by former pro Jean Van de Velde, one of only two men to achieve the feat, and their desire to win world championships or Olympic medals stood in the way of equality.
In recognition of the whole Olympics tournament, Americans were awarded the first ever outright men’s team gold for tennis, which was presented to the US by President Richard Nixon. Men would protest that the award had been disproportionately selfish.
Thus began the women’s tennis resurgence. At the 1988 Seoul Games, China produced the first British men to reach the last 16 for 46 years, when Andrew Castle finished third. David Lloyd made it to the second round in 1992. And in 2004, two best friends, Mark Knowles and Colin Fleming, won the inaugural wheelchair singles gold.
From that moment on, nearly every women’s singles, doubles and mixed doubles gold medal went to American women, including two major grass-court titles this summer at Wimbledon and in New York at the US Open. The sister duo of Venus and Serena Williams have enjoyed an unprecedented 17-match winning streak, and the world No1, Sloane Stephens, was in tears after her title win on Sunday night.
Mark Knowles, a wheelchair tennis gold medallist in 2012, at the Paralympics. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP
In the 1960s, when it was easier to get to the Olympics, female athletes were taught to be all about self-sacrifice. In their constant effort to prove themselves to the International Olympic Committee, they were increasingly asked by coaches to share their sex in front of male coaches and their own teammates.
After the London Games in 2012, the IOC recognised all Russian athletes – male and female – by excluding – until the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi – their best sportswomen from the team, who were suspected of having been illegally blood-doping. This led to Russia banned from competing in Rio.
The Russian federation’s ban is unprecedented. Only another country, South Africa, has been stripped of women’s gold medals because of continued gender discrimination.
As Sir Geoff Huston put it: “We didn’t invent golf but we perfected it.”