ATLANTA — You hear the heavy breathing and footsteps as soon as you enter the first gallery of the exhibit. The labored breaths are those of Melpomene, a Greek woman who ran the Olympic marathon unofficially 100 years ago. Although 113 athletes participated in the first game of the modern Olympics, Melpomene was barred from competition.
Many of the 3,700 women athletes marching into the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremonies on July 19 will be unfamiliar with Melpomene's early effort. But her story and that of other women struggling to gain admission to the Olympics is told in "The Olympic Woman," a recently opened multimedia exhibit in Atlanta.
Part almanac of women's firsts and part pep rally, the exhibit focuses on female athletes' battle to overcome barriers and stereotypes on and off the playing field. It covers five time periods, from the Victorian era to the present.
A time line with photographs, newspaper articles, memorabilia, statistics, and trivia from the past 100 years frames the walls. The Bijou (a re-created Parisian theater) tells the stories of early athletes and the development of women's events in track and field and team sports.
A parlor cluttered with Victorian gewgaws provides the backdrop for objects from the early Games. A faded photo shows golfer Margaret Abbott, wearing a long skirt and a long-sleeved starched shirtwaist buttoned to her neck, at the Paris Games of 1900. Abbott, America's first Olympic woman, won a porcelain bowl for first place in golf, one of the few sports considered "ladylike."
Enlarged photos show swimmer Sarah "Fanny" Durack, the young Australian who invaded the "bastion of male privilege" and set a world record for the 100-yard freestyle in the 1912 Olympics. She won a gold medal, but she shocked officials when she threw off her long robe and revealed a sleeveless, form-fitting, one-piece swimsuit.
But some of the most telling images come in a later section. Fanny Blankers-Koen, a Dutch runner known as the "Marvelous Mama," broke records and stereotypes at the 1948 Games in London. Though she was considered too old to compete because she was married and had two children, Fanny sprinted her way to four gold medals.
In 1952, Patricia McCormick, an American diver, snatched two gold medals at her first Olympic Games in Helsinki. In the 1956 Melbourne Games, she repeated her performance just months after giving birth to her first child. Color photographs show Kelly McCormick, one of Patricia's children, winning a silver medal 28 years later.
Other barriers were broken in the shadow of the cold war at the 1952 Games. The Soviet Union entered the competition and women dominated a new individual sport: gymnastics. Color footage spotlights Olga Korbut's daredevil performance on the uneven bars at the 1972 Munich Olympics and Romania's Nadia Comaneci's perfect-10 performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The last section shows the growing globalization of the Games, but coverage of recent Olympians is limited. Photographs show a triumphant Hassisa Boulmerka, an Algerian runner bounding through the finish line at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. Though Boulmerka took home a gold medal, she had been denounced by fundamentalist Muslims for showing her legs at the world championships in Tokyo in 1991.
While "The Olympic Woman" has some gaps that sometimes pose more questions than answers - such as in the section on Winter Games where there is little text - it is an ambitious first-time effort. The exhibit celebrates how far women have come and hints at how far they have to go.
Even though a record-breaking number of women are competing in the 1996 Games (39 percent more than in Barcelona), they still struggle to gain recognition and parity on the field and in the decisionmaking arena. Only seven women serve on the 104-member International Olympic Committee, the body established in 1894 to guide and govern the Olympic movement.
A quotation next to a life-size photo of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, two-time, gold-medal winner in track, sums up: "Women in sports now receive equal recognition, but they still have to work twice as hard as men to be recognized."
*'The Olympic Woman' is at the Alumni Hall of Georgia State University in Atlanta through Aug. 4.