When the first of the modern Olympic Games was held in Athens in 1896, no women competed. Athletics, like many other areas of human activity, was labeled ''men only.''
How times have changed! More than 1,700 women are competing in the current Los Angeles Olympics - more than twice the number in 1968. Several new events are have been added for women - among them the 3,000-meter run and the grueling marathon.
In one short week women athletes have brought high athletic standards and great drama into American living rooms. Romanian and US gymnasts put on a dazzling performance of flair and ability. In a cycling road race, Connie Carpenter and Rebecca Twigg careered their bicycles across the finish line only five inches apart. Swimmer Nancy Hogshead already had two gold medals, with more races ahead. US basketball and volleyball teams are doing well.
In part, women's progress in the Olympics is built upon the forward steps taken in recent years by women in school athletics. Much stems from women's demands that - in a society which increasingly has recognized the equal rights of women - they be afforded sports opportunities equal to those of men. But what forced US schools at every level to meet this insistence was a federal law enacted in 1972, usually called Title IX. As then interpreted, it required schools to give equal athletic (and other) opportunities to women. In the ensuing ten years the number of women students competing in school athletics doubled. Meanwhile, women were advancing faster than their male colleagues.
Much of the progress for women in sports has come from the performance of women in the Olympics themselves and from women in the East-bloc nations such as pixieish Olga Korbut.
Over the same decade many barriers to women in other fields were falling.
Needed improvements for women in athletics can be identified. Although 13 of the most-recent 17 new Olympic events added were for women, some events they would like are not yet offered, such as the 10,000-meter run. At some schools women still do not have an athletic program comparable to that provided men.
In addition, some women are concerned that a ruling by the US Supreme Court this year, narrowing the interpretation of Title IX, will remove some of the impetus behind the effort to improve women's athletic facilities. They are concerned that some colleges, under considerable financial pressure, may try to save money by cutting back on women's athletic programs.
If cutbacks are to be made, they should be enacted equally between men's and women's programs. As the current Olympics are showing, the athletic skills and dedication offered by men and women in their sometimes-differing events are extraordinary and offer equal enjoyment to the spectator. In return, equal opportunity should be provided all participants, regardless of gender.