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Germaine Delapierre

The 1921 Women's Olympiad: 100 years of women's sport

On 10 August 1922 20,000 spectators piled into the Stade Pershing in Paris to watch the first Women’s Olympics.

Image: France's Germaine Delapierre who won a gold medal at hurdles | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Over one hundred years ago the world’s first international sporting event for women took place in Monaco. The 1921 Women’s Olympiad was held in Monte Carlo on 24-31 March and featured competitors from just five nations: France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, and Norway. The venue for the games was a lawn in front of the ‘Tir aux Pigeons’, or pigeon shooting range, just below the Monte Carlo Casino. Substantial crowds watched dozens of women run hurdles, throw javelins, and play basketball.

Anything a man can do, Violette can do!

Leading competitors in these games included Mary Lines (1893-1978) of the United Kingdom and Violette Morris (1893-1944) of France. Mary Lines won gold in several athletics events including the 60m, which she ran in 8.2 seconds. At the 1922 Women’s World Games in Paris, she won gold in the 300m by sprinting 44.8 seconds. She tragically died running across a road to a post box at the age of 85.

Violette Morris was a highly successful yet controversial athlete. A driven competitor who participated in many sports such as wrestling, boxing, tennis, and horseracing, her personal motto was, in English, ‘Anything a man can do, Violette can do!’

Acquitted for shooting a man dead in self-defence in 1937, Morris was later accused of being a Nazi collaborator. One day in 1944 she was ambushed on a country road by the French Resistance and machine-gunned to death.

The organisation of these 1921 games is credited to Camille Blanc, president of the International Sporting Club of Monaco, and Frenchwoman Alice Milliat (1884-1957).

Milliat and her organisation went on to hold four Women’s World Games between 1922 and 1934. It all began for Milliat at Fémina Sport, a Paris sports club for upper-class women. Throughout the 1910s Milliat, whose own sport was rowing, rose through the ranks of the administration of women’s sports in France.

Milliat’s goal was to push women’s track-and-field events, and the 1921 Monaco games were something of a test case for dedicated international women’s athletics. Milliat, having proved the credibility of such an event, in October of that year founded and later became president of the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI).

On 10 August 1922 20,000 spectators piled into the Stade Pershing in Paris to watch the first Women’s Olympics, organised by the FSFI. Eleven events were held, including a 1km race.

Milliat’s compatriot Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), lauded as the reviver of the modern Olympic Games, was not a fan of women’s sports. Women could participate in some events at the Olympic Games from 1900, but only in a small number of selected events which only gradually increased with each games.

The International Olympic Committee played hard ball in its negotiations, asking that Milliat drop the use of the term ‘Olympics after the 1922 event, but in 1928 the IOC did agree to allow women to participate in athletics events at the Amsterdam Olympic Games.

Among the highlights of the 1926 Women’s World Games, as they were now called, was Japanese teenager Kinue Hitomi, the first women’s international sports competitor from the island nation. She won medals in events such as discuss and long jump.

The games went from strength to strength, with 17 teams at the Prague 1930 games and 19 at the London games of 1934.

Despite success in Amsterdam, women’s athletics participation at the Olympic Games was hanging on by a thread. Milliat had to fight to keep them in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The 1936 Olympic Games saw a much fuller integration of the Games in the sense that the Women’s World Games ceased to be.

The participation of women in the Summer Olympics has not increased as sharply over the years as one might imagine. In 1900 the percentage of women participants was 2.2%, but in 1948 it was still only 9.5%, 23% in 1984, and in 2016 was 45%.

Alice Milliat was described by contemporaries as strong-willed and outspoken, and throughout her career in sports administration she continually broke down barriers and assumed leadership roles traditionally held by men.

A dedicated feminist who also campaigned for women’s suffrage, she stood up against critics of women’s participation in sport. One of her main counterarguments was quite unusual for the time, even among feminists – the idea of the athletic female. Milliat argued that a woman could be muscular, strong, and fast, and still have what were then seen as ‘traditional’ feminine traits such as elegance and charm.

Milliat considered sport to not just be an important step forward for women on its own, but also something which would do a great deal to further the cause of women’s rights in general, particularly suffrage. Given the (ahem) hurdles that these events had to overcome, and the strides forward that they represented, all played out on the world stage, it would not be an exaggeration to say therefore that Milliat’s and Blanc’s 1921 games and their successor events contributed to the campaign for women’s voting rights. Though women in Britain and America had been able to vote since 1918 and 1920, respectively, in many countries women were still disenfranchised. For instance in France, Milliat's own country women could not vote till 1945.

She was recognised by those who knew her as a force of nature. American sports administrator Avery Brundage (1887-1975) said of Milliat: ‘She was active for years and she demanded more and more. She made quite a nuisance of herself.’

Milliat, apart from a sports administrator, was at times a translator and teacher. She lived for a time in London with her French husband Joseph Milliat before he died in 1908.