Introduction to 'A Proper Spectacle'

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This book was written on the eve of a new century, and of the Sydney Olympics. The year 2000 marks one hundred years of women’s recognition as legitimate competitors in the Olympic Games.

There were no women registered as competitors when the first modern Games took place in 1896. Even when their participation was given official sanction in 1900, for many years they encountered incredible opposition to being accepted as serious athletes. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympics, was himself vehemently opposed to women taking part in competitive sport. In July 1912 he said:

"Tomorrow, there will probably be women runners, or even women football players? If such sports are played by women, would they constitute a proper spectacle to offer the audience that an Olympiad brings together? We do not think this may be claimed to be so." 1

Though we might forgive the Baron his opinion - it was over eighty years ago, after all - he was not alone in his views. At the turn of the century, many doctors believed that if women took part in sport there was a strong chance they would become infertile, and it was a common view that sporting women might even turn into men. It was a time when women could not vote. Their main role in life was to marry and raise a family.

The earliest women Olympians of the modern era were born during this time, so what was it about them that led them to defy convention when so much was against them? We decided to find out by simply asking the women who were there - and so a quest began. We contacted the Olympic Associations of countries whose women took part in the Olympic Games prior to World War II, and asked if they would help us locate their oldest women Olympians. The majority of countries who took part in these games were European. Africa (except South Africa) and most of Asia (with the exception of Japan and Australia) did not feature prominently in women’s Olympic competition before World War II.

The Olympic Associations of Greece, Argentina, Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Sweden and USA helped in the search. We were further assisted by colleagues in the International Society of Olympic Historians and staff at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne who enabled us to track down many of the oldest sportswomen in the world. Initially, we sent out a questionnaire, and many responded with astounding letters and photographs. This was followed up by telephone conversations and more letters.

Considerable help came from the families of some of the women who were unable to respond personally, either through illness or frailty, but were keen to be included. We were able to visit and record on audio tape the memories of the oldest British women Olympians.

Many of the women who contacted us were extremely generous in what they shared, and some seemed astonished to be asked about their experiences. This was not surprising to us. With a few exceptions, women’s Olympic sporting history is not well documented, and published first hand accounts seem very rare. As Physical Education lecturers who had trained during the late 1960s and early 70s, we knew very little about women’s sporting history. When we embarked upon this book, we wanted to make a contribution to that history by allowing the women to tell their stories and to set them in their historical context. Incredibly, there are still women with us today who competed in the Olympic Games of 1924! We offer a glimpse of their early lives to try to ascertain who or what influenced them, but primarily we have concentrated on the personal experiences of women competitors in the Games of 1928, 1932 and 1936. Several women comment on shared experiences, yet come at these experiences from different cultures and upbringings. There is richness in both their diversity and commonality.

In a book about sportswomen, there is always the problem of how to name them. Many of those who contributed to this book competed as single women, and have subsequently married. They come from a generation who are accustomed to taking their husbands’ names. We have tried to solve the problem simply by calling them the name they competed under and including any other names in the final section and the appendix. This seemed to offer the greatest clarity.

A Proper Spectacle’ is not a book concerned with statistics - the National and World records these women held are long since shattered - but it contains historical facts, stories and memories about sports, sportswomen and the Summer Olympic Games that we believe to be important and that have moved or interested us.

In the true Olympic spirit of it being important to participate and not necessarily to win, some of the women featured in this book did not gain medals, and not all made it to the Olympics - but their stories illustrate crucial aspects of women’s struggle to participate in sport, and provide a wonderful insight into their lives. The women who played competitive sports in the early part of the twentieth century did so in a climate of unacceptability - Betty Schwartz Robinson’s very first women’s gold track medal was won when it was still being debated whether or not she should even be there!

This book celebrates these bold spirits who have enabled the women athletes of today to excel.