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by Bruce Kidd
Published in CAAWS Action Bulletin, Spring 1994

The Women's Olympic Games: Important Breakthrough Obscured By Time

The Women's Olympic Games have long been forgotten, but during the 1920s and 1930s they were an important, international focal point for feminist efforts to improve women's sporting opportunities.

The Women's Olympics were the brainchild of the remarkable Alice Milliat of France. A translator by profession, a rower and sports administrator by avocation, she was founder and president of La Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI). She started the Women's Games in direct response to the repeated refusal of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) to put women's track and field on the program of the Olympic Games which they organized.

Although women had competed at the IOC's Games since 1900 — initially in tennis and golf, and later in archery, gymnastics, skating, and swimming — these events were initiated by Games organizers and sympathetic international federations like La Fédération International de Natation Amateur. If IOC founder and president Pierre de Coubertin and some of his colleagues had had their way, these competitions would never have been held. The combined opposition of the IOC and the IAAF kept women out of the most prestigious sport on the program — track and field. But in their buoyant, post-suffrage enthusiasm for new frontiers, women in many countries were competing in track and field in record numbers and achieving record times. If they couldn't enter de Coubertin's Games, Milliat decided, then they would have an Olympics of their own.

The first "women's Olympic Games" was a one-day track meet in Paris in 1922. Eighteen athletes broke world records before 20,000 spectators. The second Games were held in Gothenberg, Sweden, four years later. Women from 10 nations, including distant Japan, took part. (Canada was not one of them). With a spectacular opening ceremony and marchpast, the patronage of the Swedish royal family, and several world records, the Games evoked comparisons with the IOC's Stockholm Olympics of 1912.

Such was the growing prestige of women's track and field that the IAAF wanted control. They were forced to meet with Milliat. In the ensuing negotiations, she agreed to change the name of the FSFI's event from the Women's Olympics — a name which infuriated the IOC and the IAAF — to the Women's World Games in exchange for 10 events on the IOC's program.

Although Milliat kept her part of the bargain, the IAAF subsequently granted only five events. A majority of the FSFI went along, ensuring women's competition at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam where Ethel Catherwood, Bobbie Rosenfeld and the Canadian women's relay team excelled, but the powerful British Women's Athletics Association, whose athletes had dominated the Games in Gothenberg, refused to accept anything less than the 10-event minimum. They stayed away from Amsterdam, the only feminist boycott in Olympic history.

When Canada competed in the Women's Games for the first time in 1930 in Prague, several additional sports were on the program. The sole Canadian entry was the University of British Columbia basketball team, runners-up to the Edmonton Grads for national honours that year, and winners of the Games' championship. The four consecutive "Olympic" championships, held at the time of the IOC's Games and claimed by the Grads, were all organized by the FSFI as well.

What proved to be the final FSFI Games were held in London in 1934, immediately following the British Empire Games. A number of Canadian women were thus able to participate in the more extensive FSFI program which included 12 events in track and field, compared to six at the British Empire Games. One of those events was the 800m, which the IAAF banned after several of the Amsterdam competitors showed more signs of physical exertion than patriarchal sensitivities could stomach. It would be another 32 years before women would again compete in an Olympic 800m race.

In 1935, Milliat tried to up the ante, proposing that the IOC provide a full women's program and equal women's representation on the IOC. If not, she said, the FSFI should be allowed to run a completely separate Olympic Games for women. But the IAAF effectively countered by taking over women's track and field, the FSFI's strongest suit. In the view of Milliat's biographers, Mary Leigh and Thérèse Bonim, "the FSFI had no recourse; all its cards had been played." 1 The world-wide depression and the rise to power of fascism in Europe had seriously weakened the women's sports movement. It would take the rise of second wave feminism a generation later before the FSFI's victories were extended.

Alice Milliat deserves to be remembered with honour. She was the first to significantly push the IOC towards gender equity, and her achievements prepared the ground for subsequent advances.

1 "The pioneering role of Madame Alice Milliat and the FSFI in establishing international track and field for women", Journal of Sport History, 4 (1), 1977, p. 82.

Bruce Kidd’s writing reveals his astonishing range of interests and knowledge of sport. Among his published works are articles dealing with physical activity, athletes' rights, the place of sport in the modern state, physical education for adults, sport and masculinity, and the philosophy of excellence. Almost single-handedly, he has brought attention to illustrious but largely forgotten contributors to Canada's rich sporting history such as the ground-breaking Women's Amateur Athletic Federation. His most recent work, The Struggle for Canadian Sport, won the North American Society for Sport History Book Award in 1997. During the 1960's, Bruce was Canada's best known middle-distance runner, winning the Lou Marsh Trophy for his successes on the track. He was twice chosen Canada's Male Athlete of the Year.

reprinted with permission

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