Throwback Thursday: How a French Feminist Staged Her Own Games and Forced the Olympics to Include Women

When the IOC wouldn't allow women to fully compete at the Olympics, French feminist Alice Milliat staged the now-forgotten Women's World Games, ultimately winning a major victory for female athletes.

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Aug 11 2016, 3:35pm

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

On August 9, 1934, the Opening Ceremony of the fourth and final Women's World Games took place in London. Female athletes from 19 nations participated in the three-day competition, which featured a number of events the International Olympic Committee either did not yet recognize for women or, in the case of the 800-meter track event, had deemed them unfit to run.

Today, the Women's World Games are a largely forgotten chapter in the struggle for women's equality, but from 1922 to 1934, they existed as a kind of middle finger to the IOC and the International Association of Athletics Federations, the world governing body for track and field, both of which disdained and were to some degree frightened by the first-wave feminists who wanted to compete.

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Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the IOC's founder, was an open opponent of women in sports. The Women's World Games and the work of its governing body, the International Women's Sports Federation, or the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI) in its original French, are the reason de Coubertin and others like him lost their fight to keep half the population out of athletics.

To understand the political significance of the 1934 London games, you have to start across the English Channel, in France, in the years just prior to World War I. French activist Hubertine Auclert is thought by some to have coined the term "feminism" in the 1880s, and although her countrywomen didn't win the right to vote until 1944, gender equality was already a topic of national conversation around the turn of the century.

At the same time Auclert and other French feminists were beginning the suffrage movement, de Coubertin was founding the Olympics. He, too, was French, and brought the Olympic Games to his home country in 1900 and 1924.

The 1900 Paris Games were the first to include women, but only in golf and tennis. Female athletes who wanted to compete in more physical events had to do it elsewhere. France's first women's athletic club, Femina Sport, was founded in 1911 and was quickly followed by several more. A year later, the IOC added women's swimming to the Olympics. As the years progressed, other women's sports joined the program, with the notable exception of track and field, which didn't debut at the Olympics until 1928.

Why track and field was the sticking point is one of those quirks of early 20th century culture that's difficult to fathom today, but judging by the early women's sports allowed at the Games—golf, croquet, swimming, diving—de Coubertin and his crew seemed to be especially weirded out by the notion of women visibly sweating.

Pierre de Coubertin. Courtesy Wikimedia

What prompted the Olympics to change? In 1917, Femina Sport hosted France's first women's national championship in track and field. Later that year, members of Femina Sport created the Fédération des Societés Féminines Sportives de France (Women's Sports Federations of France).

One of the federation's founding members was a woman named Alice Milliat. In 1921, she made an official request for women's athletics (track and field) at the Olympics. Milliat was rebuffed. Rather than simply protest, she decided to make her own Olympics. She did so under the umbrella of the ISFI, which she founded later that year.

In March 1921, the ISFI hosted the Women's Olympiad in Monte Carlo. The one-off event, a kind of proof of concept that the ISFI could show the IOC, was an unprecedented success. A recent paper by a group of Serbian historians lists 11 track and field events and several team sports at the Women's Olympiad. Athletes from five nations took part. Nevertheless, the IOC rejected a subsequent appeal for women's athletics at the Olympics.

In 1922, Milliat took her concept one step farther when the ISFI hosted the first Women's Olympic Games—a quadrennial international tournament, just like the Olympics—in Paris. Five nations took part, including the United States, and 15,000 to 20,000 fans attended.

Unsurprisingly, this really pissed off the IOC and the IAAF. The two organizations responded by arguing that the IAAF should be the rightful governing body of all track and field, whether women's or men's. Of course, this wasn't an act of benevolent inclusion. It was an attempt to silence the ISFI, and protect the Olympic brand. Historians Mary Leigh and Therese Bonin write that the IOC and IAAF actually agreed upon the governance of women's track and field under their respective umbrellas. Once that was settled, the IOC "promptly denied women in track and field the right to appear in the Olympic games of 1924."

The ISFI eventually agreed to drop the word "Olympic" and rename its competition the Women's World Games, which satisfied the IAAF and the IOC. In the minds of IOC and IAAF officials, there was only one Olympics, and women still weren't allowed to run track.

The second Women's World Games took place in Gothenburg, Sweden. This time, it included athletes from nine countries. The IOC, again enraged, responded with compromise. It included five track and field events in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. The move divided members of the ISFI. Milliat's stance was that five events weren't enough—men competed in 22 at the time—and lobbied unsuccessfully for more. The British women's team shared Milliat's feelings. They boycotted the 1928 Olympics altogether.

Alice Milliat. Photo from @FAMilliat

Still, the 1928 Games were a historic moment for women's sports. However, you wouldn't know that from contemporary newspaper reports, which portrayed the track and field events as a kind of athletic disaster. This is particularly true of the 800-meter race, as reported in the New York Times:

"The final of the women's 800-meter run, in which frau Lina Radke of Germany set a world's record, plainly demonstrated that even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength. At the finish six out of the nine runners were completely exhausted and fell headlong on the ground. Several had to be carried off the track. The little American girl, Miss Florence MacDonald, who made a gallant try but was outclassed, was in a half faint for several minutes, while even the sturdy Miss Hitomi of Japan, who finished second, needed attention before she was able to leave the field."

The IOC didn't allow women to run the 800 again until 1960. The ISFI, however, did. The 1930 Women's World Games in Prague included athletes from 17 nations competing in 12 track and field events. On the other hand, the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics featured women in a single race: the 100 meters.

The 1934 London Women's World Games grew yet again, adding the pentathlon and bringing together athletes from 19 countries. It also led Milliat to issue an ultimatum: either allow a "full program" of women's events at the 1936 Olympics, or make it a men's-only competition. The ISFI was perfectly happy to govern all women's sports on its own. The move forced the IAAF to work as a kind of mediator. It eventually agreed to an expanded nine-event program at the Olympics and to recognize the records athletes had established at the Women's World Games. It also turned the scheduled 1938 Women's World Games into the European Athletics Championships.

Germaine Delapierre, winner of the 65-meter hurdles event at the 1921 Women's Olympiad. Photo by Wikipedia

Millat had won an important victory for women's sports, but there was still a long way to go, both in equality of sports and in the ultimate goal, the right to vote. In a 1934 interview later quoted by Leigh and Bonin, she linked the two, capitalizing on the growing popularity of women's sports as a reason to continue the fight for women's suffrage:

"Women's sports of all kinds are handicapped in my country by the lack of playing space. As we have no vote, we can not make our needs publicly felt, or bring pressure to bear in the right quarters. I always tell my girls that the vote is one of the things they will have to work for if France is to keep its place with the other nations in the realm of feminine sport."

Milliat died in 1957. She lived to vote in France, but did not live to see a fully equal slate at the Olympics. None of us have. According to Top End Sports, only 44 percent of the medals awarded at the ongoing Rio Games will be in women's events. Three of those medals, however, will come from the women's 800.

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