I recently shared a post on social media about the 1921 women’s first Olympiad taking place 100 years ago. This raised a lot of questions from what the women’s Olympiad was to questions over when women’s sports were admitted into the games.
To answer these questions, I’ve put together this first focused piece for my new blog. I’d like to reiterate that none of this research is new, many others have written about it before but I’m just compiling it in a way that I know my friends and family will enjoy following along.
The first question to answer is; was the 1921 Women’s Olympiad an official Olympics?
No. The event was held in Monte Carlo and only became known as the “Women’s Olympiad” later. Initially it was called the Meeting International dÉducation Physique Feminine de Sports Athletiques and was created by Alice Milliat and Camille Blanc.
The Women’s Olympiad was held in 1922, 1923 and 1924. All of these were held in Monte Carlo except for the last one which was held in London.
These games are not to be confused with the Women’s World Games that were held in 1922 (Paris, France), 1926 (Gothenburg, Sweden), 1930 (Prague, Czechoslovakia) and 1934 (London, UK).
The Second Question to answer is why the Women’s Olympiad of 1921 was needed?
To answer that question let’s go back to the start of the modern Olympics.
The first modern Olympics were held in 1896 and no women participated. The second Olympiad was held in 1900, in Paris as part of the World’s Fair. Many athletes didn’t realise they were taking part in the Olympic Games and instead of medals, trophies and cups were awarded to place getters.
In fact, the first American woman to win an Olympic event, golfer Margaret Ives Abbott died before she knew she was an Olympic Champion as it wasn’t until 1955 that the event was officially recognised as an Olympic event. Margaret competed at the games alongside her Mother.
Margaret was one of 22 women to participate in these games. The first women to compete chronologically (the first event of the games that allowed women to compete) were French ladies Jeanne Filleul-Brohy, Louise Anne Marie Despres and Marie Ohnier who participated in the croquet tournament. None of the women placed and as the tournament only featured French competitors there are questions over the authenticity of the event being considered an Olympic one.
The first female to win a “medal” was Helene de Pourtales as part of the Swiss 1-2 ton sailing team who took home gold. Born Helen Barbey in New York, USA she married Count Hermann Alexander who was also a member of the Swiss sailing team alongside their nephew. The team also took home silver.
The first woman to take home an individual gold medal was Charlotte Cooper (UK) who was already a 3 times Wimbledon champion and she won the women’s tennis event. She also won gold in the mixed doubles. Cooper was also deaf so not only was she the first individual female gold medallist but she was also the first handicapped female gold medallist. This is a great quick insight into the story of Charlotte: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omdsGljhv2c
The 1904 Olympics - St. Louis
The 1904 Olympic Games were held in St. Louis, USA to coincide with the World Fair again and these were the first where medals were presented to the winning athletes.
With most athletes coming from the USA the field was half the size of the previous games and women were only represented in one sport – archery.
All six women to compete in the archery competition were from the USA with Matilda Howell taking gold in all 3 of the women’s disciplines. This was the first time that women’s archery made an appearance at the games.
One of the demonstration sports was women’s boxing however as the sport was banned for women in most countries it did not make another appearance for a long time.
The 1908 Olympics - London
At the 1908 games in London women competed in three sports – archery, figure skating and tennis.
All 25 women in the archery were from Great Britain and the only event they contested was the double national. The gold medallist Sybil ‘Queenie’ Newall (pictured below right), aged 53, remains the oldest female individual gold medallist in Olympic history. Four years earlier American Lida "Eliza" Peyton Pollock (pictured below left), aged 63, competed for the USA in archery and won two bronze medals and a gold in the team event making her the oldest female medallist.
The figure skating saw 21 athletes from 6 nations compete. Only 7 of those 21 athletes were women and they hailed from Great Britain, Sweden, and Germany. This was the first-time figure skating was exhibited at the Olympics and in 1924 it would be transitioned to the winter Olympics when they were inaugurated.
Women also competed in tennis; both indoor and outdoor. All bar two competitors were from Great Britain, the other two being Swedish.
The 1912 Olympics - Stockholm
The next Olympic games were held in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. These games saw women participate in tennis, diving and swimming only.
This was the first-time women were allowed to take part in swimming events however the only event open to them was the 100m freestyle, which was contested by 27 women. The 4 x 100m freestyle women’s relay was also held. Two women competed representing Australasia: Fanny Durack and Wilhelmina Wylie both of Australia. Fanny took home gold and Wilhemina snagged the silver but as they were only two women, they were unable to compete in the relay which was won by Great Britain. These two women are Australia’s first female Olympians and medallists.
This was also the first time that women competed in diving. There were 14 women representing three nations.
The 1920 Olympics - Antwerp
Following the war the next Olympic Games were held in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium. Of the 2,626 athletes just 65 were women and they competed in swimming (24 female competitors), diving (18 female competitors), figure skating (12 female competitors) with just 1 woman noted as competing in the sailing events. Women were also represented in the demonstration sport Korfball (more on that to come another day)!
So where does this leave us?
Now in the 1920s women were still not allowed to compete in most Olympic sports which was why the Women’s Olympiad and the Women’s World Games were created. These games existed alongside the official Olympic Games and slowly more sports were added for women, but they still remained limited. By the end of the 1930s these female only sporting events came to an end as Europe descended into war.
The next Olympic Games were not contested until 1948 when both the winter and summer games were held. A number of new winter sports were open to women but the summer games remained largely restricted.
It would take a long time for women to achieve the level of participation that we see today and that is not yet an equal representation.
There you have a quick history of why the Women’s Only Olympiad of 1921 was held. Stay tuned for a look at what took place at the event!
"The Complete Book of the Olympics", David Wallechinsky (2004)
"Olympics: A Fantastic, Factual Record of an Epic Sporting Event", publisher by Hinkler (2011)
"Sports: The Complete Visual Reference", by QA International (2000)
Website: Top End Sports, Oldest and Youngest Olympians (Summer Games); https://www.topendsports.com/events/summer/oldest-youngest.htm
Youtube: Deaflympics ICSD video on Charlotte Cooper (2016) https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCljpiKbNcI3D8VKjQdm4tog
Photo of Eliza Pollock from the Chicago Daily News Negative Collection, Chicago Historical Society, 1907.