David Owen ©ITG

To what sporting occasion does this four-city sequence relate? Paris, Gothenburg, Prague, London.

It’s a tricky one, though students of the development of women’s sport in the 20th century in particular might know.

The answer is, these were the venues for the four editions of the Women’s World Games, or Women’s Olympics as they were widely referred to, that took place between 1922 and 1934.

Though controversial at the time, these events did much to speed the acceptance of a wider range of women’s competitions at the Olympic Games themselves, with athletics the front-line in the battle.

With gender equality such a key concern of the Movement today, and rightly so, it is high time for greater awareness of these pioneering occasions, those who took part in them and those who brought them about.

As a journalist in the field, I like to think I know more about Olympic history than the average bear. Yet I still remember my surprise a year or two ago on encountering reference to these ground-breaking, you could even say historic, events in an academic text on Japanese women and sport.

For my money, the individual who conceived of these Games merits the label, the female de Coubertin. She was, as it happens, a compatriot of the father of the modern Olympics. But how many today could name her?

Most of what I know about Alice Milliat (née Million) comes from reading and re-reading a diligently-researched book, published in French in 2005, called Alice Milliat – La Pasionaria of female sport by André Drevon.

I realised that women’s sport had made considerable strides during the First World War. After all, if women could take on the work of male factory hands called up to the trenches, then why not adopt their leisure pursuits if the spirit moved them?

When the end of the slaughter finally came, though repopulation was a prime concern of governments, the genie of women’s sport would not be put back in the bottle. And with more and more women wanting to play football and other strenuous sports, somebody needed to organise them.

Alice Milliat, a pioneer of women's sport
Alice Milliat, a pioneer of women's sport ©Wikipedia

In France, the Federation of French Female Sports Societies (FSFSF) had been founded in December 1917, while the war still raged. Initially treasurer, Milliat, a young widow in her mid-30s from the western city of Nantes, was elected President within 15 months.

According to Drevon, Milliat was already pressing by this point for a programme of women’s athletics to be included in the Olympic Games. De Coubertin, however, as is well known, was an opponent of women’s participation as athletes at the Games. And when the first post-war event was staged at Antwerp in 1920, women competed in the same number of sports as at the last pre-war Olympics in Stockholm in 1912; that is to say just two - tennis and aquatics.

The following year, an event was held in Monte Carlo that brought together over a hundred women athletes from five countries. Similar meetings took place in the Principality in 1922 and 1923.

A short British Pathé film-clip from 1923 shows a large number of women engaged in very sedate stretching exercises. But Drevon writes that the 1921 programme incorporated an extensive series of athletics events and a basketball tournament, won by the British team.

The women’s sport movement was gathering pace. Around six months later, in October 1921, Milliat took advantage of an international sports match in Paris between English and French women’s athletics and football teams to organise a meeting with the aim of setting up an international women’s sports federation.

On 31 October 1921, in a room on the Boulevard des Italiens, the Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI) was established. Business on that trailblazing day included registration of the first women’s world records.

Milliat was named one of four vice-presidents. At the body’s second Congress the following year, also in Paris, she was elected President.

According to Drevon, Milliat renewed her calls for a place to be found for women’s athletics in the Olympics in the wake of that inaugural FSFI meeting, but with the same result.

The following April, however, she dramatically changed tactics: while the second women’s sports meeting was taking place in Monaco, an announcement was made that the first Women’s Olympic Games would be held on 20 August 1922 at Stade Pershing in Paris.

The French capital was also the designated host for the 1924 Olympics, the second and (so far) final occasion on which it has had this privilege. Not that it appeared overly keen on the prospect at the time: in March 1922, the Paris municipal council had voted not to accept the Parc des Princes as the site for those Games, and to grant a contribution of only one million francs, rather than the ten million that had been hoped for.

Blessed with good weather, the women’s event at Vincennes in the eastern suburbs of Paris was a big success. A crowd of some 15,000 was attracted, some of them ferried by special bus services from the heart of the city. Milliat herself declared “the first Women’s Olympics in the world” open. A string of those newly-registered world records was shattered.

To judge by coverage in The Times, the event made a limited impression on the British Establishment, however. Two short pieces as the big day approached recorded the arrival of “fifteen young American girls” who were to make up the United States team. “Among the other passengers [on the liner Aquitania] was General Menocal, the former President of Cuba,” the newspaper advised its readers sagely.

Suzanne Lenglen of France competes at tennis at the Antwerp Olympics - one of just two sports open to women
Suzanne Lenglen of France competes at tennis at the Antwerp Olympics - one of just two sports open to women ©Getty Images

On the event itself, The Times found room for about 100 words under the headline “Women athletes in Paris” on a page that also carried stories about the fifth annual report of “the Imperial War Museum at the Crystal Palace” and the landing at the Yorkshire port of Scarborough of half a million herrings.

This short article essentially listed some of the new world records set by the likes of “Miss Lines (England)” – 7.8 secs for 60 metres – and “Miss Godbold (America)” – 20.22 metres for “Putting the Weight”.

Interestingly, the newspaper referred to the Games as “the Women’s International Championships at the Pershing Stadium”, whereas in the two earlier items, its designation had been the Olympic Games for women.

Drevon notes that the French Olympic Committee had warned that the event had been “illegitimately labelled Olympic”. The day before the Games, at its second Congress, the FSFI had announced, however, that the Women’s Olympic Games would be staged every four years.

Battle-lines had been drawn.

Fast forward two years. Women’s sport, though still far from without its critics, is becoming increasingly popular. Paris, host of the 1924 Olympic Games, is again the epicentre of the sporting world. Fencing has been added to tennis and aquatics as a third Olympic sport with scope for women to compete.

There is even movement of a sort from the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), the athletics governing body. Holding what was only its seventh Congress at Games-time in the French capital, the body decided to recognise women’s athletics. It stipulated, however, that the women’s sport would not be part of the Olympic Games.

Four days after the Closing Ceremony of this Chariots of Fire Olympiad, the FSFI met for its third Congress, still in Paris, choosing the venues for the 1926 and 1930 Women’s World Games.

It was in 1926 that the outline of the accommodation that would eventually bring an end to the rebel status of women’s athletics started to become apparent.

A number of meetings took place in March and April involving Milliat and both IAAF President J Sigfried Edström and Count Henri de Baillet-Latour, the Belgian nobleman who succeeded de Coubertin as President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the wake of the Paris Games.

Subsequent to these, the position staked out by Milliat was that if the autonomy of women’s sport were recognised, the FSFI would be prepared to subordinate itself to the IAAF. The women’s body was ready, moreover, to stop using the “Olympic” label for its quadrennial events if agreement was reached with the IAAF.

A few days after the last of these meetings, in early May, at a time when Britain was paralysed by a week-long general strike, the IOC agreed in principle for women’s athletics to be added to the sporting programme of the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. And at its 1926 Congress in the Dutch city of The Hague in August, the IAAF voted to add some women’s events to its official Olympic programme.

Sigfried Edström, a President of both the IAAF and IOC, was one of the male officials Milliat had to presuade
Sigfried Edström, a President of both the IAAF and IOC, was one of the male officials Milliat had to presuade ©Getty Images

Set in this context, the second Women’s World Games, held in Gothenburg, the Swedish city where Edström was educated, from 27-29 August 1926 represented an opportunity for the women’s movement to put on a show of strength. They did not disappoint.

From an Opening Ceremony marked by the release of 3,000 carrier pigeons to the closing formalities at which Milliat presented Kinuye Hitomi, the sole Japanese athlete, with a medal for the best series of performances over the three days as the late summer sun sank low in the sky, all went without a hitch.

The dominant British team topped the classification with almost twice as many points as the French in second place. In addition to the athletics, spectators clustered in the Slottgotswallen stadium were able to watch a demonstration of a Czech game called hazena.

Seven-and-a-half minutes of British Pathé film shows a well-organised athletics event in a well-populated stadium. We see the pigeons take flight, and there is a fascinating slow-motion sequence of Hitomi, right wrist bandaged, taking her turn in the standing long-jump, a now defunct event. The officials seem conspicuously male.

This time The Times has no scruples about running reports from the Reuter news agency labelling the event the “Women’s Olympic Games”. The newspaper rounds off its coverage with a photograph of jubilant British team members, captioned: “Miss Crossley, winner of the 1,000 metres walking race, at the Women’s Olympic Games at Gothenburg being chaired by fellow members of the British team, which achieved numerous successes.”

From this point, then, it was no longer a question of whether women’s athletics would make it onto the Olympic Games programme, but of how extensive the prescribed series of events would be.

On offer from the IAAF was an Olympic programme of five women’s events, compared with the 13 contested at Gothenburg. Eventually, the FSFI decided to go along with this proposal. This was in spite of Milliat’s initial advocacy of an all or nothing approach.

After the prolonged effort that had been necessary to get it included, how much the Olympic debut of women’s athletics at the Amsterdam 1928 Games furthered the cause of the women’s sport movement is, ironically, something of a moot point.

A great deal of attention focused on competitors sprawled on the ground at the end of the 800 metres race. Commented the “special correspondent” of The Times: “The half-dozen prostrate and obviously distressed forms lying on the grass at the side of the track after the race may not warrant a complete condemnation of the girl athletic championships, but it certainly suggests unpleasant possibilities.”

Two decades on from Dorando Pietri’s ordeal in the closing stages of the Marathon, it is hard not to conclude that such symptoms of fatigue, and perhaps disappointment, would have elicited little reaction in the wake of a men’s race. Yet they might have resulted in women’s athletics being once again excluded from the Olympics after just one appearance.

According to a paper entitled Rogues and Bedfellows: the IOC and the incorporation of the FSFI by Kevin B. Wamsley and Guy Schultz of the University of Western Ontario, “As a direct consequence of the women’s 800m race, members of the IOC Session in Lausanne in 1929 considered the following agenda item: [the] “Exclusion of women’s events entirely from the Games”.”

Wamsley and Schultz note that IOC President Baillet-Latour argued against the participation of women in the traditionally "masculine" sports. The matter remained a live issue over a number of years, with votes on the inclusion of women’s athletics held at both the 1930 and 1931 IOC Sessions.

On both occasions, those arguing for the retention of women’s athletics, in particular the United States – the 1932 Olympic Games host – Germany and France, won the day.

While the place of women’s athletics on the Olympic programme was a) confined to a handful of events and b) tenuous, there was clearly every reason to continue with the Women’s World Games. And the 1930 event in Prague was another roaring success, with 17 countries represented, twice as many as in Gothenburg, and team competitions in basketball, handball and hazena, in addition to the athletics. This was notwithstanding the Great Depression, which had by now asserted its grip.

The event – over four days and attracting an aggregate 60,000 spectators – was a triumph for Germany, which amassed more than twice as many points in the final classification as Poland. As The Times put it: “Germany’s first participation in a Women’s Olympiad has resulted in a striking success for her athletes.”

In what might be counted another small victory for the growing credibility of women’s track and field, meanwhile, the newspaper’s brief account of the 800 metres, won by “the Birmingham girl, Miss Lunn” in a time of 2 min 21.9 secs, made no reference to the condition of the athletes after crossing the line, exhausted or otherwise. 

Alice Milliat's work paved the way for the likes of Dutch legend Fanny Blankers-Koen
Alice Milliat's work paved the way for the likes of Dutch legend Fanny Blankers-Koen ©Getty Images

With the freewheeling spirit of the 1920s starting to give way to the authoritarianism of the 1930s, a holding pattern prevailed for the next few years.

There were ultimately six women’s athletics events at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932.

Two years later, the scale of what turned out to be the last Women’s World Games was similar to Prague 1930. As it transpired, the Games were held directly after the 1934 British Empire Games, which had been moved from Johannesburg, in the same White City Stadium in West London. This coincidence may have contributed to the relatively low attendance, put at some 6,000 on each of the three days.

After years of fighting for women’s sport, Milliat had stated her intention of retiring from the front-line of sports politics at the end of 1935, by which time she would be well into her 52nd year.

Around the time of the London Games, however, the IAAF, seemingly tiring of the status quo, moved onto the offensive. A proposal was drafted to take over the organisation of women’s athletics lock, stock and barrel, and to ban its members from FSFI events.

Travelling to Stockholm to address the IAAF Congress, Milliat repeated her call for a full programme of women’s athletics at the Olympics, while indicating the FSFI’s quadrennial Games would be extended to all sports if agreement could not be reached. Her words secured, in effect, a stay of execution, with a decision on the issue postponed until the next IAAF Congress which was to take place in Nazi Germany in 1936.

The end of the road for Milliat and the FSFI had been reached. The IAAF duly voted in Berlin to take over women’s athletics, while promising to add a further three women’s events to the Olympic athletics programme, taking the total to nine.

Drevon notes that, across all sports, there was actually a lower proportion of women competitors at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 than at either Amsterdam 1928 or Los Angeles 1932.

At the London 1948 Olympics however – the Games of Fanny Blankers-Koen – the women’s athletics programme was indeed expanded to nine events, though with no individual running race longer than 200 metres.

The battles fought by Alice Milliat and her colleagues had ended up by creating the platform that transformed a 30-year-old Dutch mother into a global sporting legend. It is a fitting legacy.

One final thought: I see that the preface to Drevon’s book was penned by a certain Anne Hidalgo, now Mayor of Paris, candidate-city, along with Budapest, Los Angeles and Rome, in the race to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Wouldn’t it be appropriate if the city where Milliat mainly lived, and died in some obscurity in 1957, could do something during its latest Olympic adventure to mark her immense contribution to women’s sport?

With gender equality at IOC-controlled sports events now a realisable aim, it would be an apt and much-merited gesture.