Philip Barker

Tokyo 2020 was to have marked 40 years of women’s Olympic hockey, but any celebration of the landmark will now have to wait a year. For all that, women’s hockey has been part of the sporting scene for as long as the modern Olympic Movement and, 125 years ago, the first “international” took place.

Clubs had started in Ireland and England and in 1894, the same year that a momentous meeting in Paris resolved to revive the Olympic Games, an Irish Ladies Hockey Union (ILHU) was established.

"Hockey as a game for ladies is daily becoming more popular", wrote Irish player Laura Stephens.

It invited a team from Newnham College Cambridge to travel to Ireland to play over the Christmas and New Year holiday. In February 1895, the ILHU held its first formal annual meeting and challenged England to a match.

Isabella Jameson had been part of the Newnham tour. She supported the English response. With the backing of Elizabeth Guinness from Royal Holloway College and Emily Frances Godschall Johnson of Molesey Hockey Club, who was known as ‘"Edith".

On March 30, "Miss Johnson held the trial match and selected her team." She became the first England captain. She was also an excellent tennis player and was a regular at Wimbledon in the years before the First World War.

The first unofficial women’s hockey international took place at Brighton on April 10 in 1895. It finished goalless.

One spectator is said to have observed, "if science and combination were not conspicuous features of the play, zeal was in abundance."

Afterwards, the zealous England players held an ‘"informal and preliminary meeting." They eventually established the All England Women’s Hockey Association. Their first official match, against Ireland in 1896, ended in a 2-0 defeat.

In the early years, women received abuse for daring to play.

The Irish team of 1896 ©50 Years of Women's Hockey
The Irish team of 1896 ©50 Years of Women's Hockey

"It was a common occurrence to have minor demonstrations against the players because they were such 'unsexed creatures' as to be playing at all", wrote Marjorie Pollard in her history of women’s hockey, published in 1946.

It became necessary "to protect the game from roughs and other desirable spectators."

A weekly publication called The Hockey Field was launched in 1901. "The whole aim of the paper is to promote the best interests of the game, by bringing lady players into closer contact and by providing them with interesting, instructive and amusing reading.”

In the first decade, the number of clubs swelled to more than 300.

"The popularity of hockey among women is even more remarkable than it is among men. The best women players give as clever an exposition of the game as do the best men players", said a sports encyclopedia published in 1911.

It also spread to the United States, thanks to Constance Applebee who had travelled from Great Britain to Radcliffe College in Massachusetts, where she too encountered resistance.

"There is one form of vulgarity to which young women are, in these days, especially susceptible and exposed.You are tempted to rival your brothers in sports fit for men alone", said Professor Charles Eliot Norton, a senior figure at Harvard, in an address to the students.

Applebee was not easily put off and introduced hockey at the "Seven Sisters" colleges predominantly for women. From the sidelines, she coached her charges. "Put both claws on your stick, you one-legged turnip."

Hockey was included for the first time in the 1908 Olympic Games but only for men.

When the International Hockey Federation (FIH) was founded in January 1924, it was a similar story.

That year, England’s women played against the US. Frances Heron-Maxwell, President of the English association, chaired a meeting proposing an international organisation.

In 1927, the International Federation of Women’s Hockey Associations (IFWHA) was established: "To further the best interests of the game amongst women of all nations, to promote friendly intercourse amongst players, to work for uniformity of rules and to promote international matches."

The US, Australia, Denmark and South Africa joined the British as members.

To make the picture somewhat confusing, women’s associations in some countries were affiliated instead to the FIH.

It was a time when attitudes to women’s sports were generally unpromising. At the International Olympic Committee’s 1929 Session in Lausanne, Denmark’s Ivar Nyholm reported that in Scandinavian countries, "a resolution was passed urging a complete suppression of women’s events from the Games."

Finland’s National Olympic Committee also "voted for the exclusion of women entirely from the Games."

Even so, women’s hockey developed and by the mid 1930s - international conferences and international tournaments were organised.

In 1934, the FIH requested a women’s tournament at the 1936 Games in Berlin. "This proposal did not have any support and was rejected."

The Netherlands are the current world champions, having defeated Ireland 6-0 in the final ©Getty Images
The Netherlands are the current world champions, having defeated Ireland 6-0 in the final ©Getty Images

It was not until 1946 that vice-president Avery Brundage raised the question of women’s hockey again. "If it is not possible for 1948, we will have to think about it in the future."

The issue was debated again at the 1947 IOC Session in Stockholm but the answer was negative.

There was an international women’s hockey tournament in 1948, though it did not take place at the Olympics but in Amsterdam. Not everyone was disheartened.

"It was unanimously agreed that the IFWHA triennial conferences, tournaments and tours were far better suited to women’s hockey than anything offered by the Olympic Games", said IFWHA President Hilda Light, unimpressed by the limits placed on team numbers or the knockout format.

Limits on participation dogged the future of Olympic hockey throughout the next two decades but in 1970, the IOC announced a joint commission was to prepare a "a basic study" on the participation of women. Hockey still had two international governing bodies.

In September 1973, IOC President Lord Killanin told FIH President René Frank: "I believe the inclusion of women’s hockey has not been as rapid as you might wish due to the administration and affiliation of women’s hockey."

Swiss official Albert Demaurex was later informed that the IOC "had sympathy for women’s hockey once it had been regularised."

FIH secretary Etienne Glichitch wrote to IOC technical advisor Harry Banks to emphasise that women’s hockey was played in 48 countries.

Over the following months, the FIH and IFWHA formed a "supreme council which deals with all matters of common interest and policy at World and Olympic levels."

It numbered eight members including Glichitch and IFHWA secretary Kathleen Watkins.

Hockey had asked for the inclusion of women at the Montreal 1976 Games. Instead, there was a tacit agreement that they would be included for Moscow 1980 Olympics.

In 1975, hockey was listed for the first time in the Olympic charter section devoted to "participation of women."

After the formal decision was taken in Montreal before the 1976 Olympics, Glichitch wrote to Banks.

"I learned with great pleasure that a competition for women’s hockey will be included. This is very good news that the hockey world was awaiting [sic] since a long time and it will certainly be most welcomed."

The sport has greatly moved on since 1904 ©50 Years of Women's Hockey
The sport has greatly moved on since 1904 ©50 Years of Women's Hockey

Hockey’s "supreme council" was to choose the five teams "deemed to be the best in the world" to join the hosts from the Soviet Union. "The strength of the teams will be determined according to their overall performances over the four years."

The ranking matches included a new women’s World Cup, first staged in the French town of Mandelieu in 1974. The Netherlands were the first world champions, West Germany triumphed in 1976 before the Dutch reclaimed the trophy in 1978.

Neither competed in Moscow.

"Some reserve countries will be selected for which their possible availability at short notice will be taken into consideration in case of withdrawal by one of the selected teams", said an organisers' memo somewhat prophetically.

In early 1980, a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted a significant boycott of Moscow which hit hockey hard, robbing the women’s tournament of the Dutch and West Germans.

Zimbabwe, only recently re-admitted to the Olympic fold, were drafted in as a replacement team little more than two months before the Games were to begin.

They proved a sensation by winning gold.

In the 40 years since Moscow, the sport has been transformed.

A dramatic shootout gave Britain victory over the Netherlands at Rio 2016 in a tournament which now featured 12 teams.

When the 2020 Olympics do begin, the Dutch will take the field as World Cup holders. They lifted the trophy in 2018 after a tournament which attracted 120,000 spectators. The FIH described it as "an unforgettable atmosphere for the players to shine."

It was an atmosphere which helped inspire the Irish team to the final and set the seal on 125 years of history, since those Irish pioneers first issued that challenge to their neighbours across the sea.