Philip Barker ©ITG

Next Saturday (August 20) in Paris, a day of public celebration in the 12th arrondissement will honour one of the pioneers of French sport.

Her name was Alice Milliat and exactly 100 years ago, she was the driving force in women's sport. She established international competitions at a time when there were fewer opportunities for women in sport, or in life.

On August 20, the Fondation Alice Milliat will remember her contribution to women's sport.

"We have chosen to celebrate this event through the marriage of sport and art," the foundation said.

"We wish to continue to have Alice Milliat's work recognised and to create and use educational tools for understanding and awareness around an egalitarian and equal sport."

Les Incorrectes, a film about Milliat produced with the help of crowdfunding, will also be shown.

There will additionally be photographs of contemporary sports women, the work of Eric Mistler, on display.

A century ago, an article in the French publication Cahiers de la République des Lettres des Sciences et des Sports described Milliat as "the soul of the women’s sports movement.. a living example of modern woman, accustomed to all sports disciplines, highly capable of fulfilling the social role which falls to women in this vibrant 20th century."

A century ago, the movers and shakers of sport were all men.

In the late 19th century, when the Olympics were revived for the modern era, the important decisions were taken by a congress at which the only significant female participant was opera singer Jeanne Remacle who gave an interpretation of Gabriel Faure’s new composition Hymn to Apollo.

In 1896, at the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens, there were no women participants.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who led the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for much of the first quarter century of its existence, made his own feelings on women very clear.

"Their role should above all be to crown the victors," Coubertin wrote. Although dynamic in many other areas, his attitude to women’s sport reflected the entrenched attitudes of many.

Women did take part in the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris and Lottie Cooper of Britain became the first female Olympic champion in tennis. Margaret Abbott of the United States won the women’s golf later in 1900.

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

In the years before the First World War intervened, the programme for women expanded to include archery and then, in 1912, a small number of aquatic events, although women did also participate in displays of gymnastics.

There were no competitions for women in athletics.

It was against such a background that Milliat came to the fore.

She had been born in Nantes in 1884 and was a rower. Milliat joined the club Femina Sport before the First World War and became its President in 1915.

During the last years of war, a fledgling organisation for women’s sport was established in France.

In 1920, the Olympic Games were held for the first time in eight years, but there remained few opportunities for women. In fact only 65 women competed in swimming, diving and figure skating.

The attitude of Walter George, a runner of some fame in the 19th century, was instructive of attitudes prevailing.

"With women who take up sport, the tendency is to overdo it," George declared.

So, in April 1921, an event for "women’s physical education and women’s sports" was held in Monte Carlo with the assistance of Camille Blanc, Mayor of nearby Beausoleil.

Alice Milliat championed women's sport at a time when many believed the Olympics should only welcome men ©Getty Images
Alice Milliat championed women's sport at a time when many believed the Olympics should only welcome men ©Getty Images

"One hears that netball has taken a firm hold on the French schoolgirls sporting affections," said newspaper reports.

The programme was said to have contained athletics, drill, dance and netball.

Mary Lines, a student of the Regent Street Polytechnic of England, won 60 metres, 250 metres and the long jump with a winning leap of 4.70 metres.

England also beat France 14-2 in basketball and defeated beat Femina Sport 8-7.

"Women are delightfully to the fore in sport just now," wrote an unnamed correspondent for Bystander magazine

Later that year, the International Women's Sports Federation (FSFI) was founded. Milliat wrote later about the men who dominated sports administration in the early 1920s.

"They could do themselves a favour by showing some interest in women’s sport; they shut themselves away in their everlasting male egoism," she said witheringly.

There was another international sports event in Monte Carlo and then came the first Women's World Games, held in August 1922.

"That was a heroic time," Milliat recalled later, "when the same female athlete competed in six or seven events on the same day."

The venue was the Stade Pershing in Paris, an arena constructed for the 1919 Inter-Allied Games. There were to be 77 women from five nations taking part in the competition.

The British competitors for the 1922 Women's World Games were selected after trials held at the sports ground in Paddington in West London ©ITG
The British competitors for the 1922 Women's World Games were selected after trials held at the sports ground in Paddington in West London ©ITG

The British held trials at the Paddington Recreation Ground in West London, a track which still exists to this day. Coverage was sparse but it was claimed that 16 world records were set in the course of the day.

Lines was again amongst those to excel. She won gold in the long jump, the 4x110 yards relay and is listed as setting a world record over 100 metres.

In the 300 yards she beat Violette Morris of France, a remarkable character who later forged a career in motor racing.

Many years later she was accused of collaboration with the Nazis and killed in an ambush by the resistance.

In 1922, the Women’s Olympiad set shock waves pulsing through the male sporting establishment.

IOC papers note particular concern at the use of the term "Women’s Olympiad" which newspapers used to describe the events.

"The Committee interviewed Madame Milliat, President of the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale and pressed for the withdrawal of the term Olympic which her federation is using in connection with the Women’s Worlds Games which it is organising."

The Paris Olympics of 1924 did allow women to enter fencing, but only in the foil, and there was still no move on allowing them to compete in athletics.

In 1924, the FSFI held another congress in Paris shortly after the Olympics and the meeting was opened by Milliat herself.

Belgium offered to host the Games in 1926, though they were eventually awarded to the Swedish city of Gothenburg. Czechoslovakia put down an early marker for Prague to be the host city for 1930. 

There was talk of adding basketball to the athletics although the programme was still to be scheduled for only two days.

"Each nation will have the right to enter two competitors and two substitutes for each event," it was decided.

There were still no German competitors, as delegates ruled they would only be admitted when Germany was recognised by the League of Nations.

Germany was eventually admitted in 1926, along with Austria, Latvia and Luxembourg.

The Games in Gothenburg were another successful event. Reports said "they opened in beautiful weather before large concourse of spectators".

"People are interested in the Women’s Olympic Games, during the last Games in Gothenburg, all foreign diplomats spent a night travelling from Stockholm to watch the athletics events," Milliat said. 

She asked: "Is that not proof in itself?"

In 1926, the International Amateur Athletic Federation Congress finally agreed that women's athletic events were to be added to the 1928 Olympic programme "as a trial". A special committee charged with the details of women’s sport was appointed.

 Women's athletics was finally introduced to the Olympics in 1928 but the longest distance was 800 metres ©Getty Images
Women's athletics was finally introduced to the Olympics in 1928 but the longest distance was 800 metres ©Getty Images

When delegates from what is now World Athletics met at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, the sport's leader Sigfrid Edström welcomed them.

"We hope that good cooperation between the two federations will continue and we are looking forward for the time to come, when Madame Milliat and her friends will unite with us completely."

Even so, there remained many within the IOC and sports administration who were unhappy.

The women's programme at the Amsterdam 1928 Olympics was limited to the 100 metres, 800m, 4x100m relay on the track and high jump and discus.

Kinue Hitomi, who won had won both long jump and standing long jump at the 1926 Women's World Games, became the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal when she took silver in the 800m behind Germany's Lina Radke-Batschauer.

Swiss official Franz Messerli, a member of the jury of appeal, related how Canadian and Japanese competitors had collapsed at the finish. 

"The public and the journalists believed them to be in a state of exhaustion," Messerli wrote. "I was judging this particular event and on the spot at the time, I can therefore certify that there was nothing wrong with them, they burst into tears thus betraying their disappointment at having lost the race."

Even so, many officials were quick to use the pretext that some runners had finished in a distressed state to remove what was the longest race for women from the programme.

The Danish member Ivar Nyholm sent a message to the IOC Session in 1929.

“At a meeting of the Scandinavian countries, a resolution was passed urging a complete suppression of all women’s events from the Games," Nyholm said.

The Finnish member Ernst Krogius wrote that the Finnish Olympic Committee had "voted for the exclusion of women entirely from the Games".

Although the IOC did not go that far, the restriction on women’s events was such that until the Rome Olympics in 1960, no race above the distance of 200m was included.

Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet, right, attended an event in honour of Alice Milliat last year ©Getty Images
Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet, right, attended an event in honour of Alice Milliat last year ©Getty Images

There was an idea held by some IOC members that women should only compete in what were referred to as "aesthetic" sports.

The 80m hurdles and the javelin were added for the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and Mildred "Babe" Didrikson won gold in both.

It was clear that women sports stars were emerging, yet in 1934, the inaugural European Athletics Championships held in Turin did not include events for them.

Earlier in the summer, the fourth Women's World Games had been staged at the White City Stadium in West London.

This had been opened by Lord Desborough, and winners included Gisela Mauermayer of Germany in the shot put and pentathlon.

These events were not on the Olympic programme at the time but she went on to win Olympic discus gold in Berlin.

The Women's World Games also raised problems which are echoed in the present day debate on gender identity.

"We often thought that they were men athletes when we saw them on the track," South African competitor Eileen Crockart said.

Her team manager BC Sims had drawn attention to competitors at the World Games who "had deep voices, shaved and gave the impression of being of the masculine sex".

German newspapers responded to the accusations as "grotesque slander".

Within a year it was reported that Zdena "Zdeňka" Koubková of Czechoslovakia - 800m gold medallist a in world record of 2min 12.4sec, had renounced membership of women's sports events and underwent an operation which saw her registered and identified as male.

There followed a debate on whether the marks set by Koubková should remain in the books.

"If it is proved that Koubková has become a man, it is logical to assume that she was previously a woman," Milliat asserted.

"In that case it would be necessary to maintain the name of Koubková and of her country in our records."

In Berlin, "orld Athletics finally agreed that henceforth it would also administer women’s athletics.

Milliat’s FSFI was no more and Women's World Games planned for 1938 were cancelled.

In fact women’s European Championships were held separately from the men, but after the Second World War, the men and women competed alongside one another in Oslo in 1946 and have done so ever since.

The women's Olympic programme for 1948 included four races on the track and five field events.

The great Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals and was crowned the undoubted star of the Olympics, male or female.

Milliat’s French compatriot Micheline Ostermeyer won discus and shot put.

Her talents also extended to music as she was a piano player who had graduated from the Paris Conservatoire.

In 1984, Joan Benoit of the United States was the first woman to win Olympic marathon gold  ©Getty Images
In 1984, Joan Benoit of the United States was the first woman to win Olympic marathon gold ©Getty Images

Milliat died in 1957, so did not live to see the ultimate expansion of the programme to include all athletics events for women and the drive to increase women's representation in the governing bodies of sport.

It was not until 1984, the centenary of her birth, that women were allowed to run in the marathon at an Olympics.

The hammer and pole vault were not included until Sydney 2000.

Last week at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, more medals were available to women than men.

It would surely have gladdened the heart of Milliat and her fellow pioneers.

Only last year a statue was unveiled in her honour at a ceremony attended by Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet and Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

It was also expected that a Paris 2024 venue would be named after Milliat, only for naming rights for the Porte de La Chapelle Arena - planned to stage badminton, rhythmic gymnastics, Para powerlifting and Para badminton - to be sold to Adidas.

Campaigners have declared the sponsorship deal "insupportable", a sentiment which embodied the spirit of Milliat as she fought for greater participation for women at the Olympics.