Philip Barker

A century ago, Olympic athletics was exclusively for men but French sportswoman Alice Milliat launched a series of events designed to change the status quo.

Compared with the programme today, opportunities were still very limited.

It is perhaps appropriate that in the year when Milliat was establishing her Games for women, a great future champion should be born.

She came into the world on December 23, 1922, exactly 100 years ago today, and her name was Micheline Ostermeyer.

At the first Olympics after the Second World War, Ostermeyer won gold both in the shot put and discus.

Her talents as an allrounder extended beyond the sports field, for she also played the piano to concert standard.

Ostermeyer was born on the Northern coast of France at Berck sur Mer.

She came from an artistic family, her great uncle was Victor Hugo, author of the epic French classic Les Miserables.

She was also a niece of composer Lucien Laroche.

Her father encouraged physical endeavour and her mother sought to cultivate her daughter's talent for music.

Blessed with a remarkable memory, it soon became clear that Micheline had an aptitude for music and took her first piano lessons at the age of four.

Much of her childhood was spent in Tunisia, her early years intertwined with music and sport, including tennis and boating.

She soon left her home to continue her music studies at the Conservatoire de Paris as her talent blossomed still further.

The coming of war saw her return to Tunisia.

Ostermeyer's family were Jewish which made France a dangerous place to be.

Back in Tunisia, she gave recitals broadcast by radio and first took up basketball.

Micheline Ostermeyer won her first international medals for France at the 1946 European Championships ©Getty Images
Micheline Ostermeyer won her first international medals for France at the 1946 European Championships ©Getty Images

In the immediate post-war years, Ostermeyer returned to France and began to forge a career in sport, evidently as a release from her music.

In 1946, she won first prize in the piano competition at the Paris Conservatoire.

She was described in newspapers as "a girl of simplicity who dreams of the piano recital she is to give in Paris".

Two days after the performance in Paris, she travelled to Bordeaux to compete in the French Athletics Championships.

The French athletics authorities were said to be unaware of the standards she had achieved during the war years in Tunisia, they were soon to have their eyes opened.

Ostermeyer had been accompanied by her mother to both musical and sporting events.

"She followed my sports performances almost as passionately as the piano," Ostermeyer admitted later.

After a break of eight years, the European Athletics Championships were held in Oslo.

For the first time, Soviet women took part, raising standards to a new level.

Even so, the programme available for women remained somewhat limited.

The shot put was added to the schedule of field events which included only the high jump, javelin and discus.

Tatyana Sevryukova of the Soviet Union won gold in the shot put with 14.16 metres, but Ostermeyer’s effort of 12.84 metres earned her silver.

At home she continued to excel as the Olympic year approached and athletics emerged even more as a release from performing on stage.

"My strength came from my piano," Ostermeyer admitted later.

"Also, I sometimes used to go for a jog just before I went onstage so that I was relaxed for my recital."

In 1948, France sent a team of 239 to the London Olympics. 

Only 37 were women but they included Ostermeyer.

The greatest accolades in women's athletics at the 1948 Olympics usually went to Fanny Blankers Koen of the Netherlands, but Ostermeyer also performed superbly.

She wore number 948 and had been entered for the shot, high jump and also the discus which it was said she had only taken up a few weeks before.

Micheline Ostermeyer was the first French woman to win a gold medal in Olympic athletics ©Getty Images
Micheline Ostermeyer was the first French woman to win a gold medal in Olympic athletics ©Getty Images

"France could not have made a better start to the Olympics," Le Monde correspondent Paul Haedens reported from Wembley after her victory.

Her best throw at the Olympics was a French record 41.92m, though it was well short of the marks achieved before the war and by Soviet thrower Nina Dumbadze in 1948.

She was nonetheless, the first French female to win an Olympic gold in athletics.

Edera Cordiale-Gentile of Italy won silver and another French woman, Jacqueline Mazéas took bronze.

In the shot, Ostermeyer competed in sunglasses, watched by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the Royal Box.

It happened to be the Queen's birthday and after the band had played "Happy Birthday", Ostermeyer put on a fine display for the occasion.

She recorded 13.14m, the best distance in the qualification round which was automatically an Olympic best.

In the final she improved the record to 13.75m to win gold.

Three days later, she was back at Wembley to compete in the high jump and was one of only three athletes to clear 1.61m.

That proved her best performance as she collected bronze behind America's Alice Coachman and Dorothy Tyler of Britain.

"Ostermeyer deserves the fullest recognition," the official report of the London Games said of her two victories, 

Her French team mates were then treated to an unusual evening of entertainment as she gave a recital of Beethoven.

"The Olympics were, no doubt, the biggest moment of my life," Ostermeyer once told Sports Illustrated magazine.

"But you must not forget life is not a moment. In a way, I suppose the Olympics was a prolongation of my childhood."

In recognition of her achievements, Ostermeyer was awarded the Grand Prix Virginie Heriot, an objet d’art by the Sports Academy of France.

For the time being, her career continued to flourish on two levels.

In 1949 came her first solo recital at the Salle de Gaveau, a concert hall in the eighth arrondissement of Paris.

She played the concerto in D Minor by Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt’s concerto in E Flat and Cesar Franck’s symphonic variations.

"Mademoiselle Ostermeyer gave her first important concert and received a tremendous ovation," a report in the New York Times said.

Micheline Ostermeyer with the piano ©MadridEuropa/Twitter
Micheline Ostermeyer with the piano ©MadridEuropa/Twitter

"She has never turned her back on music," Rene Dumesnil, music critic for Le Monde reported.

"The proof of her bravery and sureness and touch was confirmed by the reaction of the public.

"We can rely on a young artist every bit as gifted," he added.

At the French championships of 1950, she ran 11.5sec to equal the national record as she won the 80m hurdles.

She also won in both the shot put and the discus.

At the European Championships in Brussels, Ostermeyer duly reached the 80m hurdles final.

Gold went to Blankers Koen in 11.1sec and Britain's Maureen Dyson took silver but Ostermeyer ran 11.7 to claim the bronze.

In the shot, Ostermeyer finished behind two Soviet athletes for a final bronze to set the seal on her athletics career.

She did return to the sporting arena as a basketball player in later life but it was only briefly.

"I have no regrets because all my life has been in music," Ostermeyer admitted late in life.

She was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for her music in 1992 when her Olympic accomplishments were also recognised with an award from the the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee.

Ostermeyer continued to play piano and teach until shortly before her death in 2001.