Philip Barker

The Winter Universiade in Krasnoyarsk next month will begin the 60-year anniversary celebrations of global Games organised by the International University Sports Federation (FISU). But the seeds of international student sport were sown 100 years ago.

The first international university sports meeting was a modest event held in Paris, but between the two World Wars, it grew into a much larger multi-sport competition.

The region of Alsace-Lorraine had reverted to France from Germany after the First World War. In November 1919, celebrations were held to mark the re-opening of the university in Strasbourg as a French seat of learning.

The Great Hall was festooned with tapestries for what was an international occasion. Strasbourg would be an "intellectual lighthouse", said President Raymond Poincare. Reporters noted that "the sports side of the university is not neglected". 

"Rowing is already firmly established and a great athletics stadium is to be built," it was said.

That week, the French students also held a gathering and proposed that "there should be a machinery of international collaboration among university people, so that there might be increased knowledge and understanding of their own generation abroad, to fit themselves better to serve the interests of peace".

It drew support from student bodies in eight nations. The result was the Confederation Internationale des Etudiants (CIE).

Just as it was a Frenchman - Pierre de Coubertin - who drove the modern Olympic Movement, another took the initiative with university sport. His name was Jean Petitjean, an enthusiastic member of the Paris University Club (PUC) .

The CIE announced that in 1923 there would be a "Meeting Internationale Universitaire" at a new stadium which had been built for the PUC at Port Doree, a suburb of Paris.

In conjunction, an International University Sports Congress was also held at the Maison des Etudiants at Rue de La Bucherie in Paris' fifth arrondissement. The proceedings were chaired by Gaston Vidal, the French undersecretary of state for technical training. 

Krasnoyarsk 2019 will begin the 60-year anniversary celebrations of global Games organised by the International University Sports Federation ©FISU
Krasnoyarsk 2019 will begin the 60-year anniversary celebrations of global Games organised by the International University Sports Federation ©FISU

The meeting was attended by delegates from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Great Britain, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United States.

They resolved to create an international "commisariat" with a member from each nation. Petitjean was elected as "Commissaire Generale". The first meeting of this new body was arranged for October among the dreaming spires of Oxford in England, with a further gathering in Polish capital Warsaw in 1924.

In the meantime, they wanted to establish national "Olympiads" and also an international Games to take place in Italy. The use of the term Olympiad was soon dropped and they were called University Games.

In a parallel move with the Olympic Movement, there was a plan for activities to embrace arts and sciences.

Count Henri Baillet-Latour, soon to become International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, spoke most favourably and encouragingly of the efforts made to secure collegiate athletics a place on the programme of education.

In May 1923, a notice in the Paris press announced: "On the occasion of the inauguration of the sports park of the University of Paris at Port Doree, a reunion internationale d'Athletisme Universitaire’ (University sports meeting) will be held for the first time.

"Students from 15 countries will take part. A challenge will be made for competition amongst the nations."

In the US, Brigadier-General Palmer Eddy Pierce, President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), reported: "Hearty approval to the proposal by M.Petitjean to send undergraduates as competitors to the proposed international collegiate meeting. 

"The NCAA approved this project with the understanding that it was part of a vigorous campaign to stimulate in the universities and colleges of Europe greater interest and more general participation on the part of the students in athletics."

Only one American went to Paris but there was little doubt he was the star attraction. Reigning Olympic 100 metres champion Charles Paddock, then a student at the University of Southern California, travelled from the west coast of America to compete.

The CIE had resolved "to admit no interference from any athletic body in their university athletic manifestations". The NCAA, meanwhile, described the Games in Paris as "only part of a well thought out programme formulated by educators and prominent public spirited citizens of Europe".

Despite this, trouble was brewing for Paddock as he arrived in France. "A possible war between American athletic bodies is threatened," reported The Sporting Life newspaper.

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) which governed track and field athletics in the US had imposed a ban on competing overseas in response to what they called an "abnormal demand" to race in Europe.

Charles Paddock, second left, caused controversy with his student appearance ©Getty Images
Charles Paddock, second left, caused controversy with his student appearance ©Getty Images

"It was felt that unless this action was taken a large group of America's most prominent athletes would be competing in Europe at a time when they will be needed at home to arouse public interest in athletics, preparatory to our Olympic campaign," said Joseph B. Maccabe, chairman of the AAU Commission on International affairs. 

"It would be patriotic and wise for our athletes to compete this year on our own fields."

AAU President William Prout warned Paddock might "professionalise" himself if he insisted on competing in Paris. This would mean "a ban from taking part in the Olympic Games".

Paddock responded: "I am not defying the AAU's ruling. I have never asked permission to compete since it has nothing to say concerning collegiate meets. I have official sanction from the national collegiate association which is a charter member of the international federation of students and also the University of Southern California."

Even US ambassador in France, Myron T Herrick, was approached by Justinien de Clary, an IOC member in France, and asked to send a cable to the AAU requesting they back down. The response from AAU secretary Frederick Rubien was uncompromising.

"Paddock's is the case of a spoilt child," he claimed. "He refused to pay any attention to the AAU warning."

The French public were unconcerned by the dispute. "The publicity given Paddock's participation resulted in bringing out several thousands to witness the finals," the Associated Press reported.

"The new stadium was nearly full. Hundreds clung around the railings surrounding the field and still others from nearby promontories, house tops and windows, watched the contests without having to pay an admission fee."

Paddock completed the sprint double of 100m and 200m and also entered into the spirit of the occasion. When not running he spent most of his time signing autographs for aspiring French athletes who watched every move the American sprinter made. 

In other races, the competition included Adriaan Paulen of The Netherlands who won 400m gold. He was destined for a long career in athletics and ultimately became International Association of Athletics Federations President. 

Paulen also finished second in the 800m and was beaten only by Paul Martin of Switzerland. The following year Martin returned to Paris for the Olympics and won silver at the same distance.

Jean De Beaumont of France raced in the 110m hurdles. He was later to become a vice president of the IOC.

At the end of the meeting, Paddock set out for home insisting: "In good faith I was invited and in good faith I competed". But on his return the AAU made good on their threat and declared him ineligible for the Olympic team.

Adriaan Paulen, a later President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, was an early university sport competitor ©Getty Images
Adriaan Paulen, a later President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, was an early university sport competitor ©Getty Images

The NCAA deplored the "unfortunate developments resulting from the participation of Mr Paddock in the French University Games".

Following the advice of Brigadier Pierce, Paddock appealed for reinstatement. After much posturing by the administrators, he was eventually welcomed back into the fold and won 200m silver at the Paris Olympics in 1924.

That same year, the CIE Congress was held in Warsaw. Petitjean, as commissioner of sport for the French Union of Students, submitted a plan for the "organisation of sports under the CIE". This was accepted and he now established a permanent office for the organisation in Paris.

One of the delegates to that Warsaw Congress was Oxford University medical student Arthur Porritt who won Olympic 100m bronze at the Paris Olympics that year for New Zealand. He had packed his running shoes and took part in the athletics competitions held after the Congress. Like Paddock before him, he too completed the sprint double.

The IOC were well aware of the new student movement. When they met in Prague in 1925, they "considered the wishes of the Sports Association Universitaire" to be recognised under the technical control of the International Federations (IFs). 

"There was discussion and it was decided that this was a matter for direct contact between the student organisation and the IFs," they said.

There was a further university sports meeting in Rome in 1927 and an altogether more ambitious programme was planned in 1928. This was held in Paris and participants included Douglas Lowe, Olympic 800m gold medallist. A winter sports event was also launched in the Italian resort of Cortina D'Ampezzo. This too became a regular meeting.

As the Games grew in size, other big names took part. In 1933 the men's 1,500m was won by Olympic gold medallist Luigi Beccali of Italy, who beat Jack Lovelock, destined to succeed him as champion in 1936. 

Among the women, Italian hurdler Ondina Valla would also follow victory at the University Games with Olympic gold. Stella Walasiewicz of Poland had already won Olympic 100m gold in 1932 and dominated in the sprints and long jump at the Student Games. Berlin 1936 Olympic discus champion Gisela Mauermayer of Germany was another who enjoyed success as a student athlete.

As with so much other sport, the whole university sports movement ground to a halt as war broke out. But the name of Jean Petitjean was not forgotten. 

His contribution was acknowledged at the first official FISU Universiade held in 1959 in Turin and a special medallion bearing his name for major contributions to the cause of student sport was created.