New jjheritage.com publication Professor Jean Williams Britain’s Olympic Women: a history (Routledge, 2020) ORCID identifier 0000-0003-3444-4956
We are extremely pleased to announce a new publication on 27 July 2020, called Britain’s Olympic Women: a history, with Routledge. This book looks at women since 1900 who have represented Britain at both Summer and Winter Olympic Games, and increasingly, since 1948, at Paralympic Games too. This has been a long-term project involving research at the International Olympic Committee archives in Lausanne as well as the British Olympic Association collections in London, as well as considerable oral history research with families and Olympians themselves.
You can preview the first chapter here, and find out why the book has taken so long to write.
Early versions of the Games organized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after it was founded at the International Athletic Congress at the Sorbonne in 1894 were marked by the interplay of nationalistic discourse and friendly international competition. The inaugural 1896 IOC Olympic Games was hosted at the restored Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, thanks due to the financial and moral support of Greek royal family; businessman George Averoff and public funding. The front cover of the programme was entitled The Olympic Games BC776-AD 1896, and on the rear a collection of sporting paraphernalia hung like a wreath over a cycle race. Importantly, the recreation of Hellenic Olympic tradition had allowed enough time for reinvention, reinterpretation and recreation of ideas and ideals.
Between the first Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 and the 1912 Stockholm Olympiad, the course of the movement was by no means a story of steady progress, and the enterprise was by no means assured. Commerce was absolutely integral to amateur sport. Although there were calls for all future Games to be held in Greece, plans had already been agreed to hold the Paris edition in 1900 alongside the Exposition Universelle.
There remains some debate about if, and how, women took part in the Olympic Games of 1896. It is important to remember that, from the outset, the first few Olympic Games were not merely sporting tournaments, cultural gatherings and artistic competitions, but also significant commercial enterprises. In making the Olympic Games representative of modern sporting contests, the IOC stipulated that: ‘The competitions are rigorously confined to amateurs.’ This would not change until 1988. So what is the structure of the book?
Contents of the Book
British Olympic Pioneers 1900-1912: Chattie, Lottie and Jennie
This chapter focuses on the rise of women’s Olympic competition from 1896 to 1914, focussing on the tennis stars Charlotte ‘Chattie’ Cooper-Sterry, and Lottie Dod. While Cooper would become Britain’s first multiple female Olympic medallist in 1900, Dod would win her silver medal in 1908 as an archer, reflecting her status as Britain’s first great modern woman all-rounder. The chapter then considers how working class swimmer, Jane, or Jennie, Fletcher of Leicester won a relay gold and individual bronze medal in the inaugural female Olympic swimming competitions in Stockholm in 1912. The first chapter shows how women pioneered different technical aspects of their own disciplines, from training regimes, nutrition and clothing technology to managing their roles as elite performers and mothers.
The Olympic Inter-War Revival and the British Olympic Association: Gladys Carson and the 1924 Paris Games
When the Olympic Games began again after World War One, the status of women in British public life had altered immeasurably. Due to their crucial part in the war effort, Antwerp in Belgium hosted the 1920 Games in somewhat restrained circumstances, but the Paris Olympics of 1924 was a more celebratory festival of culture, as well as inaugurating new sporting technologies. As part of the expanding middle classes of inter-war Britain, swimmer Gladys Carson, was able to spend a month in Paris as a young woman and benefitted from life experiences to which only Olympians could have access. Part of a ‘swimming family’ Gladys continued to swim and teach children lifelong. As a home economics teacher, her tastes, and awareness of ‘continental’ lifestyles was passed down to family and her students. The chapter analyses what a Paris-based Olympic Games had to offer participants, and points out that the hopes of the British women’s team in the 1920s rested mainly upon the swimming and diving events, given that track and field athletics for women was not yet an Olympic mainstay, and tennis would disappear from the programme for over fifty years.
Chapter Three Mollie, Joan, Cecilia and Megan: the First All-Female British Olympic Team in 1932
This chapter analyses the status of the British Olympic Association, and its representative women’s teams between the 1928 Winter Olympics in St Moritz and the Winter Games of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. The broad themes of the chapter continue to be amateur, and voluntary participation, nuanced by social class and by the BOA’s consciousness of international rivalry on a world stage, as the Olympics themselves became increasingly consumerist and technocratic in their staging, and distinctly more hostile as the Berlin Summer Games of 1936 approached. There were many firsts, established in these years from lighting the Olympic flame in the stadium to Hollywood intervening in the staging of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics of 1932. At Lake Placid Britain had its first all-female team, who were four figure skaters whose attendance also nuances our understanding of how amateur sport could benefit from techniques honed in professional environments, such as specializing in a discipline at an early age, and practicing year-round with top level coaching to compete at the highest level. The range and variety of Olympic female competitors expanded considerably in both additional sports and disciplines, although this process was contested and uneven.
The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games: How Gender and Politics Shaped the Career of Athlete Audrey Brown
Track and Field athletics had not had the central place in the women’s programme of the Olympic Games that it had held in the men’s schedule since Athens in 1896, until the Nazi propaganda that defined the 1936 Berlin Games, propelled it to front page news. This chapter explores the politicisation of women’s track and field athletics through the career, and life, of Audrey Brown, who, as Audrey Court, would pioneer increased contraceptive choice for more diverse groups of women after World War Two. One of several brother and sister medallists, Audrey had very different world views to her brother Godfrey, who was the British star of the 1936 Olympic Games. Audrey Court increasingly moved into public life once she retired from amateur athletics, pioneering family planning and contraception advice.
Austerity and the Second London Olympic Games in 1948: How Margaret Wellington Swam to Fame as ‘The Peppy Kid’
This chapter focuses in particular on the career of swimmer, Margaret Wellington and the 1948 London ‘austerity’ Games. It would appear that Margaret was of Jewish descent, although her mother’s maiden name was anglicised. A moral victory for the UK in being able to host such a large event at all, there was much pomp and circumstance at the hospitality events in 1948, and very little money for anything else. The major shifts in the Olympic schedule were the increasingly specialised preparation of amateur athletes, allied with greater technocracy, and the intensified nationalistic discourses around the medal table. But the world was changed irrevocably. The Americans, who had been Britain’s bitterest rivals in 1908, the previous occasion when London had hosted the Games, were now our greatest allies. Britain’s Commonwealth ties were also important. This gave Margaret Wellington life experiences to which the average young woman in post-war Britain would never have access. Swimming was part of Margaret’s fitness regime in her older years, and the memories of her trips a rich source of family history.
Elizabeth II, Britain and Olympic Cold War Rivalries: Equestrian Pat Smythe and the New Elizabethans 1952-1960
A perceived ‘new’ Elizabethan era reinterpreted aspects of British history and popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s following the coronation of young and glamorous monarch Elizabeth II. Equestrian Pat Smythe was well placed to benefit from these narratives. In an age of increased politicization of sport, particularly Cold War politics, competing against larger international rivals, was thought to reveal something about the character of the individual and of wider British identity. Unlike many Olympic sports and disciplines, Smythe pitted herself and her horses as an individual, directly against male and female competitors. Given equestrianism’s military roots as an Olympic sport, Smythe and her horses often appeared to be diminutive adversaries compared with her male co-competitors. Smythe was vivacious; cosmopolitan; multi-talented as both a writer and broadcaster; an accomplished horse trainer; pretty good on skis, and endlessly well-connected. Only too pleased to be cast as a Renaissance woman, at a time when modernity and nostalgia coalesced, Smythe, was one of the most famous sportswomen of her era, and authored her celebrity as much as allowing the media to report on her life. In all of this, the Olympic Games were an amateur footnote, in an otherwise professional career.
Britain’s Olympic Golden Girls and The Changing Media Industry 1964-1984: The Decline of Amateurism and The Rise of Sports Medicine
This chapter covers the decline of amateurism, which had been one of the defining ideals of Olympic competition for most of IOC history. This was a particularly enduring ideal though for British women, as there was an assumed moral superiority in volunteering to represent the British Olympic Association, as opposed to the thorough, and specialist training of Olympic rivals. However because the national medal tables did not differentiate male and female totals, just the combined tally, this meant that Britain’s assumed moral superiority looked like a pyrrhic victory, when compared with the return of other regimes. Although many British women represented the Olympic ideal out of love, they could see that the lack of infrastructure to support their efforts meant that they were hopelessly out-performed. This often meant improvising their own training regimes, with the help of male athletes and coaches. Mary Rand, Ann Packer and others who seemed very modern young women were heralded as the ‘Golden Girls.’ What this hid was the personal cost to women track and field athletes of a lack of financial support, training and resource. These were very determined and ambitious women. They had to be.
Conclusion Olympic Legacies: Lottery Funding, Professional Sport, Diversity and Fame
This concluding chapter covers the career of Lottery Funded rower Sarah Winckless, a 2004 bronze medallist and football player Eniola Aluko from interviews conducted in 2012/13. We explore the path of each to their Olympic appearances and their subsequent career.
Posts written by Jean or Joanna.