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100 years ago today: the first women’s Olympiad

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

The world’s first international sporting event for women took place in Monaco in 1921

The 1921 Women’s Olympiad was held in Monte Carlo from the 24th to 31st of March and featured women athletes from five nations: France, Italy, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. They gathered at their own event in response to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announcing that women could not compete at the 1924 Olympics.

The location selected for the games was a lawn in front of the ‘Tir aux Pigeons’, or pigeon shooting range, below the Monte Carlo Casino. Crowds of lovers of athletics and curious passersby watched this group of pioneers women run hurdles, throw javelins, and play basketball the whole 5 days competition.

Leading competitors in these games included Mary Lines (left) for the United Kingdom and Violette Morris (right) for France.

Mary Lines won gold in several athletics events including the 60m, which she ran in 8.2 seconds. At the 1922 Women’s World Games in Paris, she won gold in the 300m by sprinting 44.8 seconds. Violette Morris was a highly successful yet controversial athlete. A driven competitor who participated in many sports such as wrestling, boxing, tennis, and horse racing. Her personal motto was ‘Anything a man can do, Violette can do!’

Alice Milliat, a.k.a. "The Suffragette of Sport"

The first women’s olympic games were promoted and organised by Alice Milliat, a pioneer in the women’s sports movement whose name I bet just a few of us had heard about before.

Alice Milliat was a very talented sportswoman in almost every sporting discipline such as rowing, swimming and hockey. This visionary woman, who fought for women to play sports and compete like men, lived in a time when women's civil rights were very limited. Ladies who played sports at that time were seen as wild and crazy. It was really weird and scandalous at the time seeing a woman playing male sports such as rugby, football and cycling.

She was the first woman to win awards in rowing, the first sport she used to play as a young girl. In 1911 she joined the French sports club "Fèmina Sport", an association that aimed to promote ladies' sports.

Sportswear was also something she took care about. Women were forced to wear unconformable sports outfits, covered from head to toe, which did not allow them to move freely at all. This was because they could not violate in any way the established standards of decency of the time. How can anybody play any sports all wrapped this way? Alice Milliat did not tolerate this.

Alice Milliat was a very talented sportswoman in almost every sporting discipline such as rowing, swimming and hockey.

She was described as strong-willed and outspoken. A visionary who continually broke down barriers assuming leadership roles traditionally held by men. A dedicated feminist who also campaigned for women’s suffrage, she stood up against critics about women’s participation in sport at the time.

In 1919 Alice Milliat was elected president of the "Societè Feminine du Sport". From that moment on, football, athletics, hockey and basketball championships began to be organised for the first time for all sports women who were only allowed to play tennis or ice skating before that. It was time to think big for her, that's why she founded the International Women's Sports Federation (FSFI) in 1921. She was driven by the desire to involve women in the Olympic Games - in a world ruled by men where women’s right were trampled in every field of life. Milliat’s goal was to push women’s track-and-field events, and the 1921 Monaco games were something of a test case for dedicated international women’s athletics.

The first women Olympics were an important milestone for Alice. How sweet was the taste of Victory for her but unfortunately this did not last for long. Alice's battle was full of obstacles. In 1926 Sigfrid Edstrom, president of the International Athletics Federation, prohibited Alice Milliat from using the term "Olympian" for her women's games. So, in the same year the second edition of women's games held in Gothenburg were called "Women’s World Games".

Alice kept always fighting alone against secular institutions and against the International Olympic Committee (IOC), known for its prejudices against women who wanted to play sports at a competitive level. The Committee thought that this battle was just a temporary cause for her, asserting that she would soon give up. It was exactly the opposite instead. She held on and carried on her battle. The hardest one being for the athletic sector. The IOC played hard ball in its negotiations but in 1928 they did agree to allow women to participate in athletics events at the Amsterdam Olympic Games. She reached a big milestone this time.

"A being physically and morally healthy, without fear of responsibility and ready to assert their rights, in all fields, without losing grace and charm"

- Alice Milliat definition of woman

Despite success in Amsterdam, women’s athletics participation at the Olympic Games was hanging on by a thread. Milliat had to fight to keep them in the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The 1936 Olympic Games saw a much fuller integration of the Games in the sense that the Women’s World Games ceased to be.

1936 Olympic Games in Berlin

Alice Milliat was described by those who knew her as a force of nature. American sports administrator Avery Brundage once said of her: ‘She was active for years and she demanded more and more. She made quite a nuisance of herself.’ Thanks God, I might add.

Despite her hard battles and social commitment, she died in anonymity in 1957.

I wanted to remember this amazing woman with this post about the centenary of the first women's olympiad because I wanted to give her credit for the fact that she proceeded down a twisting path on her own purposely to hand over only the fun part of competitive sporting activity that we - as women - can enjoy today.



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