Analysis: the Frenchwoman played a huge role in establishing the first Women's World Games 100 years ago this month

History credits Frenchman Charles Pierre Fredy, Baron de Coubertin, with the revival of the Olympics of Ancient Greece and the organisation of the first Games of the modern era in Athens in 1896. Despite his great admiration for the sporting ethos of English public schools, de Coubertin's ideal Olympian was the individual adult male. Leaving aisde the internationalism, pacifism and quest for excellence championed by de Coubertin’s Olympic ideals, he was certainly elitist, racist and notoriously misogynistic by today's standards. He once stated that "an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, anaesthetic and improper".

For de Coubertin, women physiologically and temperamentally were not capable of striving for, much less achieving, the aspirations of citius, altius, fortius in competitive sport. Consequently, only a handful of female competitors took part in the first and subsequent iterations of the Games and were confined to events deemed appropriate, such as swimming, tennis and croquet. There were no events for women in track and field whatsoever up to and including the 1924 Games in Paris (celebrated in Chariots of Fire), even though one of France’s biggest sports stars in the 1920s was the tennis player Suzanne Lenglen.

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From Histoire TV, trailer for Les incorrectes, Alice Milliat et les débuts du sport au féminin

Against this backdrop of exclusion, and inspired by how they had filled a wide variety of roles in all walks of society while men were away at the front in the First World War, women in France and elsewhere began to organise their own clubs, events and federations. Born in Nantes, Alice Milliat was to the fore in the establishment of a number of sporting organisations for and governed by women, culminating in the creation of the International Federation of Female Sport in October 1921, which she chaired until 1935.

In addition to being a formidable administrator and advocate for women’s sport, Milliat was an accomplished practitioner in her own right, becoming the first female to complete a 50 kilometre solo rowing challenge in under 12 hours. She was also involved in the campaign for the right of French women to vote, a battle finally won in 1944.

On August 20th 1922 the first Women's World Games were held in the Pershing Stadium in Paris when 77 female athletes from five different countries (France, Great Britain, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and the United States) competed in 11 track and field events. The event was organised by the French Federation of Female Sport, with the backing of the International Women’s Sports Federation, both chaired by Milliat.

'Alice Milliat was to the fore in the establishment of a number of sporting organisations for and governed by women'. Photo: BNF/Alice Milliat Foundation

That day’s Le Petit Journal, the best-selling French daily newspaper at the time, carried front-page news of a "Women’s Olympiad every four years" side by side with an item on the bloody Civil War raging in Ireland. The front page of the sports daily L'Auto (which subsequently became L'Equipe) alerted readers to a "championship of sportswomen with an international flavour" and featured photographs of four prominent female athletes from the competing nations.

The event was deemed to represent "a new era in the sporting liberation of women" who had successfully taken in hand the organisation of their own affairs. The meeting was also the main story on the front page of Le Journal, which it heralded as the "first female Olympiad" since 776 B.C.!

How Le Journal covered the first Women's World Games 100 years ago this month.

The reaction to the Games was overwhelmingly positive. L’Auto’s front-page on Monday, August 21st proclaimed a "splendid meeting of female athletics" despite instances of curmudgeonly and sexist commentary in some quarters. However, the French Olympic Council was furious at the use of the "Olympic" label in relation to the Games, describing it as "illegal", while the International Amateur Athletics Federation was extremely unhappy that it had no jurisdiction over such meetings.

Milliat and her fellow "influencers" leveraged this hostility when lobbying for the inclusion of a programme of athletics events for women in future Olympic Games. They agreed to replace the word "Olympic" with "World" for the three subsequent editions of the Women’s World Games, held in 1926 (Gothenburg), 1930 (Prague) and 1934 (London). This pressure led to the inclusion of ten events in track and field for women at the 1928 Amsterdam Games and triggered the subsequent slow but inexorable march towards parity.

The principle of equality is now enshrined in the Olympic Charter and applies across the board to all of the IOC’s activity. At the Paris Games of the 33rd Olympiad in 2024, there will be the same number of female and male competitors for the first time across the 306 events in 32 different sports.

Alice Milliat with some of the lads. Photo: BNF/Alice Milliat Foundation

While Ireland didn’t have its first female Olympian until Maeve Kyle at the Melbourne Games in 1956, two of Ireland’s four Olympic medals from Tokyo were in women’s events, where Kellie Harrington won gold in boxing and the coxless four of Emily Hegarty, Fiona Murtagh, Eimear Lambe and Aifric Keogh took bronze in rowing. Rowing for women has only featured on the Olympic programme since 1976 while Katie Taylor's gold medal in London in 2012 was a first for female boxing. Today, any new sport included in the Games must be open to both men and women.

Change has also happened in the world of sports administration. The Irish Amateur Boxing Association is currently in the media spotlight in relation to governance issues, but a number of other national bodies (including the GAA, the IRFU and the FAI) do not satisfy the gender balance requirements which the government plans to implement. Sporting bodies with less than 40% female representation on their boards of directors by the end of 2023 may lose up to 50% of their funding.

Notwithstanding the inequalities that still persist, women in sport continue to go faster, higher and stronger thanks to the efforts of Milliat and others

In 2008, only two of the 13 members of the executive committee of the Olympic Council of Ireland, presided over by Pat Hickey were women. Today, that number stands at six, and the rebranded Olympic Federation of Ireland has a female president, Sarah Keane. In a high profile sport close to Milliat’s heart, Michelle Carpenter is the CEO of Rowing Ireland.

In 2021, the French National Olympic and Sports Council unveiled a stature at its headquarters in Paris to recognise the pioneering role played by Milliat in paving the way for the full participation of women in the Olympic Games. The piece of art will stand side by side with an earlier commemorative work erected to the memory of de Coubertin. Notwithstanding the inequalities that still persist, women in sport continue to go faster, higher and stronger thanks to the efforts of Milliat and others.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ