Celebrating the 1921 Women’s Olympiad
One of the (many) great things about the University of Westminster, where I’m lucky enough to work as a lecturer in creative writing, is its rich sporting history. Walking up the grand staircase by the Regent Street foyer, you pass huge panels bearing the names of famous Polytechnic Harriers. There is the Deep End – the old pool, now a cafe and work area. If walk to the archives in Little Titchfield Street you’ll pass the iconic photo, blown up to cover the wall, of pinafore clad women practicing gymnastics on the roof of the law school, the central London skyline behind them.
Westminster, then the Polytechnic, organised the 1908 Marathon and helped in the organisation of the 1908 and 1948 Olympic games. As I said, there is history there.
However, there is something missing in the many records and monuments – the names of the University’s female athletes. For far too long they have been absent from this official, inscribed history, invisible between the lines of names. This is all the more surprising given the groundbreaking nature of their achievements.
On 21st March 1921, a hundred years ago today, 10 Poly women set out from Victoria Station to Monte Carlo to compete in the first Women’s Olympiad. The international event, organised by Alice Milliat and Camille Blanc, was set up in response to the IOC’s decision not to include women’s events in the 1924 Olympic Games.
There were 100 participants from 5 nations: France, Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Norway. Accounts of the events vary slightly, but they include the 60 metre sprint, the 250 metre race, the 800 metre race, the 75 metres hurdles, the high jump, the long jump, relay races, basketball and rhythmic gymnastics.
The games took place over six days, and the English team dominated the winners list, winning gold (and often bronze and silver too) in every event but the 800 metres and the 75 metre hurdles. Indeed on Poly athlete, Mary Lines, broke multiple world records and earned her place as an star of post-WW1 athletics, winning six gold medals.
More than that though, Mary Lines and her teammates competed as legitimate athletes, with and against fellow sportspeople. For those six days they were celebrated for their abilities and hard work. They met the Prince of Monaco. They were taken on a motor tour to Nice by an admirer, they attended an evening banquet in the grand Hotel de Paris. In London the women worked as waitresses and typists, attending the Poly for evening classes and training in their spare time. Many had never even left London before that trip. It must have been glorious.
And then they came home, and resumed their lives, and for the most part their incredibly achievements were forgotten or lost. Even at Westminster, there is almost nothing to mark these women’s incredible achievements.
Which is why I’m so excited to be involved in a new project, Writing Between the Lines, which aims to interrogate and remedy this lacuna. I am going to be producing new, commissioned poetry, working with material in the Westminster archives, drawing on research, interviews, and historical material, and also hopefully taking some inspiration from own passion for running and athletics. I am keen to commemorate Mary Lines and the Poly 10 but also to interrogate the gaps in the history and representation of women’s sport in the 1920s. It is not only the 1921 Olympiad that does not get the coverage it deserves. The fact, for instance, that there does not seem to be any athletes who would not identify as white European amongst those 100 competitors raises interesting questions about the limitations of this groundbreaking event.
Even more excitingly, we have chosen 10 student poets – one for each member of the 1921 Poly cohort – to produce their own (paid) commissioned pieces for Writing Between the Lines. These chosen poets will be attending online workshops, working together as a writing team, and will eventually get the chance to perform their pieces and contribute towards a Writing Between the Lines anthology.
As I mentioned right at the beginning of this post, today marks 100 years since the team set off from Victoria. And today, joining the stone statues and plaques in the Regent Street building at the University of Westminster, is a new plinth. Behold Mary Lines!
This installation, like this project, is the brain child of Guy Osborn, and his enthusiasm has been inspiring right from the first mention of Mary Lines. Anna McNally, a Senior Archivist at the University of Westminster, and another leader of the project, has also provided a wealth of fascinating material and ideas that I’m already trying to find ways to include in poems. They’ve written excellent blogs on the project and the centenary and records. These also contain links to resources to learn more about the athletes their achievements, and their legacy.
I’m so excited to get writing, to get workshopping, to read the student’s work, and to do my small bit to ‘write between the lines’ and fill in some of the gaps between the names on the walls.
Finally, as part of the project, I will also be posting some poetry ‘events’ up here to prompt some new work and get people in the spirit of the Olympiad. Keep an eye on the blog, and let the games begin!