Yesterday, for the 60m sprint, the name of the game was ‘speed’. Today, we’re dealing with heavier matters…
Today’s poetry event is the shot put competition, which was won in 1921 by the French athletics star and controversial sportsperson, Violette Morris.
Morris was a gifted athlete. She excelled at shot put and discus and also played football and water polo at a national level. She was a boxer, a motor car and road bike racer, motorcyclist, wrestler, archer, swimmer, tennis player – just to name a few of her sporting interests. She also played on the French women’s national team.
In 1928 the French Women’s Sports Federation refused to renew her licence amid complaints about her lifestyle and she was therefore barred from participating in 1928 Summer Olympics. The agency cited her lack of morals, in particular, Morris’ penchant for wearing men’s clothing. Her homosexuality was clearly the major factor in the decision…although she had also punched a football referee. Afterward, Morris decided to undergo an elective mastectomy, which she said was in order to fit into racing cars more easily.
After her ban from sport, Morris’s life didn’t quieten down and she became a controversial figure in a different, altogether more sinister way. Courted by the Nazis and personally invited to Berlin by Hitler, Morris likely became a Nazi spy and collaborator, although the extent of her crimes and involvement are debated. She was assassinated by the French resistance in 1944.
The Polytechnic star – Florence Ethel Birchenough
Representing the English interests in the Shot Put was Florence Ethel Birchenough – a Polytechnic student who would go on to become a hugely influential figure in shaping women’s athletics in the UK.
Birchenough was a pioneer in the throwing events, representing her country several times in the javelin, shot and discus. Although she didn’t win the Shot in the 1921 Olympiad, she would go on to become a British and Olympic champion in future events, becoming the WAAA title-holder for discus 1924–8 and captain of the British team at the 1926 Women’s World Games. The 1921 games were her first taste of international competition, and a chance to learn amongst the best.
Here’s Florence in action in 1922 – along with some extremely questionable captions…
Florence continued her work in athletics throughout her life, working as a coach, official, committee member and staunch advocate of women’s athletics. Although Mary Lines was the medal star of the 1921 team, Birchenough’s name is more well-known in the history of UK women’s athletics, due to her long involvement in championing women’s sport.
The Poetry Challenge
To celebrate the incredible balance, technique, precision and strength of Florence Birchenough and her fellow Shot Put competitors, today’s poetry event is all about manoeuvring heavy things.
First, some inspiration. Here’s an extract of ‘Scale’, by the poet and keen sportsperson Helen Mort:
Scale My weight is four whippets, two Chinese gymnasts, half a shot-putter. It can be measured in bags of sugar, jam jars, enough feathers for sixty pillows, or a ﬂock of dead birds but some days it’s more than the house, the span of Blair Athol Road.
Here, Helen takes on the heavy topic of body image and individual and societal expectations and skilfully uses the list form to subvert the measurements by which we calculate our relationship to the bathroom scales. Measuring herself through pets, household objects, childhood homes, streets, and strange, uncanny images, Mort converts lbs into lived experiences and in doing so creates an effective litany of the self.
Just as ‘Scale’ uses the list form to explore both physical and metaphorical weight, today’s poetry challenge is all about making a list of shot puts and other heavy items.
Using the title: ‘The heaviest thing I’ve ever carried’, make a list of all the weightiest things you can think of…including shot puts. Why not start realistic/small and grow more and more outlandish, so that by the end of the poem you’re taking over from Atlas. Or, why not move between the concrete/object and the metaphorical, so that your poem becomes a list not only of bulky Ikea cabinets and boxes of books, but also the burdens and expectations that you might want to pick up and hurl away in the style of Florence Birchenough.
Let me know how you get on.
Follow the links to find out more about the Writing Between the Lines project, the sporting records and resources available to explore at the University of Westminster, and how poetry can help to celebrate the legacy of the Poly athletes. for the Regent Street Polytechnic Athletics Team