It’s event 4 of the Writing Between the Lines poetry challenge. How’s the cramp?
Today we’re going to think about the 800m – one of the most surprisingly controversial events in women’s track and field. Did you know that after the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, women were not able to compete in the 800m until 1960? It is astonishing to think that the consequences of one race would go on to block women’s access to any Olympic competition longer than 200m for the next 32 years. And yet it was completely mis-reported. As Roger Robinson sets out in his Runners World article on the race and its aftermath:
It’s one of those stories that gets told over and over. When the women’s 800 meters was included in the Olympic Games for the first time at Amsterdam in 1928, several runners collapsed at the finish. Shocked at the public spectacle of women in such distress, the all-male Olympic establishment cut the event.
Some eyewitness versions give even more dramatic accounts.
“Below us on the cinder path were 11 wretched women, 5 of whom dropped out before the finish, while 5 collapsed after reaching the tape,” wrote John Tunis of the New York Evening Post.
Other newspapers preached that women would be desexed and their reproductive capability impaired by such “terrible exhaustion.” England’s Daily Mail affirmed that women who raced longer than 200 meters would age prematurely.Roger Robinson, “Eleven Wretched Women”
Except that none of this was true.
In fact, of the nine (not twelve) women who reached the final, all completed the race, with Lina (Karoline) Radke-Batschauer (Germany), Kinue Hitomi (Japan)and Inga Gentzel (Sweden) all coming in under the previous World Record (along with three others).
After they crossed the finish line, the athletes lay on the floor or were bent double to catch their breath – so far, so normal. The idea that falling to the floor and breathing hard after a tough race might be reported as “terrible exhaustion” and proof that long distance running “should be taken off any future program” because “it is obviously beyond women’s powers of endurance, and can only be injurious to them” says a great deal about the environment that Alice Milliat and the athletes of 1921 were competing within.
So too do the comments of Baron Pierre de Courbetin, the founder and president of the IOC, and a contemporary of Alice Milliat and the athletes:
Here’s another remark from Courbetin, which again provides a great deal of insight into just how bold and vital the 1921 Women’s Olympiad really was:
With statements like this from the founder of the IOC, it’s easy to see why many of the achievements of the 1921 athletes and organisers have passed relatively unseen in the 100 years since. Even some of the historical reporting of the 1928 Olympics, which unintentionally portrays women’s track and field as a brand new phenomenon, misses out the fact that women had been successfully competing in middle and long distances, and breaking world records, for years. For instance in the 1921 Women’s Olympiad.
Not only has women’s sport been mis-reported. It has been erased too.
The 1921 800m
Before internationally renowned athletes were being excluded from their sport on the grounds of their supposed fragility, Mary Lines and France’s Lucie Bréard were battling it out for the 800m gold.
In the end, Bréard clinched it in 2.30,1, beating Mary Lines by two seconds. Suzanne Porte (France) got the bronze. Here she is celebrating her win. The fact that she was able to do this in what look like slip on loafers and a belt is even more impressive!
Bréard would go on to break the world record for the 1000m in subsequent Women’s World Games, whereas Mary Lines focussed more on the 250m, relay, and jumping events in her future games. But both’s involvement in the 1921 800m race – dressed in their various team uniforms of long shorts, tights, leather belts, plimsols, buckled shoes and berets, with added pearl earrings, chains and hair bows – offer the vivid and wonderful proof of a very different version of the ‘wretched women’ described by the New York Evening Post in 1928.
Taking Courbetin’s notion of ‘impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper‘ women as initial inspiration, today’s challenge is all about the clothes we wear when we exercise.
I am fascinated by the team uniforms and footwear of the 1921 athletes – from long skirts to smock dresses, to tights and plimsols, to berets, headscarves and brogues with a slight heel – Monte Carlo has such a wonderful variety of active wear.
For today’s challenge, write a poem about your own active wear. Choose one key item – that might be trainers, sports bras, lycra shorts, jogging bottoms – and write a short history of the different iterations that you’ve owned.
For instance, if you were to choose trainers, you might start by describing the first pair you remember, and how you felt in them. Then you might move on to your teenage trainers, and how you wore them (did you draw on them? Did you change the laces?), before finishing with a more contemporary pair. Really focus on describing your chosen item of clothing in forensic detail. And access all of your senses – how did they look? what was their texture? how did they smell? What sound did they make as they hit the pavement?
If you’re looking for inspiration, here’s an excerpt from ‘Investigation of Past Shoes’ by Vahni Capildeo. This is one of my favourite poems, and a piece I always share with my creative writing students.
Capildeo shows how clothes can tell a story, and how our evolving relationship with a chosen item can speak volumes about so much more than simply the thing itself. The mode of ‘investigation’ – prose-ish, sub-headings, a sparsity of ‘I’, close forensic description – is also striking because of how moving it is. It’s a lovely example of how it is not necessary to spell out the emotional ‘point[s]’ of what you are writing. The reader can find and create them in the spaces between the images that the words create.
Investigation of Past Shoes INSIDE THE GATEWAY: 1970S RED CLOGS WITH SIDE BUCKLE The forever shoe, which points homewards, belongs to my mother. When our house was being built, she stepped onto the driveway while the tarmac was still wet, still setting. Ever since that step, the driveway, which slants upwards, bears an imprint of her 1971 footwear. Her foot- print says, Climb! Come with me. Whoever steps into that impression becomes, for a moment, the leggy wearer of a fire-red clog with a pirat- ical silver buckle on the side. OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE: GOLD AND SILVER SANDALS The sandals which will make a female of me belong to many women. The front of the temple entrance hides itself behind shoe-racks. Vis- itors enter barefooted, leaving behind the dung, dried frogs, spilled petrol and ketchup traces of the streets. Hundreds of pairs of gold and silver sandals wait here for the women who will re-emerge from the vigil with the taste of basil leaf and sugar in their deep-breathing mouths and carpet fibres between their toes ...
To catch up on yesterday’s event: