An idealised view of men and women on the 1908 Olympic Games diploma
On 24 April, I’ll be speaking at the University of Westminster’s Sport and the City conference. My paper will be on sport and gender at the 1908 London Olympic Games. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC and its preseident at the time of the 1908 Games, was famously reactionary when it came to gender politucs. As he wrote in 1912,
‘In our view, this feminine semi-Olympiad is impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper. It is not in keeping with my concept of the Olympic Games, in which I believe that we have tried, and must continue to try, to put the following expression into practice: the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism, based on internationalism, by means of fairness, in an artistic setting, with the applause of women as a reward.’
And yet at the 1908 Olympic Games, women competed in five sports, more than at any of the previous three Olympic Games: lawn tennis, archery, ice skating, yachting, and motorboat racing. There were also demonstration events in gymnastics and diving. These Games thus form a fascinating case study in the history of gender issues at the Olympic Games. The fact that they were held in a London where the Suffragettes were demonstrating for the right to vote, and in which a quiet but influential debate over the legal status of homosexuality was going on, makes them truly fascinating.
The University of Westminster has a long history of involvement in the Olympic Games, as it is the successor to the Polytechnic, which helped to run the 1908 Games and which provided many Olympians. The conference will celebrate this, while also allowing shcolars to explore other links between sport and cities.