Modern Pentathlon and symbolic violence – a history of female exclusion from Stockholm 1912 to Paris 1924

Numéro 4 | Ethique et sport


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Sandra Heck

Ruhr University Bochum / Germany
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At the end of the nineteenth century, equal access to sport for men and women was far from being a reality. Within society, hegemonic masculinity had gained ground because it “guarantee[d] … the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell, 1995, 77). Whilst men who were included in sport as athletes or officials dominated the scene, sportswomen in particular were discriminated against and suffered from their marginalised position. Especially in male-dominated sports, participation was strongly connected to a masculine world which did not welcome female athletes. In this patriarchal line, Baron Pierre de Coubertin gave all his energy to reinvent the Olympic Games but at the same time to hinder women’s participation. Thus, for the invention of a new Olympic sport, named Modern Pentathlon and combining shooting, fencing, horse-riding, swimming and running in one event, it was clear to him that there was no place for any form of femininity. While there were many examples of women’s exclusion from sport in the early Olympics, like the well-investigated history of the slow development of female participation in swimming (Parker, 2001, 58-72; Borish, 2004, 197-235; Daly, 1998), until now the early history of Modern Pentathlon and the connected gender issue in particular have not been investigated yet. But why shall sport history focus on gender relations of a combined sport whose single disciplines are already well researched?

Modern Pentathlon wrote its own story and was far more than just a compendium of five single narratives. There was no other sport newly-created in the beginning of the 20th Century which combined so diverse disciplines and no other sport more one-sided in regards to its competitors. This study deals with aspects of symbolic violence in early Modern Pentathlon’s exposure to gender. Gender, in this context, is considered to be “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and […] a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Scott, 1988, 41f). So to gather information about gender violence, not only women’s but also men’s contemporary behaviour needs to be investigated because one implies the study of the other. In contrast, “biological explanations, such as those that find a common denominator for diverse forms of female subordination in the facts that women have the capacity to give birth and men have greater muscular strength” (Scott, 1986, 1056) are rejected. The use of gender as the social organization of sexual differences indeed differentiates between the sexes, “but is not directly determined by sex nor directly determining of sexuality” (Scott, op. cit., 1057). Historical documents of the IOC Archives in Lausanne/Switzerland, the National Archives of Sweden, and the LA84 Foundation of Los Angeles/USA are used as main sources in addition to literature on gender, military sport and Olympic history. The chosen time period from 1912 to 1924 includes the first three Olympic Games in which Modern Pentathlon was involved and thereby functions as a mirror of the sport’s original characteristics.

In section one the ideological background which already preconditioned Modern Pentathlon before its practical invention is analyzed. Afterwards two different contemporary gender perspectives glance at Modern Pentathlon to highlight both sides of the coin. As the notion of gender “makes little sense in human societies unless male and female are compared and contrasted” (Park, 1987, 59), first men’s predominance (cp. section II) and then women’s oppression (cp. section III) through Modern Pentathlon and its gender practice are investigated. Dealing with female participation in Modern Pentathlon, in general not many sources can be found. The request of sportswoman Helen Preece to enter the Olympic Games of Stockholm 1912 represented an exception. In regards to the topic of symbolic violence, the aim of the third section is to present her story to the reader in a way that gives a deep insight into a sportswoman’s contemporary difficulties to enter a male sport. For me, the experimental attempt to tell Preece’s experiences from her own narrative perspective seemed the most appropriate mode. Born in 1897, Miss Preece had never in her life given an interview on the circumstances of the event. Her voice, as it occurs in this article, is therefore a construction of the few flinders of sources found on her case. This personal narrative requires that the author leaves his position as an objective interpreter for a while and takes the risk to manipulate the reader by showing him only a cut-out of the reality. As “the overwhelming majority of sport historians still present their work […] as omniscient narrators” (Booth, 2005, 75), the chosen writing style seems to infringe upon the rules of a well-done reconstruction of the past. These tendencies to subjective influences have often been denounced by academics “as defaults that are to be avoided” (Breuer/Mruck/Roth, 2002). The criticism may be often justified, but in this particular case a subjective narrative is intentionally used to amplify the comprehension (White, 1991, 21-25).

There are several aspects that made me feel authorised to temporally leave my position as objective interpreter and give room to a personal narrative: By considering the author not just a speaker, but also a maker of the work (Ricoeur, 1976, 33), writing from Preece’s point of view was promising to uncover new responses to the research question which a neutral way of narrative could not have provided. Giving voice to a particular sportswoman thereby contributes to the author’s aim that the construction of the historiographical text remains no mere transcription but represents rather a form of “staging” (Ahearne/Certeau, 1995, 20). In addition to the objectively written facts on Preece’s case in section two, the reader is further on enabled to get to know the story from a second, more personal perspective. Through a deconstructive analysis, different partly opposed histories of the same happening are made visible instead of a reduction to one single interpretation (Phillips, 2006, 4). This idea was also supported by Ricoeur when he “consistently opposed any claim that historical knowledge can be or even rightly aspire to be definitive or absolute knowledge” (Dauenhauer, 2008). By breaking away from the usual thought of writing patterns, Helen Preece receives a narrative identity – the expression is chosen according to the conception of French philosopher Ricoeur – through a writing style that constructs besides the pure historical content the identity of her own character (Rasmussen, 1995, 159-172). The fact that the chosen narrative temporally lacks the author’s neutral overview but nevertheless enables to lead to an intensified way of historical investigation is based on the belief that truth can only be found if something is focussed and something else at the same time excluded from the focus (Kimmerle, 1997, 49). Moreover, these postmodern ideas “seek to bring into sight what would otherwise remain hidden in the assumptions of traditional historical approaches” (Hutchins, 2006, 55). If, in comparison, I just described the story in a traditional third person’s narrative, it would have been less risky in terms of academic criticism, but also less adequate to a topic that is based on individual perception and socio-cultural determination. The trials involved in a woman’s attempt to compete at the Modern Pentathlon in 1912 may be known, but the surprisingly new point is to view the same story from her perspective and thereby experience contemporary perceived gender differences in regards to sport access in the early 20th Century.

Hence, this article does not follow a traditional linear way of story telling but rather requires, in terms of postmodernism, an individual construction by the reader. Helen Preece’s past is not told in a chronological order and put into one single section, but rather deconstructed, split into two (one focussing on male predominance, one on female oppression) which allows the reader to find his own synthesis. French historian Michel de Certeau stated that historians allow the dead to have a voice (Certeau, 1988, 2). The fact that I did not decide to tell Preece’s story as an objective author but gave voice to the headliner puts Certeaus’s interpretation of historical work radically into praxis. The article’s variety of narratives shall finally be capable of accommodating both the happening itself and the sense of perceived violence that originally aroused me to write this article.

The idea behind Modern Pentathlon: a preconditioning of gender violence?

Modern Pentathlon was not the kind of sport which was primary practised in wide parts of the society and consequently after some time transferred into the Olympic program. Modern Pentathlon and its regulations were newly invented in the beginning of the 20th Century and connected to educational ideals which should be reached through a consequent training of its disciplines. This first section views Modern Pentathlon’s ideological background to investigate whether the idea behind the sport already preconditioned forms of symbolic violence.

As a combined sport of five different, partly opposed disciplines, Modern Pentathlon desired an athlete whose physical, intellectual, and moral abilities were well developed. In 1915, three years after the sport was introduced into the Olympic program in Stockholm, the Bulletin du Comité International Olympique explained the characteristics of the sport: “For the benefits of those less informed in athletic matters I might explain that the modern Pentathlon is composed of a series of five forms of effort: fencing, swimming, horsemanship, pistol shooting and a cross-country run with obstacles. The quick eye and the great agility of the fencer, the steady nerve of the shooter, the knowledge of the horse and the developed muscles of the swimmer, runner and jumper should produce not a specialist but a wonderful type of complete athlete” (« Le Comité International à San Francisco », 1915).[i] Thus, an all-round-athlete was required rather than a specialist, but in the definition no explicit information on the question of the participant’s sex was given. However, in fact mainly men were practising sports and women generally not, so that “the evidence confirmed that this was in the 'natural' order of things” (Hargreaves, 1997, 43).

Whilst new research results made medical prejudices against women’s sports participation slowly disappear, female athletes were still confronted with a strong denunciation. "Hysterical fears of ‘Amazons’ with ‘masculine’ development was one bugaboo that haunted the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (Guttmann, 2002, 45f). Women who moved smoothly while dancing or practised other soft sportive exercises were supported by the majority of doctors in the beginning of the 20th Century (Hargreaves, 1997, 107), but masculine exercises like boxing or running or also a combination of several disciplines were still considered to be an excessive demand for women. The rise of modern sport rather reinforced gender differences, “differences which were supported by a scientific and medical discourse that idealized women as reproductive vehicles”(Vertinsky, 1994, 13). Besides the negative medical tensions towards female sport (Pfister, 1990, 183-198), people in the end of the 19th Century did not yet believe that skills developed through sport could create any benefits beyond the training ground. If the capacity of Modern Pentathlon to build “omni-sportive”[ii] (L´Opinion, 1912) athletes should attract a greater amount of athletes, the persisting fears that different sports harm each other had to be overcome (« Olympisme et utilarisme », 1913, 72; Coubertin, 1996 [1931], 18). Through contemporary French educators like Pierre de Coubertin and Georges Hébert (Hébert, 1916), attitudes towards all-round-sport began to change: “Our era needs such people, who cope with every situation” (Coubertin, 1974 [1909], 146). The ideal of débrouillardise gained ground and adored men who knew how to act in every circumstance. These men were even approved by a special diploma[iii] (Coubertin, 1974, 169 ; Eyquem, 1963, 56; « Les Première Épreuves de Gymnastique Utilitaire », 1906, 39ff) which was implemented by the Comité de Gymnastique utilitaire[iv] in France in the beginning of the 20th Century and based on a test of twelve different physical exercises (« Les Premières Épreuves de Gymnastique Utilitaire », op. cit., 40f; Coubertin, op. cit.,150.), including all five disciplines which should later define Modern Pentathlon.

“Incidentally, it was always the view that it is for a young man's advantage if he knows and dominates the different sports which are needed for the life rescue, the defence and the locomotion. It was always useful if he could deal with a horse or a vessel, if he could handle a sword or a gun, if he understood how to place a punch or a kick, to swim or to run if the situation required, or even to dare a bold leap or a climbing tour, because all these skills give him a real superiority” (Coubertin, op. cit., 146).

By pointing out the “young man’s advantage” of a diverse training, Coubertin underlined that the composition of the participants was in terms of sex one-sided. Moreover, the fact that already in the first year after its realization a thousand men (and not a single woman) achieved the so called Diplôme des Débrouillards was proof of its social acceptance (Eyquem, op. cit., 56) but at the same time of a practised female exclusion. Thus, the idea of débrouillardise through sportive completeness was supported, whereas simultaneously women’s subordination was accepted without great protests.

A look back at earlier forms of pentathlon underlines the long tradition of female marginalisation: The antique pentathlon, composed of the disciplines running, long jump, discus throw, javelin throw and wrestling, had not only the ideal of complete athleticism with its modern version in common, but also the strict rejection of female participation.[v] When the contest was reinvented within the 1906 Intercalated Games, things did not change in terms of gender, and furthermore the “old” pentathlon was not considered to be a sufficient proof of complete athleticism in modern societies anymore. In contrast the newly invented Modern Pentathlon seemed to be rather adapted to the requirements of life in the 20th Century because of its equal division of disciplines to different categories of Gymnastique Utilitaire (Coubertin, 1906 [1905], VIII).[vi] Many contemporary quotations prove that it was a matter of course that athletes who were training many different sports at the same time were supposed to be exclusively men. By using heroic images like “Herculean” (Grœcia, 1913)[vii] to describe complete athletes, the masculine direction of consignees was emphasized. In general, it was believed that success in sports in particular and in life in general was no more exclusively connected to birth, but an aim which seemed reachable for the hard-working and ambitious. However, simultaneously it was uncritically and naturally accepted that these hard-working and ambitious people were men. Hence, for Coubertin it was clear that “the true olympic hero is [was] the adult male lone fighter” (Coubertin, 1996 [1931], 221). In his opinion women were not supposed to have the capacity to compete in such an important Olympic event (cp. section II). Thus, when the Baron expressed his dreams of Modern Pentathlon’s future in the Olympic Review of 1911, he only mentioned male competitors: “This pentathlon is certainly destined to play a major role, perhaps even of becoming the predominant event in Olympiads to come. The man capable of taking part, even if he does not come out the winner, is a true athlete, a complete athlete” (« Le Pentathlon moderne », 1911, 163)[viii]. Coubertin’s addressees were all boys elder than 14-years, young and strong men, ready to prepare themselves for the "struggle for life" (Coubertin, 1974, 146). Modern Pentathlon as a medium to develop complete athletes was a good basis to convince a society with strong patriarchal structures of its importance to be introduced as a new male sport into the Olympics. In the beginning of the 20th Century the majority of the society was not sensitized to questions of gender violence. By implementing the ideal of complete athleticism, automatically male virility and female weakness in regards to the practice of combined sports were endured and through a silent social acceptance even advanced. Besides this ideological preconditioning there were two main aspects determining Modern Pentathlon’s exposure to gender.

The included gender: Modern Pentathlon and male predominance

In the early 20th Century sport was a male universe: created by men, practised by men, administratively controlled by men. Success in sport underlined masculine self-confidence through a proof of virility and power (Wakefield, 1997, 5f). What if women were components as well? Men’s fear of losing their territory was obvious and led to a contra-position to female sports (Dunning, 2001, 232). In a civilized world, where honour was not achieved through bringing home food by hunting any more, “opportunities for heroism only arise in the sporting field, not in the forest in hot pursuit of food for the tribe” (Brittan, 1989, 77). From a male point of view sportive achievements would lose admiration, if women competed in the same disciplines as male athletes: “Men could prove their superiority by beating other men in competition, but the power of men's sports to define masculinity was reduced if women participated in them”(Hargreaves, 1997, 109). It is easy to imagine what it would have meant for a man’s self-concept if a lady had even beaten him in a contest.

From a male perspective the features required for a sports performance were comparable to those needed in a real battle and hence strongly connected to violence: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting"(Orwell, 1950, 153). At the beginning of the 20th century the press did not go as far as calling sport a war, but nevertheless applied to the consciousness of a good sportsmen when promoting military services: “WAR ISN'T SPORT, but it's a SPORT'S DUTY to stick to his pals who are at war for their country's sake” (Sport, 25. August 1917, p.7 and Critic, 9. Nov. 1917, p. 14, in: Phillips, 1997, 88). Whereas the language of warfare was used to define sport, vice versa the behaviour on the sports field was directly related to incidents on the battlefield (Phillips, 1996, 17). “Sport was important to masculinity and nationhood, but the supreme activity that fused masculinity with national identity was battle” (Phillips, 1997, 84). Thus, in the nationalistic atmosphere that arose in the years around the outbreak of the Great War men were expected to embrace military life. “If they were reluctant to become warriors, the message went, then maybe they weren’t men at all” (Wakefield, 1997, 19). Fighting in a war was used as a basic criteria for true masculinity and it was believed that “the best athletes would necessarily be the best warriors” (Wakefield, 1997, 19). As the army had for long been a male preserve (Connell, 1995, 83), sport as well should surrender to offer female entrance in order to remain men’s activity and thereby a field of reinsurance for virility. If female officers entered the army and women or even womanlike men practised sport, military as well as sportive battles would not function as a marker of masculinity anymore. Furthermore, the imagination that the “enterprise of war, a man’s enterprise, could be infiltrated by people failing to meet the definition of man, or rejecting the notion of a hierarchy of men valorising the skilful athlete” (Wakefield, 1997, 137), endangered masculine identity. Sport in this sense was “a central element in the fight against feminization” (Kimmel, 1990, 60). Consequently, if the enterprise of Modern Pentathlon, a man’s enterprise, was infiltrated by the same sort of effete unmanly people, men would share the fear that Modern Pentathlon lost its admiration as a sport in which only the strong and completely trained could compete and hence its “proving ground for masculinity” (Whitson, 1990, 24.; Kidd, 1990, 32).

The legend used to explain the choice of Modern Pentathlon’s disciplines was invented according to the officers’ duties and underlined the strong military connotations of the sport: “The choice […] arose out of the romantic, rough adventures of a liaison officer whose horse is brought down in enemy territory; having defended himself with his pistol and sword he swims across a raging river and delivers the message on foot” (Mallon/Widlund, 2002, 230f). In a society where social life was still so “exclusively tied to militarism and explicit expressions of violence” (Hargreaves, 1992, 167), a greater level of equality between the sexes was not within reach. Indeed, the ones in charge of sport politics in the time prior to World War I argued that sport “is [was] an institution created by and for men” (Messner/Sabo, 1990, 9), and tried to prevent women’s entrance into the world of male sport. Especially Modern Pentathlon, which was due to its disciplines characterized by a strong military connotation, should in the eyes of the athletes and organizers remain an area of masculine hegemony. “In numerous sports contexts, men held the power to stop women's progress because they monopolized resources and held controlling and decision-making positions” (Hargreaves, 1997, 125). For Modern Pentathlon, which did not yet have an international federation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) maintained full control until 1948 (Heck, forthcoming 2009). As the IOC was exclusively constituted by men (Krüger, 1997, 93; Mitchel, 1977, 208-228), early Modern Pentathlon was ruled by a consistently male community.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, IOC president and great defender of Modern Pentathlon, was sure that a woman’s place was not on the sports field. The participation of female athletes he deemed “impratique, inintéressante, inesthétique et incorrecte” (Coubertin is quoted in: Guttmann, 2004, 264). The Baron even declared female sports to be “imperfect copies” (Coubertin, 1928 [1922], 68f)[ix] that damage sport, and he considered the “prohibition of female admission to all competitions in which men take part” (Coubertin, 1996 [1931], 215) as a means to antagonise grievance in sport. His concept of equal chances to sports practice (Heck, forthcoming 2010) did inconsequently not reach female inclusion. For him “'women's sport' was against the 'laws of nature' and 'the most anaesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate'” (Simri, 1979, 12-13, quoted in: Hargreaves, 1997, 209). Contemporary attitudes like sport as a means of indirect war preparation (Coubertin, 1913, 261, quoted in: Spivak, 1983, 741f) or of female virilisation (Lenk, 1964, 45) made it easy for his ‘women-free’ plans to be accepted. On the other hand, women’s contribution to sport was rather reduced to the sportive education of their sons and moreover to a smooth training of feminine-appropriate events, graceful movements far beyond strenuous competitions and public attention (Coubertin, 1928 [1922], 68f). As the Baron shared the prejudices of his IOC colleagues by declaring that the Olympic Games must be reserved for men, he likewise decided that also Modern Pentathlon should stay a male preserve.[x]

Due to the application of one British lady (cp. section III), the question of women’s participation in the 1912 Modern Pentathlon’s competition could not just be brushed under the carpet. Whereas these debates were never made official, in the background of the preparations for the 1912 Olympics a whole male community kept to themselves in trying to hinder her participation. In the beginning no one, neither the International Olympic Committee nor the Swedish Organizing Committee or the British Olympic Association, felt responsible for the decision. Robert Courcy de Laffan, honorary secretary of the British Olympic Association (Bailey, in: Müller, 1998, 69), forwarded the proposal to the Swedish Organizing Committee on the 2nd of May 1912:

“We have had an application from a lady to be allowed to enter for the Modern Pentathlon in the Olympic Games of Stockholm. I presume from your telegram of March 22nd, stating that the Horse Riding Competitions are only open to gentlemen riders, that the Modern Pentathlon is not open to ladies. I do not however feel authorised to decide this question absolutely; and therefore beg to refer it to you for a definite decision.”[xi]

Although Laffan already expressed his doubts about women’s access to Modern Pentathlon in his letter, he did not directly refuse the application on a national level. Six days later, on the 8th of May, the secretary of the Stockholm Organizing Committee, Kristian Hellström, forwarded a copy of Laffan’s letter to Coubertin.[xii] The Baron gave some hints to his preferred response by generally declaring that he was “personally [sic] opposed to the admittance of ladies as competitors in the Olympic Games”[xiii], but he did not take the final decision. Due to the absence of a general rule, he left the decision to Hellström and promised to agree no matter if he refused or accepted the engagement. Thus, the buck was passed to the Swedish Organizing Committee. Though no protocol of their meetings documented that the topic was ever discussed, already one week later, a decision had obviously been made, when Coubertin was informed that “at yesterday’s meeting it was decided not to admit ladies in the Modern Pentathlon”[xiv]. Whilst the general regulations of the Modern Pentathlon competition in the 1912 Olympics were discussed for more than two years, the question of female participation in the new event was dealt with in less than two weeks: A mirror of the importance that was attached to this issue.

Hence, Modern Pentathlon was a concretization of what the Olympics were right from the start: “a context for institutionalized sexism, severely hindering women's participation” (Hargreaves, 1997, 209). According to Allen Guttmann (Guttmann, 2002, 4),

“for Coubertin’s generation, the socially constructed distinctions of gender seemed to be the dictates of biological inevitability. The games were definitely not meant to minimize the differences between men and women. They were never intended, in those days, as a platform for women's rights. The games began as a sports festival for men, and if Coubertin had had his way, women would have remained forever restricted to the role of admiring spectators.”

Since the 1912 Olympics basically remained male and Modern Pentathlon in particular military-connected, a female access was out of question. Even though some barriers had slightly opened by allowing women to compete in chosen events, the majority of disciplines were still masculine domains. The Baron defended male domination and female oppression in sport and even firmly opposed further extension of women’s participation after 1920. To Coubertin’s anger the female fraction again increased from 1920 to 1924 and reached with 136 participants in the 1924 Olympics almost twice the amount of four years before. Moreover, in 1924 women's events were against all odds given equal status with men's competitions (Hargreaves, 1997, 210). For Coubertin it should have been a little consolation that at least his “child”, Modern Pentathlon, was supported by the International Olympic Committee as well as by the Swedish, Belgian and French organizers to remain a pure manly sport. Hence, for Modern Pentathlon it was the dominant gender that held and used the means of violence by deciding about women’s access to sport. But male predominance is just one side of the coin; on the other side, women tried to stop the entitative discriminative conditions.

The excluded gender: Modern Pentathlon and female oppression

In the beginning of the 20th Century female athletes were still rare phenomenons. As the society was used to this situation, men did not feel to act violent and women not to be discriminated against (Connell, 1995, 195). If we betray from today’s point of view which barriers sportswomen who were willing to participate in men’s contests had to overcome, their weak and marginalised position becomes apparent. Surprisingly, if we throw a glance at Modern Pentathlon and women’s participation until 1924, most historical literature does not spend a single line on this topic. Thus, the story of Miss Helen Preece from London who tried to apply for a starting position at the Olympic Modern Pentathlon competition in Stockholm 1912 is still relatively unknown. She was never an Olympic gold medallist and the male community that surrounded her was successful in hiding her case. However, a few fragments of her trial are known, mainly due to the work of Mallon/Widlund, 2002. Whilst at the end of the previous section her story was presented from the view of the responsible male organizations, this section focuses on Miss Preece’s perspective of the incidents to give an insight into forms of discrimination, oppression and hence symbolic violence. For the first time in history Helen Preece is given room to tell her story:

Believe me, fighting for female participation in sport was my life! When I was born at the turn of the century, women only slowly overcame men’s opposition: After their absence at the first modern games in 1896, they made their appearance in 1900 as golfers and tennis players, in 1904 as archers, in 1912 and in the first post-war games as swimmers and divers and in 1924 as fencers. Track-and-field was already practised by a few ladies, but since these competitions were considered to be the heart of the Olympic Games, they remained male preserve until 1928 (Guttmann, 2004, 264). The development of the disciplines of my interest was even more complicated: Although regular practice in fencing, horse-riding, and shooting was slowly gaining ground among my female sports colleagues, only swimming was planned as new women’s event at the 1912 Olympics.

I remember well that our way towards an equal opportunity of training facilities for swimming was a long and stony path. Men and women were strictly separated by two different entrances to the pool and we had to follow certain rules of procedure that disallowed women from getting out of the water on the 'men's side' of the pool, and vice versa  (Rawlinson, 1979, quoted in: Hargreaves, op. cit., 97). Due to a greater amount of leisure time, there were more male swimmers than female, and furthermore, it was men who held the administrative power in swimming pools, clubs and organizations and allocated for themselves much more pool time and many more events in competitions than they allowed for women (Raszeja, 1992; Parker, op. cit; Love, 2007). These unfair procedures prove how dependent we were upon men to gain access to sport and how we had to struggle against male hegemony (Hargreaves, op. cit., 97). Several negotiations and struggles were needed to allow women to participate in 1912 in just two disciplines (Swedish Olympic Committee, 1913, 725f).

I liked swimming but my passion was inflamed by a newly created sport called Modern Pentathlon which combined shooting, fencing, swimming, horse-riding, and running, five of my most beloved sports. Some sportswomen already practised four of Modern Pentathlon’s five disciplines (all except running), and many could be considered as sportive all-rounders (Hargreaves, op. cit., 127), but no lady had tried yet to apply to take part in this multi-disciplinary sport. Modern Pentathlon was furthermore an Olympic event and women’s admittance to Olympic competitions had always been especially restricted. For example, the horse-riding-competitions: I already took part in several contests, so in the United States, reached a high level by winning last November in New York the $1,000 gold cup at the Madison Square Garden (Louisville Courier-Journal, July 7th 1912), but I nevertheless could not change the exclusion of women in the Olympic horse-riding events. Equestrian sport remained an area of gentlemen’s predominance. So when in 1911 the news about a new combined event called Modern Pentathlon reached me, I saw another chance for my Olympic debut. The idea of being the first female complete athlete and of competing against men in the same contest appeared amazing to me. Moreover, I was ambitious enough to aim for the gold medal. I knew that this was a stiff proposition and the one thing that worried me was the fact that I should be the only woman in this particular contest” (Louisville Courier-Journal, 7 July 1912). However, there was no time for doubts, as my father Ambrose directly contacted Mister Robert de Courcy Laffan to submit him the proposal. Laffan expressed doubts about the success but nevertheless promised to forward the request to the Swedish organizers. After Mister Laffan had sent my request in May 1912 to Stockholm, a time of hopefully waiting began. But with just two months until the Olympic opening ceremony a response should not be a long time coming.

Unfortunately not many at my times had access and knowledge of literature on the topic of female sport. The book I loved was edited by Lady Greville and published in 1894, entitled “Ladies in the Field: Sketches of Sport”. It demonstrated what was rarely known, namely that female activities in masculine areas like riding, hunting, and rifle-shooting indeed could create benefits in women’s lives, health and welfare. I was lucky and appreciated much that my father did not share these concerns. He rather saw me as a proof that a lady who is fond of shooting could still be full of grace and charm and that she does not necessarily become masculine in her manner (Lady Greville, 1894, 200). But not all people were supporting my father’s perspective. So when the news about my application spread, many did not hesitate to raise their concerns. Even my own friends shared the wide-spread fear that women who are equally practising sports like men could hardly be simultaneously projected as sexual objects by men. But as a horse-rider I was already used to these prejudices. Riding astride (or having the legs apart) for example was considered as provocative and further on dangerous, as it was believed to carry the risk of loss of virginity and hence of being less marriageable (Hargreaves, op. cit., 88f). A related fear was that competitive sport destroyed a girl's health and sterilised her (Guttmann, 2002, 45f). All these arguments were in favour of a possible rejection of my proposal. Men were probably afraid of losing their dominant position, but what did actually justify their hegemony?

For me the time was ripe to reconstruct gender attitudes through a change of the ordinary sport practice. I wanted to use my privileged background that provided me with adequate time and financial resources to contribute to a turn in the entitative gender-related inequity and prove that even sports that were considered to be pure male provided places for female interference. Due to its image of building complete athletes Modern Pentathlon was one of those masculine sports. But since it rather required skills like endurance and strong nerves than muscular strength, it indeed offered possible space for female participation (Coubertin, 1928 [1922], 68f). Furthermore, my father had found out that in the regulations for the Modern Pentathlon competitions no passage was spent on the question of female participation. That is why my proposal seemed not unpromising to me, even though fighting for a starting position in Modern Pentathlon appeared like tilting against windmills cause for weeks and months no answer reached me. But no response also meant no rejection yet, so that my father and friends, under whose guidance I was now undergoing quite an arduous course of training, seemed to have every confidence in me, and, of course, I myself was enthusiastic (Louisville Courier-Journal, July 7th 1912). As I was just fifteen years old, I had obtained special leave of absence from my school in Hertfordshire, and my day's work now commenced as early as 5 o'clock every morning, and only ended with bedtime at 8 o'clock. Each day I practised myself in riding, shooting, swimming, running and walking, and I was also put on a special diet so that I should be absolutely fit for the Pentathlon on July 11 (Louisville Courier-Journal, July 7th 1912).

Meanwhile, as my application was obviously considered to be remarkable, the press was quite interested and thereby spread the news. While we did not have any official response yet, the American Louisville Courier-Journal reported on the 7th of July 1912, just one day after the Olympic Games had begun and right on the day when the Modern Pentathlon event should begin, that I would indeed attend this competition. When I read the headline “Girl to enter Olympic Games. Miss Helen Preece, Women's Hope to Take Part in the Contests to Be Held at Stockholm”, I was totally surprised. I was described to be the “only female representative at the games” in this contest. What did they know, what I did not yet? The absence of an official response and hence of a reinsurance of my participation remained. Finally, I was just informed through the Olympic Revue that the Swedish Organizing Committee had finally decided to refuse my application: “The other day a commitment arrived. It was signed by a neo-amazon who claimed to compete in the Modern Pentathlon. Thanks to the absence of a fixed legislation, the Swedish Committee was left free to decide and refused this commitment”[xv] (« Les femmes aux Jeux Olympiques », 1912, 109). Even my name was not mentioned, it was just talked about a “neo-amazon” trying to attend the Modern Pentathlon. The author’s attitude was clear: Which woman was so naive to think that she would have a chance to participate in a male preserve? Even though no official author was published, I presumed that it was Pierre de Coubertin himself.[xvi] He frequently published in his journal, and I am quite sure that he had been in touch with the Swedish organizers on the topic of my participation, though this was never officially confessed.[xvii] As de Laffan was a friend of Coubertin (Bailey, 1998, 69), he did not fight against this decision and left me waiting uninformed until the very end. He seemed to me rather a cowardly bystander than a courageous participant! The Olympic Games were opened on the sixth of July, the Modern Pentathlon competitions started one day later, but they started without me. Whereas later rumours abounded that Hellström had actually allowed me to take part, in fact I did not have the official admission to start. Until now I never received any official response, neither from Laffan, nor from Coubertin or from one of the Swedish organizers. I trained equally hard as my male sport colleagues, I reached their level, but it was only men who got the chance to prove their skills in a competition. I never tried to apply for the Modern Pentathlon again.

Although the news of the refusal of Ms Preece’s application was not spread by the press, her experience seemed to have influenced female athletes for a long time. For the next two Olympics, in 1920 and 1924 no woman tried to enter the Modern Pentathlon event again. Thus, the male protectors of a woman-free Modern Pentathlon had finally won the “battle of the sexes” (Connell, 1995, 82), but not without having used means of symbolic violence.


Thinking about violent sports, Modern Pentathlon probably would not be the first that comes to mind. But who defines that sport is only violent if blood is shed or if the athletes attack each other physically?[xviii]

This paper highlighted aspects which the curtain had been drawn on for decades: Early Modern Pentathlon was not only a combined and virile sport, but moreover a sport which dealt in a symbolical violent way with women’s attempt for sportive equality. As Modern Pentathlon was put into praxis at the beginning of the 20th Century, the sport rather reflected contemporary social attitudes and hence received the attribute “modern” to distinguish it from past events. But modernity did not go as far as changing traditional patriarchal attitudes towards women’s participation in sport. Female entering in an all-round sport like Modern Pentathlon was considered as a danger for masculinity and led to men’s strong protection of their field. Between 1912 and 1924 “a world where men are in charge and women are irrelevant” (Vertinsky, 2002, 389) was lived through a Modern Pentathlon practice which was characterized not only by a male predominance but also by a strong and long-lasting female discrimination. Whereas in some of the single disciplines, women already officially competed against each other (for example in swimming), the multi-disciplinary sport should remain a male preserve. These inconsequent decisions towards female sport participation, which were missing a traceable red-line in the grounds, were obviously made due to personal interests of Coubertin and his colleagues in the IOC and Swedish organizing committee.

One could have argued that where there is no complaint there is also no redress, if there was not one single trial of a fifteen-year-old British woman to compete in the 1912 Olympics. Helen Preece’s case exemplified that symbolic violence went further than a simple exclusion from participation. The decision to give Miss Preece a voice to present her story through a personal narrative was a methodological challenge and headed by the endeavour to move beyond a single authorial writing style. While such postmodern experimental writing can be considered as violating social research conventions, in this case it emphasized a personal history without losing evidence. Preece’s history was finally presented through a “separate spheres perspective” (Vertinsky, 1994, 18) – one time through male predominance, one time through female oppression – which broadly highlighted the symbolic violence she suffered from. The fact that her request was never the subject of one of the official meetings of the Swedish Organizing Committee and that it never led to an official response or at least to a naming of reasons is a mirror of the minor respect that was shown to sportswomen. When the Modern Pentathlon competition began, she was still only informed about the rejection through an anonymous article in the Olympic Review. In the background three main male parties – Coubertin and the IOC, Laffan and the British Olympic Association as well as Hellström and the Swedish Organizing Committee – were keeping together to hinder her participation. No chance for a single woman to fight against. It was a male community that gave birth to the Modern Pentathlon and in the end it was men that were deeply committed to defending its status as a pure male sport.

The refused trial of Miss Preece in 1912 had further effect on female attempts to participate in Modern Pentathlon competitions in the aftermath: During the next two Olympics no woman tried to apply again, and it finally took until Sydney 2000 that female modern pentathletes were included into the Olympic program (Official Report of the XXVII Olympiad, 2001). Finally, eighty-eight years later, female exclusion ended and Helen Preece’s dream came true.


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[i] The speech was held by M. Moore (president of the exhibition) in the context of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition Games in San Francisco in 1915; the article is also kept in the IOC Archives in Lausanne: JO 1912 S - CORR - Correspondence envoyée et reçue par Coubertin au sujet des Jeux Olympiques de Stockholm 1912, 46580.

[ii] Original text: « De même que l´homme, de par sa denture, est omnivore, de même, par la variété de ses muscles et de ses attitudes possibles, il est, si je peux dire, omnisportif. Rien n´est plus mauvais pour lui (sinon l´inertie) que la spécialisation musculaire. »

[iii] The « diplôme de débrouillards » was already introduced by Coubertin in 1902, but took until 1906 to be realized; Schantz/Müller, Préface, in: Müller/Schantz, Pierre de Coubertin, textes choisis, tome III, pratique sportive, 1986, 1-22, quoted in: Schantz, Coubertins Idee der Wiedereinführung des ‘antiken Gymnasiums’ als Beitrag zum ‘sozialen Frieden’, (2008), 5.

[iv] Coubertin founded the Comité de Gymnastique utilitaire, which was after three years, in 1903, transformed into the Société des Sports Populaires; Schantz/Müller, Préface, in: Müller/Schantz, Pierre de Coubertin, textes choisis, tome III, pratique sportive, 1986, 1-22, in: Schantz, Coubertins Idee der Wiedereinführung des ‘antiken Gymnasiums’ als Beitrag zum ‘sozialen Frieden’, 2008, 5.

[v] The Pentathlon was introduced into the antique Olympics in 708 v. Chr.; Kannicht, Die Olympischen Spiele im alten Griechenland, in: Grupe: Olympischer Sport: Rückblick und Perspektiven, 1997, 41.

[vi] Significantly Modern Pentathlon was a composition which included all three different fields of “Gymnastique Utilitaire” in a well balanced way: Running and swimming were assigned to the field of rescue (both on shore and in water); fencing and shooting were disciplines of defence; and horse-riding was a means of locomotion.

[vii] «L´athlète moderne, ‘complet’, n´est plus ce colosse herculéen, aux muscles noués, à la démarche lourde, mais cet homme agile, adroit, sobre, endurant, énergique, seul capable de supporter privations, douleurs, intempéries, et de résister aux maladies qui le guettent. », quoted in: G. Hébert, L´éducation physique ou l´entraînement complet par la méthode naturelle: historique documentaire, revue et augmentée de celle de 1912, 1941, 138.

[viii] « Ce pentathlon est certainement destiné à jouer un grand rôle, peut-être même à devenir l’épreuve dominante des Olympiades à venir. Il remplacera l’ancien pentathlon car il est beaucoup plus intéressant et beaucoup plus probant. L’homme capable de s’y présenter, si même il n’en sort pas vainqueur, est un athlète véritable, un athlète complet.»

[ix] The translations are mine.

[x] The idea that sports are a “male preserve” was the topic of several books and articles, cp. for example:                 K.D. Sheard/E. Dunning, The Rugby Football Club as a Type of ‘Male Preserve’ – Some sociological notes, in: E. Dunning/D. Malcolm, Sport and power relations, Critical concepts in sociology, vol. 3, London: Routledge, 2003.

[xi] Letter of Laffan to the Swedish Organizing Committee, 2.5.1912, quoted in: Mallon/Widlund, 2002, 232.

[xii] National Archives of Sweden, quoted in: Mallon/Widlund, op. cit., 232.

[xiii] The letter has no date; the underlines in Coubertin's letter are his, found in the original; National Archives of Sweden, quoted in: Mallon/Widlund, op. cit., 232.

[xiv] Letter of the Swedish Organizing Committee to Coubertin, 15.5.1912, Korrespondens Balck-Coubertin, 1906-1912 (SOK arkiv FIII:1), in: Jan Lindroths idrottshistoriska arkiv, SE/RA/721351, National Archives of Sweden.

[xv] « L’autre jour un engagement est venu signé d’une néo-amazone qui prétendait concourir pour le Pentathlon moderne et le Comité Suédois laissé libre de se prononcer, en l’absence d’une législation fixe, a refusé cet engagement. ». The article has no exact date.

[xvi] Mallon/Widlund shared this assumption; cp. Mallon/Widlund, 2002, 232.

[xvii] The official report does not mention Miss Preece’s case at all; cp.: Swedish Olympic Committee (ed.), 1913; Mallon/Widlund wearily stated that “nothing further is known about Helen Preece”; cp. Mallon/Widlund, 2002, 233.

[xviii] For examples of other forms of violence in sport, cp. Kerr, 2006.