The Book Shelf

I continually collect and read books about women’s sporting history. Most are in English, but I can also struggle through French and German. The last few years have seen a substantial increase in books on this topic, and it’s becoming difficult to keep up. I thought it might be useful to use this section to provide short reviews of recent books about women’s sporting heritage from a global perspective.

Please contact me if you have written a book about women’s sport history, or have read a book you think I should know about. Here we go!

Molly Schiot, Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sport History (Simon and Schuster, 2016)

Molly SchiotMolly Schiot is an athlete and filmmaker in Los Angeles. After repeated rejections of her documentary film ideas about women athletes, especially those whose stories are not well known, she started an Instagram account (@theunsungheroines) and began posting images of sportswomen from the past. She soon had thousands of followers, and the book project was born.

Game Changers contains 136 stories. Schiot’s aim was to “hit all ends of the spectrum” from sport to nationality to time period, and to use lesser known, more candid images of her subjects. Did she succeed? For the most part, the images are stunning and unusual. Over three-quarters of the stories are about American women, with only four about Canadians, and the remainder sprinkled over seventeen other countries. She has, however, covered a wide variety of sports – some forty in all—with a greater focus on track and field, tennis, basketball, softball/baseball, and motorcycle racing. One obvious sport missing is cycle racing, which women have been engaged in since the days of the high-wheel bicycle.

The Canadian athletes she chose for her book are Abby Hoffman (ice-hockey, track, sports administration), Manon Rhéaume (ice-hockey), Marilyn Bell (marathon swimming), and Shirley and Sharon Firth (cross-country skiing).

Game Changers is an excellent resource for students doing projects on women athletes. Along with the brief write-ups, there is a list of references for each entry, some more extensive than others. I had never heard of Marion “Joe” Carstairs, for example, a British champion motorboat racer in the 1920s, and was led to Kate Summerscale’s wonderful biography of her (see The Queen of Whale Cay, Viking, 1998).

I could not agree more with Schiot when she says: “It is our job to remember these women and tell their stories.”

Roseanne Montillo. Fire on the Track: Betty Robinson and the Triumph of the Early Olympic Women (Crown, 2017)

MontilloFire on the Track is an interesting yet also an extremely frustrating book from a historical perspective. The narrative is lively with colorful detail taking the reader right into the action. It tells the story of primarily four athletes – Betty Robinson, Mildred (“Babe”) Didrikson, Stella Walsh, and Helen Stephens – all early Olympians. At times you feel as if you are right there, on the track, running beside these amazing athletes or experiencing their pain through injury or defeat. Their stories are intriguing, yet aspects of their lives have been fabricated so at times it is difficult to tell whether this book is fact or fiction.

Montillo’s sources are little help in sorting out this dilemma. For much of the book she has relied on extensive email and phone conversations with Betty Robinson’s son, Richard Swartz, with seemingly little effort to find other sources to confirm or challenge his observations. Also used frequently were Helen Stephens’ papers, deposited in the State Historical Society of Missouri by her biographer Sharon Kinney Hanson (https://shsmo.org/manuscripts/columbia/c3552.pdf). Montillo’s many lists of folder numbers found in the State Historical Society of Missouri all come from this one source. Her historical research may seem comprehensive, but from the perspective of a sport historian it is not. Montillo’s attempt to write a story suitable for a Hollywood film (the screen rights have already been sold), in some ways has done these women a disservice.

The story is told chronologically in three parts through the Summer Olympics of 1928 (Amsterdam), 1932 (Los Angeles), and 1936 (Berlin). Several track and field events for women were included on the 1928 Olympic program: 100 meters, 800 meters, 4×100-meter relay, high jump, and discus.  Although twenty-one nations sent competitors, the British women, certainly one of the strongest teams, boycotted the event because they were adamant that women should support and compete in the all-women Fédération sportive feminine internationale world games and not in a mixed Olympics (a fact not mentioned by Montillo).

Elizabeth (Betty) Robinson, an American athlete, was the first woman to win a gold medal in Olympic track when she beat the favorite, Canadian Fanny (“Bobbie”) Rosenfeld, in the 100 meters final at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. With no electronic timing to confirm the result, the judges disagreed among themselves as to who won the race. Although Canadian officials wished to file a protest, on the premise that Robinson broke the tape with her arms and not her body, they were prevented from doing so by Dr. Arthur Lamb, chef de mission of the Canadian team, who claimed it was unsportsmanlike to do so. Had the protest been filed and upheld, Betty Robinson would not have won gold that day. Although author Montillo mentions this controversy, she provides no detail, saying simply that the judges decided a mere tenth of a second separated the two runners. The American team came second in the 4×100-meter relay (beaten by the Canadians). The 800-meter race was also marred by controversy (incorrectly described by Montillo) with neither the Americans nor Canadians placing. Regardless, Betty Robinson came home to a heroine’s welcome.

Meanwhile, a tomboy in Dallas, Texas was beginning to make a name for herself as a star basketball player with the Golden Cyclones. Bored at season’s end, Babe Didrikson looked to track and field for an athletic fix. Through hard work and determination, it was not unrealistic to set her sights on the 1932 Olympics. So too did Stella Walsh from Cleveland, who was the first woman to run the 100 meters under 12 seconds, and who also beat Betty Robinson at the 1930 national outdoor championships. A year later, Betty decisively beat Stella. Clearly the Americans were looking to have a strong women’s track team in 1932. However, on June 28, 1931 Betty was travelling in a small biplane piloted by her cousin when it crashed, seriously injuring them both, and putting her out of competition. Stella Walsh (running for Poland) won the 100 meters in Los Angeles, and the American women swept the other events with Babe Didrikson taking gold in both the 80-meter hurdle and javelin and silver in the high jump. She should have been disqualified from the high jump altogether for “diving” over the bar. Again Montillo does not tell this story quite correctly.

Betty Robinson recovered and trained hard to compete at the Olympics in 1936. Didrikson had turned professional and was ineligible to compete. Meanwhile the track coach at Fulton High School in Missouri spotted a student, Helen Stephens, running at speed and convinced her to take up the sport seriously. Soon she was beating Stella Walsh, which she also did at the Olympics in Berlin. Together they took gold and silver. Through sheer determination, Betty made the team and was a member of the USA gold-medal winning 4×100-meter relay foursome.

One theme running through this book is a discourse that always surrounds women athletes, especially those who competed in the 1920s and 1930s. Athletics will masculinize women, and when women athletes are too masculine they may indeed be men, and if not men, then certainly lesbians. Montillo could not avoid this topic in Fire on the Track, but it is treated problematically. Among her four main characters, one was heterosexual (Betty Robinson), one was lesbian (Helen Stephens), one was a complex mix of masculinity, femininity, and bi-sexuality (Babe Didrikson), and one was intersex with a condition called mosaicism that produces an unusual chromosomal pattern and ambiguous genitalia (Stella Walsh).

Montillo chose to sensationalize aspects of the sexuality of her main characters either by teasing the reader with small tidbits – for example, by referring on occasion to Walsh’s “five-o’clock shadow”, which was non-existent – or by embellishing scenes for dramatic effect. Montillo describes a locker room episode, where thinking she is alone Stella drops her towel, only to be seen by a teammate who witnesses the “non-existent breasts and the limp little stump between her legs.” Montillo goes on at some length explaining Walsh’s aversion to physical contact, and how she hid her naked body, while assuring everyone she was female. How, one asks, does the author know this? Walsh lived all her 69 years as a female. Her intersex condition was only revealed at the time of her death, when an autopsy was performed after she was shot in a botched robbery.

Helen Stephens was dogged all her competitive life with accusations of being a male because she was big, strong, muscular, and had a deep voice (the result of a childhood accident). After her gold medal win in 1936, the accusations increased, and, according to Montillo, the IOC acted swiftly and requested a physical genital exam to confirm her sex: “. . .  as she lay on the cold examination table, her legs spread wide apart while an IOC physician prodded her . . . .” The experience, states Montillo, not only traumatized and humiliated her, it also angered her. How does she know this? Although Stephens kept a detailed diary of her experiences in Berlin, she did not write about these experiences, and her feelings are unknown. Helen Stephens lived her life as a lesbian, though not openly in order to protect herself and her gay friends. This would certainly have been the case in 1936, on the trip to the Olympics in Berlin and in Europe afterwards. According to Montillo, Helen was infatuated with Betty Robinson and followed her everywhere, which is absolutely untrue.

Fire on the Track is an entertaining read, but unfortunately it is a blend of fact and fiction. For more accurate and nuanced biographies of these four athletes, I suggest the following:

  • Joe Gergen, The First Lady of Olympic Track: The Life and Times of Betty Robinson (Northwestern University Press, 2014)
  • Susan E. Cayleff, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (University of Illinois Press, 1995)
  • Sheldon Anderson, The Forgotten Legacy of Stella Walsh: The Greatest Female Athlete of Her Time (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017)
  • Sharon Kinney Hanson, The Life and Times of Helen Stephens: The Fulton Flash (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004)