David Owen: A novel that sheds light on the first Olympic women’s athletics competition
Hot on the heels of Robin Kietlinski’s book on Japanese sportswomen (read about it here), another account of female Olympic pioneers has reached me.
The Peerless Four* follows a Canadian women’s athletics team on their way to the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the first Games to include track and field events, just five of them, for women.
Victoria Patterson’s novel is perceptive and well-written: the maple leaf on the front of one athlete’s jersey is likened, for example, to “a large bloody handprint”.
The book makes telling points about the hollowness of sporting victories once their authors are obliged to exit the comforting simplicity of the competitive bubble and how, for all the fuss made about supposed landmarks on the path to gender equality such as Amsterdam’s athletics programme, the bigger picture saw women still floundering for fulfilment in a world where men made all the rules.
As the author puts it at one point, we, men and women, “play sports and buck against our insignificance”.
Most of all, it introduces us to a character – Mel, the team’s chaperone and narrator of the bulk of the text – who lives in the memory for her carefully nuanced contradictions: her abnegation and wilfulness; her strength and insecurity; in a word, her humanity.
But – and, for me, a journalist who spends much of his life immersed in the cold, hard facts of Olympic competition – it is a big ‘but’, the book’s impact was diluted by the liberties Patterson takes with the factual record.
On the one hand, she weaves in details that are clearly carefully researched: the “grand stadium” was a swamp filled with sand; two of the six women’s 100m finalists were disqualified for false starts.
On the other, one of the most carefully-drawn characters, Farmer, wins gold in the women’s javelin competition; yet there was no women’s javelin event in Amsterdam, only the discus, won by Halina Konopacka of Poland with a throw of 39.62 metres, a world record.
Yes, invention is the fiction-writer’s stock-in-trade, but I can’t really fathom why she does this, unless to include the delicious detail that, on the ship crossing the Atlantic, “the javelin throwers used javelins with ropes attached and threw them out to sea, dragging them back”.
The author also ends the book with a chapter, Before the Peerless Four, comprising a long list of women’s sporting achievements from 776 BC onwards, that comes across as an attempt to anchor her fictionalised account of 1928 and all that in reality.
The names used for the athlete-characters are not those of the women who won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in the five track and field events for Canada.
But there do seem to be parallels: Florence Smith appears in the book; Ethel Smith competed at Amsterdam.
Most strikingly, Ginger Hadley, the character who wins the high jump – in 10 jumps – in Patterson’s book does seem to a considerable extent modelled on Ethel Catherwood, the actual gold medallist, from her physical beauty to her Saskatchewan roots.
An image of Catherwood adorns the dust-jacket.
It wasn’t just the Canadian women who did well in Amsterdam; a Canadian sprinter called Percy Williams achieved the 100m-200m double.
But here too Patterson tinkers with the true story, though this time I think I can see why she does it.
A character called Hugh Williams appears in the book; he is a sprinter and does win the sprint double.
“Now Canada and the world loved him,” the book tells us, “but he did not love them. He didn’t love to run. He didn’t even like it. His father left when he was a baby, his coach was a dictator, and his mother was also a dictator, and he won, because that’s the way it works sometimes.”
Very well, but as recounted in a 1935 letter from Farmer to the narrator that allows the author to give another layer of perspective to the ‘events’ of seven years earlier, Hugh Williams met a sad end.
“Hugh Williams took his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his heart,” the letter reads. “He shot his heart out, Mel. No suicide note, but he used that gun that they gave him as a prize for his Olympic victories – remember that big silver gun the mayor presented to him at that other ceremony after that small one? – which to me IS his note.”
This passage had me racing to my Canadian Encyclopedia fearing for the real Percy Williams and wondering whether despair had engulfed him like his fictional counterpart.
Well, the answer appears to be yes, with most details, which I actually located on Wikipedia, seemingly as in Farmer’s letter – except two: Williams is said to have shot himself in the head; and his death occurred in 1982, when he was 74.
So: while not everyone will react like me, my health warning, if you are tempted to read the book, would be – don’t expect it to be a true factual record with added psychology and social comment.
If you are looking for a sporting novel that throws an interesting light on the true nature of athletic success and women’s emancipation, then you will find much to satisfy you.
*The Peerless Four by Victoria Patterson, published by Counterpoint Press, price $23 (£13/€16).
David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed here.