The Most Important Photograph in the History of Women's Olympic Participation: Jennie Fletcher and the British 4×100 Freestyle relay team at the Stockholm 1912 Games
When Charlotte Cooper, a tennis player, won Britain's first women's gold medal at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1900, she was part of a middle-class amateur tradition. Jennie Fletcher (1890–1968) was a very different sporting hero. She won a bronze medal in the 100m freestyle event (Britain's first individual Olympic female swimming medal) at the Stockholm Games in 1912. Fletcher was also part of the gold-winning team in the 4×100m freestyle relay. This work looks at Jennie's life and swimming career to argue that the role of the working-class female amateur has been relatively neglected as an aspect of Olympic history. Fletcher worked in a clothing factory for 12 hours six days a week and swam in what little spare time that remained. Nevertheless, she did train and swim extensively between 1903 and 1913. By the time of her 1912 victories, Jennie Fletcher had held the 100 yard freestyle women's world record since 1906, also holding the English championship between 1906 and 1909 and again in 1911–12. A second theme of this article is the degree of specialist preparation undertaken for competition, including the use of clothing technology. Jennie Fletcher was coached and advised by some of the finest swimmers of her day: these included the amateur John Jarvis and the professional Joey Nuttall, co-inventors of the Jarvis-Nuttall kick. She may well have combined this with the trudgeon arm action, as the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) frowned upon the crawl as a fast but rather inelegant stroke in both its American and Australian variants. Appearing in Stockholm in an expensive one-piece silk swimming costume, Fletcher and her British teammates represented a new kind of modernity. This work therefore concludes that the widely-circulated images of the women swimmers were an important media moment in the history of the Olympic Games. The lightweight costumes and the representation of the revealed sporting body enabled competitive principles, rather than modesty, to define the appearance of the female swimmer.
Citation:Williams, J. (2012) The Most Important Photograph in the History of Women's Olympic Participation: Jennie Fletcher and the British 4×100 Freestyle relay team at the Stockholm 1912 Games. Sport in History, Special Issue: Britain, Britons and the Olympic Games, 32 (2) pp. 204-230
Research Group:International Centre for Sports History and Culture
- School of Humanities