Danish female athletes and the development of the Olympic Games

Martin Friis Andersen
Ph.D. in history

Else Trangbæk
Olympiske kvinder: Om topsport og kvindeliv gennem 100 år
206 sidor, inb., ill.
Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag 2018
ISBN 978-87-408-3174-0

In the field of history, interviews and autobiographies are often regarded inadequate and insufficient compared to other source materials. Some historians claim that biographical material cannot be analysed without implementing other source material as well.  In my opinion, working with life stories as a historian should achieve higher recognition. Writing a good biography presupposes a massive research effort and a well-informed researcher, who takes her informants and their life stories seriously. Obviously, there is some truth in the saying that biographical material should not be interpreted and used in historical research without comparing it to themes and narratives in society. The important thing is, though, to treat the individual life stories with respect, especially when relating them to trends in society, which is a thing Else Trangbæk excels at in this book.

In Olympiske kvinder: Om topsport og kvindeliv gennem 100 år [Olympian women: Elite sports and women’s lives during 100 years], Professor Emerita Else Trangbæk seems to have two main objectives. She wishes to address the individual female athletes’ stories in order to identify and visualize the changing ways of being a female athlete in Denmark during the last 100 years. At the same time, Trangbæk aims to address Olympic history in general and changing attitudes to women’s participation in sports. The individual narratives from Danish female athletes provide the empirical examples for the discussion of the development of women sports in the last centennial.

The book reads as a collective biography. By interpreting the athletes’ individual life stories, Trangbæk makes general claims on the conditions and importance of being a Danish female athlete during the last 100 years. She collected her source material in more than one turn and over a long time span. This calls for methodological reflections. Trangbæk explains that in order to compensate for the time gap in her interviews, she made test interviews in order to re-adjust her question guide. Furthermore, a parameter for the selection of informants was a desire to give voice to at least one athlete from each of the 22 summer and winter sports with female Danish participation. This choice secures a broad group of informants but seems to blur the fact that some Olympic sports simply plays a greater role in the grand narrative of Denmark at the Olympics.

The book is divided into five sections. Each section consists of an introduction followed by one or two chapters, in which Trangbæk presents her analysis. The sections are structured chronologically with one major exception, section 5, which in contrast to the rest of the book treats life stories of Danish female athletes at the Winter Olympics. Each chapter begins with an identification of the most significant sports in the period analysed in the section. The analysis builds on the voices of the athletes organised in re-occurring analytical categories such as the importance of age, gender, the role of the media and Olympic participation in general. In the conclusion, Trangbæk addresses the development in opportunities for women to participate in sports.

Interviews and biographies prove to be great sources for gaining knowledge about how politics and procedures at the Olympics were experienced from a female athlete’s perspective.

Section 1, De olympiske lege og kvinderne [The Olympic Games and women], focuses on the revival of the Olympic Games and the first years of the Olympic Movement. Trangbæk addresses the limited possibilities for women to do sports in the beginning of the 20thCentury and stresses the fact that the first female athletes were pioneers. Unfortunately, in this section the analysis of the biographical material does not do itself justice. Section 1, unlike the following sections, seems to lack analytical depth and serves as an starting point for the analysis in the rest of the book more than as an analytic argument in its own right.

In section 2, Kvinderne bryder nye barrierer [Women break new barriers], the interwar years and the 1948 Olympics are in focus. Trangbæk identifies the success of the Danish female swimmers as a symbol of development in Danish society before and after World War II. Through the narratives of the swimmers Ragnhild Hveger, Inge Sørensen, Karen Margrethe Harup and Greta Andersen, Trangbæk cleverly pinpoints two of her analytical categories: age and gender. At the age of twelve, Sørensen won a bronze medal at the 1936 Olympics. The media attention and popular demand made Olympic participation at such a young age difficult and the motives for letting a twelve-year old girl compete on the international world stage were questioned.

Section 3, En ny verdensorden [A new world order], is in my opinion the strongest section in the book. Trangbæk manages to include her own experiences as an Olympic athlete (Mexico 1968) to vitalize and humanize the Olympic narratives. Her first-hand experience does the analysis well. Categories like media, political aspects, training conditions and sex testing are analysed in this section. Interviews and biographies prove to be great sources for gaining knowledge about how politics and procedures at the Olympics were experienced from a female athlete’s perspective. Furthermore, the question of sex identification is brought up again with a reference to the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya.

In section 4, Den danske eliteidrætsmodel og OL-kvinderne [The Danisg elite sports model and Olympian women], the most recent developments in Olympic history are highlighted. Professionalism, training regimes and doping are explored through the stories from among others female athletes, in this case badminton and handball players. Gender plays a significant role in this section as well as the importance of being an Olympic athlete. Interestingly, Trangbæk also addresses the fact that many female athletes suffer from eating disorders, which in April 2019 was one of the major themes in a TV documentary in Danish television. In the documentary, several swimmers told horrifying stories of the training methods and pedagogy they had to endure at the National Training Center in order to become top athletes.

Section 5, De olympiske vinterlege og kvinderne [The Olympic Winter Games and the women], focuses on the relatively few female athletes who participated at the Winter Olympics. In my opinion, this chapter contributes only with a few new insights compared to the other chapters in the book.

In her conclusion, Trangbæk tries to predict the future for female Danish athletes. Based on the analysis of the history of Danish female athletes at the Olympics, she tries to identify future trends. She explores the opportunities and possibilities for the (personal and collective) success for future female athletes. She addresses the paradox of the IOC being a relatively closed and undemocratic organisation trying to promote gender equality in a sports world that historically has roots in a biological understanding of gender.

Despite the at times repetitive character of the book and the varying analytical depth from section to section, Olympiske kvinder: Om topsport og kvindeliv gennem 100 år contributes with an identification and problematization of Danish female athletes’ participation at the Olympic Games during the last 100 years. As a collective biography, the book does its job. It takes the memories and stories of the individual athletes seriously, while also managing to highlight the differences and similarities of the narratives. As Trangbæk percipiently concludes, “Sportens betydning skal ses i dialog mellem den lille og den store historie, mellem de personlige historier og de samfundsmæssige muligheder og udfordringer [The importance of sport should be seen in dialogue between the small and the great history, between the personal stories and social opportunities and challenges].”

Copyright © Martin Friis Andersen 2019


Birgitte Possing: Ind i biografien, København: Gyldendal. 2015.
Niels Kayser Nielsen: Historiens forvandlinger, Aarhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag. 2010.
Svømmestjerner under overfladen, DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation), 22.04.2019.
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