Fast Girls by Elise Hooper
Written by Ashley Kelmore, Posted in Reviews
Anyone interested in how women have had to fight against sexism, misogyny, and racism to do simple things like run really fast.
In a nutshell:
Three women’s stories are told starting in the late 1920s through to the 1936 Berlin Olympic.
“Getting a taste of what it felt like to be good at something and then having it taken away still left her feeling crushed when she allowed herself to think about it.”
“Rules could be broken. Judges could be wrong. People did not always do the fair thing. Final results were only as reliable as the system that produced them.”
“It is well documented that women cannot be subjected to the same mental and physical strains that men can withstand … It is important not to overburden this developing young feminine mind with the distractions of sport and competition.”
Why I chose it:
It was a birthday gift from my mother-in-law, who knows I have a strong interests in women in sports and women’s rights overall.
If you’re mostly interested in reading about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, this is not the book for you, despite the title and cover. It’s definitely in there at the end, but takes up maybe 15% of the whole book. But if you’re interested in reading fictionalized accounts of real women athletes, fighting for their rights to compete and perform and receive anything close to the same treatment as men athletes, this is a good book to pick up.
Author Hooper follows three athletes primarily – Betty, a white woman who wins gold at the inaugural women’s 100 track event at the 1928 Olympics; Helen, a young white outcast who discovers she is an excellent runner while dealing with understanding her sexuality, and Louise, a Black woman who has to deal with both the sexism and racism of the athletic world.
These women, along with nearly every other athlete mentioned, are historic figures, and the major life events they encounter (including a plane crash that Betty survives, and sexual abuse of Helen) are all real. As the author shares at the end, unfortunately Louise is the woman she was able to find the least about in her research, though all are discussed in an afterward that shares how their lives went after the Berlin Olympics.
The author intersperses point of view chapters with letters and newspaper articles and oh MY gosh do you want to get angry? That last quote from up above, about women not being able to handle mental / physical strains, and how they shouldn’t be distracted? Flames on the side of my face. I’ve been an athlete (mostly soccer) since I was about six, and while most of the time I’ve had support and the ability to play when and where I want, the reality is I’ve faced sexism individually (when I played on a co-ed team — not from my teammates, but from opposition) and collectively (I now play in women’s soccer leagues here in England and the refs are shit and both make way too many technical calls like foul throws and then offer no protection from dirty play).
I also appreciate how the author spends time specifically focusing on the ways that Louise, as one of the two Black women who is on the women’s team during the Los Angeles and Berlin Olympics, deals with overt and casual racism all the time, from not being selected for the relay in Los Angeles despite having faster times, to being forced to sleep in lesser accommodations on the way to the Olympics. Betty, Helen, and the other white women athletes are definitely facing a ton of misogyny and sexism, but for Louise and her teammate Tidye, they have racism added on top.
As I mentioned, the book is more about the lives of the women in the eight years leading to the Berlin Olympics, but they do definitely talk about the proposed boycott, and the treatment the Nazis showed to their own athletes and to athletes from other nations. I’d say it’s hard to imagine being willing to compete at those games, but like, people went to the 2014 Olympics in Socchi, where Russia has horrible laws against people who are not straight. As I get older and more informed, the way the Olympics are run makes me less and less interested in supporting them at all (I mean, did you see the comments by the now former head of the Toyko games just, like, this month?), but I do still want to support the individual athletes and teams who work so hard to complete these amazing feats of athleticism.
Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it: