Philip Barker

Inger Frith was never world or Olympic champion but 60 years ago she broke new ground as President of World Archery, then known by the French name Federation Internationale de Tir a L’Arc (FITA).

Frith was the first woman to lead a major International Federation but to this day remains part of an exclusive club as relatively few have followed in her footsteps.

FITA had been founded in 1931 and spent many years lobbying for an Olympic return, but it was not until Frith became President that it returned to the Olympic fold after an absence of 52 years.

"She is credited with not giving up and literally walking the corridors of the IOC and demanding that archery be let in," Olympic archer and former FITA vice-president Lynne Evans told insidethegames.

"Without the Olympics where would our sport be?"

Yet Frith divided opinion and at one stage was accused of being "dictatorial".

She was born in Denmark but left before the Nazi occupation in 1940. She served in the Royal Air Force as a meteorological officer, then married and set up home in the English village of Crowthorne in Berkshire.

After the war, she represented Great Britain at the 1950 World Championships in Copenhagen, and finished 14th overall.

Inger Frith became President of World Archery in 1961 ©World Archery
Inger Frith became President of World Archery in 1961 ©World Archery

In 1952 she injured her right arm in a domestic competition but travelled to Brussels for the World Championships  where her performance was described as "heroic".

Despite the injury, she ranked third after the first day of shooting. "Although she was obviously in great pain, she refused to retire until a doctor was called in and discovered a broken bone," said reports.

Frith later became vice-president of British Archery, then splendidly known as the Grand National Archery Society.

The FITA President at that time was Belgian Oscar Kessels and Sweden’s Lars Ekergren served as general secretary.

Ekergren wrote about "Archery, an Ancient Sport coming up again" for the Olympic Review.

"We archers believe that the thrill of a modern tournament, where the competition can be followed arrow by arrow, will give much pleasure to the spectators of future Olympic Games," he wrote.

At its Session held in Sofia in 1957, the IOC resolved "to include volleyball and archery, which have applied for recognition for a long time".

The archers soon discovered that inclusion in the list of sports which can be included, did not mean they would be included. Archery was left off the Tokyo 1964 programme.

By now, Frith had become vice-president of FITA and "expressed her gratitude to be the first lady to hold this high position".

In 1961 she ran for the top job with a single opponent, former FITA secretary Ekergren.

The election was held during the FITA Congress in Oslo and Frith was elected as President by 11 votes to 7.

"I am constantly aware of the high honour of being your president and the responsibilities attached to the office."

Archery returned to the Olympic programme after a 52-year absence at Munich 1972 ©Getty Images
Archery returned to the Olympic programme after a 52-year absence at Munich 1972 ©Getty Images

The only women in the top jobs were in sports such as hockey and cricket, where separate governing bodies for women existed.

Not all realised immediately that Frith was a woman.

The Olympic Review included a plaintive request. "She asks us very courteously to make it known that her feminine pride is slightly "hurt" when she receives letters addressed to the President of the International Archery Federation referring to her as 'Mr.'"

Frith visited Lausanne where Lydia Zanchi, the resident secretary, gave her a tour of IOC headquarters at Mon Repos.

"To my delight, I saw archery had a place of honour in Mon Repos! On the table in the drawing room were crossed arrows, and on each side of the door in the hall were golden quivers with arrows," wrote Frith.

Zanchi told her: "It is absolutely necessary to limit the number of sports. There is the only reason why your sport was not included in Tokyo, but it is always possible that in the future your sport has its chance!"

In February 1966, Frith kept up the pressure. "Archery has for more than a hundred years catered for men and women shooting together," she said.

It seems there was a danger that archery might have been admitted to the programme only for men.

IOC administrator Miriam Meuwly was supportive. "I hope the pictures showing women do participate in archery and did so at the Olympics in London 1908 will help solve your problem in Rome," wrote Meuwly.

Archery had stood out in an era when gender equality was not the norm. In 1908 it had even taken place in the main stadium. Sybil "Queenie" Newall won gold from Wimbledon tennis champion Lottie Dod.

Meuwly wrote to Frith: "Members cannot possibly think of excluding women out of a sport which is presided over by a lady can they?" and signed off with "best ‘confraternal’ wishes for the Rome issue".

Finally in April 1966 at the Hotel Excelsior in Rome, Munich was chosen to host the 1972 Games and at the same Session came the words Frith and her fellow archers had waited so many years to hear.

"This sport will be part of the programme of the 1972 Games. President Brundage noted that the events in this sport are   mixed, that is to say men and women compete together. It was therefore necessary to authorise women to participate in   the Games, in this sport."

Frith said: "We are moving forward and as we march, we have to overcome difficulties meeting us but we march with a purpose having planned ahead to reach our target."

But Frith’s forceful personality had not endeared her to everyone.

In 1967, Ekergren, by now a FITA vice-president and part of archery’s inner ring since 1949, announced his "immediate and definite resignation as a sharp protest against Mrs Inger Frith". 

"I can no longer share the responsibility for international leadership under her direction," he said. "I protest against her lack of sportsmanship and fair play."

Ekergren recalled an episode at an election.

"From the chair, which should be neutral, she strongly attacked the other candidate for the Presidential election in his absence, ordered by her, and without giving him the opportunity to defend himself," he added. There was more.

"I protest against her bad leadership," Ekergren said. "She tries, over and over again, to get more personal power by sidestepping the discretionary power of the boards of the national archery associations through unexpected and unannounced Presidential motions at the FITA Congresses."

Archery has featured at every Summer Olympics since the Munich 1972 Games ©Getty Images
Archery has featured at every Summer Olympics since the Munich 1972 Games ©Getty Images

Ekergren also accused Frith of a "lack of moral integrity and moral integrity" over her attitude to South Africa in an era of apartheid. He attacked "her encouragement of the white suppression of coloured sportsmen in South Africa, a sharp contrast against the policy of the IOC".

Many years later Lynne Evans offered this assessment of Frith.

"She obviously upset a lot of people on her way through, she did not mind treading on people’s toes," she said.

"She had a style of her own and you didn’t argue with her. People never really warmed to her. She ruled archery with a rod of iron."

Frith was never seen without a hat and it was even said that one member of staff was made responsible for carrying the hat box.

She visited Munich in 1968 to scrutinise preparations and by the end of the year she had sent her "suggestions in respect of the programme" to the IOC.

The format in Munich was a world away from the setup to be seen in Tokyo, with archers shooting "head to head" in short matches.

In1972, competition lasted four days with "six dozen arrows by each archer each day, taking about five hours".

Frith wrote to IOC Secretary General  Johann Westerhoff. "We are determined to make an unqualified success of the honour that has been given us in becoming part of the Olympic Games 1972," she said.

The event was held at the Englischer Garten and on the orders of Frith, competitors wore predominantly white uniforms.

Marisol Casado is one of only two female Summer Olympic International Federation Presidents ©Getty Images
Marisol Casado is one of only two female Summer Olympic International Federation Presidents ©Getty Images

A year after the Olympics, new IOC President Lord Killanin wrote warmly that "everybody who followed the events of the 1972 Olympic Games retains a certain emotion".

In his memoirs he was rather more critical of Frith.

"Some Federations have made unreasonable demands, like the late Mrs Frith who wanted lawns like Wimbledon tennis courts over which the arrows were to fly at Moscow. Needless to say they were not. Perfectly ordinary grass works just as well."

In fact, Frith’s last term ended in 1977, three years before the Moscow Olympics. By the time of her death in 1981, no other woman had yet led an International Federation, though the first female IOC members were co-opted that year and others did become IF Presidents in future.

The present picture is that Commonwealth Games Federation President Louise Martin is the only female in charge of a major multi sports Games organisation.

The appointment of Seiko Hashimoto as Tokyo 2020 President last month was only the second time that an Olympic Organising Committee has been led by a woman.

Only a handful of sports to be contested in Tokyo will have a female President and two of those have been very recent appointees.