Fit for the Nation: Polish Sportswomen of the Interwar Period
New rhetoric about the human body emerged after the First World War. The Great War had left many soldiers disfigured, as well as devastated populations who were malnourished and weak as their lives were disrupted by the event. In the period following the war, many countries across the world, especially in Europe, began to focus on the physical body as a way to rehabilitate their populations and restore national health. Coupled with a surge in consumerism and an increased interest in hygiene, people began to take care of their health and appearance to an extent they hadn’t before.
The body became a central focus as something to be controlled and manipulated, a canvas acting as a manifestation of national improvement through physical improvement. It was seen as directly representative of the condition of the country, becoming a metaphor for the strength, or lack of strength, of a nation. This new rhetoric of sculpting and molding a better and stronger human was present in interwar Poland as well.
For the young Polish nation especially, the period after the First World War was a time to prove itself and that its relative youth did not correlate to weakness, especially after its 100 years of partition. It wasn’t just men to whom this message appealed; Polish women were encouraged to become strong and fit as well, and, as mothers, were tasked with raising a new fit generation. This strong emphasis on shaping and testing the human body fueled the competition between athletes. Poland’s investment into more opportunities for female athletic training paid off for the country. There was clear interest from women to train and compete, as both male and female membership to sportsclubs steadily increased during the interwar period.
Below, I’ve profiled three Polish sportswomen of the intewar era – they were phenomenal athletes, competing internationally where they made headlines. They returned to Poland with their medals and were greeted as celebrities. Each of their wins symbolized not just their own strength, but the strength of the young Polish nation, and paved the way for more women to do the same.
Jadwiga Jędrzejowska not only broke stereotypes about what it meant to be a woman in sport, she also broke them about what it meant to be a woman from an impoverished background playing a sport that was considered only for the upperclass elite: tennis.
Jadwiga was born into a poor family and it was only by luck that she came to know the sport as well as she did. Her house was near the tennis courts of a local Kraków sports club and, as a girl, she would help to earn money for her family by being a ball girl, retrieving the stray balls from the tennis courts and tossing them back to speed up play. Growing up, she played tennis with the neighborhood girls and boys, and it quickly became apparent that she had skill.
At the age of twelve, she began competing with adults, and at fifteen became a competitor in the Polish championships. She quickly began to compete internationally, traveling first throughout Europe in the early 1930s and eventually even the United States. She was not built like a tennis player – unremarkable height and stocky build, Jadwiga Jędrzejowska’s advantage were her strong shoulders and arms. Her powerful forehand, as well as well-timed backhand drop shots, were too fast for many of her competitors.
Jadwiga competed at Wimbledon in 1937 where she was named runner up after losing to English champion Dorothy Round. In the same year after Wimbledon, she made her way to the US Open, where she made the finals again. She was popular in the United States, where she gained the nickname “Ja-Ja” (Dżadża, in Polish transliteration), since her name was so hard to pronounce for the English-speaking audience. Once back in Europe, she competed and won the French Open. A short while later, the Second World War broke out, interrupting her career. She competed in the French Open again in 1947 where she made the final, only officially retiring from the sport in 1968.
It’s impossible to write about Polish sport without mentioning Halina Konopacka. Konopacka is still highly regarded as one of Poland’s strongest sports competitors, having won the gold in the first-ever women’s discus throw event at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.
She was a stellar well-rounded athlete, competing in ten events in the Polish championships (from javelin throw to discus to shot put) and taking first place in seven of them. All told, she was named Polish champion 27 times. She was a natural athlete; growing up, Halina trained in skiing, iceskating, swimming, horseback riding, and tennis, among others. She first broke the record for discus throw in 1926, after becoming familiar with the sport only a few months prior, when even then she came close to the world record on her first-ever throw. She broke her own record more than twenty times after that, including at the 1928 Olympics where she became the first Polish competitor, male or female, to take home a gold medal.
Her professional athletic career was short-lived but impactful. Following her standout performance in the late 1920s, she became part of the Polish Olympic committee and editor of Start magazine, a Polish publication devoted to physical fitness during the interwar years. She also enjoyed competitive motorsport, at a time when it was rare for a woman to drive, let alone compete.
After the Second World War, Halina Konopacka retired from competitive sport and pursued her other interests, namely poetry and painting. She was somewhat of a renaissance woman, speaking three languages and possessing talent in both writing and watercolor painting. Sadly, her Olympic gold medal was lost forever at the start of the Second World War when Halina Konopacka personally drove the bus that helped evacuate 80 tons of gold out of Poland to safety.
One of the most decorated and accomplished Polish sportswomen in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was Janina Kurkowska-Spychajowa. She was a highly-skilled archer who took the gold five times in the World Archery Championships and winning a bronze, silver, or gold medal 63 times throughout her three decades of competition.
Janina competed in many sports in her youth, but it was archery that appealed to her most. She began practicing the sport quite late, at the age of 25, but quickly mastered it. Archery had been practiced in Poland throughout history in both hunting and combat as well as sport, but it wasn’t until the interwar period – when the focus on athletics and physically building a strong nation became popular – that archery was formalized as a serious competitive sporting event in the country.
During the 1940s and the outbreak of the Second World War, Janina donated her medals and trophies to the war effort. After the war, she continued to compete, ending her professional career in 1957. She was and is unknown in the wider sports community mainly due to bad luck and timing: the event was discontinued at the Olympics from 1920 to 1972. Janina Kurkowska-Spychajowa never got a chance to compete, win, and become the international celebrity she had the potential to be. Unfortunately, since her time as world champion, no Poles have competed at such a level to win at the Olympics.