As the 2012 London Olympic Games continue past preliminary rounds, it’s time to talk about athletics at Barnard, from the glory days of the 1940s, when admiration for pageant-like displays of athletic prowess necessitated an extensively choreographed “aquacade”-a swimming carnival complete with lights, music, and mermaid costumes-to now, when Barnard’s athleticism lies less in sequins and glitter and more in archery and crew.
Because Barnard is a small women’s college and was founded in the late 1800s, it initially had no physical education department. Ladies could either take their exercise by strolling around the grounds, or they could cross the street to Columbia, where they found male escorts who would walk them up and down Riverside in the evenings. The first recreational sport clubs were a bicycle club, founded in 1896, and a student taught, student run dancing class founded in 1898. To help these fledgling organizations survive within a student body without a physical education department, the Athletics Association was founded as a branch of the student government in 1900, with the creation of the Physical Education Department bringing further legitimacy to the association in 1904. The first gym class offered at Barnard was a mandatory lecture in personal hygiene for students. In the late 1910s, classes on relaxation and posture were introduced. The two classes were remarkably straight forward and self guided: sleepy girls in matching pajama sets dozed in perfectly made beds set up around the gymnasium, while posture students swanned gracefully in figure eights while balancing their copies of “Candide” on their heads. These mandatory activities were attempts to cultivate “mens sana in corpora sano,” grooming the young ladies for positions in society and fortifying them against anxiety and mental unrest. While they are “non-sports,” I doubt that Michael Phelps—one of Team USA’s most decorated Olympians, and known for the stooping, duck-like amble that he adopts on land—would be able to medal in “Posture.”
Barnard is a small campus, so classes doubled up in the gymnasium and parts of campus were re-purposed for sport. Students practiced golf on the roof of Barnard Hall, swung tennis rackets on the old courts that used to stand between Milbank and the Jungle, played quoits on the lawn during a resurgent interest in old-timey folk games, and bowled in the basement of Riverside Church. During the early 20th century, athletics at Barnard were reduced to pleasant lawn sports. The expansion of the physical education department at Barnard parallels the expansion of Olympic sports in which women were allowed to participate—both grew during the 1900s, a period in which gender roles were being redefined. At the 1900 Olympic Games, the committee cracked and allowed women to participate in golf, tennis, and croquet (though one “woman sailor”-scandal!-participated in a mixed event). These were athletic areas where women were allowed and expected to succeed. The establishment of the 1983 Columbia/Barnard Athletic Consortium made it possible for students at Barnard to participate in the Columbia athletics program, and sports such as softball, basketball, and volleyball became popular. Now, classes offered by the Physical Education Department focus on current workout fads-cardio crunch, yoga, and aerial acrobatics. However, Columbia’s highest-ranked athletic programs today harken back to the old, prep school, New England atmosphere that the school cultivated so carefully in the past. Barnard’s most recognized athletes participate in sports that garnered popularity in the 1940s, such as fencing, crew, archery, and swimming.
Many Barnard athletes have made it to and through Olympic tryouts. The most recent medalling alumna is Erinn Smart, class of 2001, who won a silver medal in the group fencing event in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. We wish luck to Barnard alumna and affiliates who are participating in this year’s Games, and hope that they work on their posture.