Margaret Abbott, the Olympic golf champion who died without knowing it

Margaret Abbott on the golf course in early part of the 20th century
Margaret Abbott on the golf course in early part of the 20th century

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week we bring you the story of Margaret Abbott, an American golfer who never knew she'd won an Olympic title.

Back in the old days when medals weren't yet an Olympic tradition, golfer Margaret Abbott became the first American (USA) woman to win an Olympic title…though she never did know it.

Paris 1900 marked the introduction of women's sport to the Olympic programme. Only 22 women took part in those Games in France, and among them was Abbott, a student living in the French capital at the time.

In this second edition of the Games of the modern era, women were invited to compete in five disciplines: golf, tennis, sailing, equestrian and croquet.

How it started

Born in India in 1878, Margaret was raised in the United States and took up the game at the Chicago Golf Club, in Wheaton, where she was taught by male amateur players. Daughter to Mary Abbott, who was a writer and literary editor of The Chicago Herald, as well as an avid golfer, Margaret gained local celebrity via her achievements in the sport.

In 1899, the mother and daughter moved to Paris, where Margaret studied art with such notables as Auguste Rodin - considered the founder of modern sculpture - and the influential French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.

The next year - at the turn of the 20th century - Abbott learned of an international golf tournament to be held in Compiegne, some 80km north of Paris. Both she and her mother entered the competition.

The unwitting victory

The 1900 Olympic Games were held for a period of six months to coincide with that year's Paris Exposition (also known as the World’s Fair) and included many exhibition events that were confused, by the public at large, with the official Olympic programme.

On 4 October, Margaret shot a 47 in the nine-hole tournament, claiming the title over her compatriots Pauline Whittier (49) and Daria Pratt (53), while her mother finished tangled for seventh with a score of 65.

Margaret thought she'd won merely the local Prix de la ville de Compiegne Championship and never came across the word “Olympic,” while competing. She didn't receive a medal for her accomplishment as the gold, silver and bronze medals we now know as the Olympic standard wasn't introduced until the Games at Saint Louis 1904. What Abbott received for her victory, instead, was a bowl.

What happened next?

After her unwitting feat of becoming the first American (US) woman to be crowned Olympic champion, Abbott remained in France and even went on to win the 1902 Femina Cup, which was the forerunner of the French Women’s Championship.

She married American humourist Finley Peter Dunne and settled in New York City. The couple went on to have four children, who were also unaware - for a matter of decades - that their mother was an Olympic history-maker.

It wasn’t until an investigation by Paula Welch, a professor at the University of Florida and member of the Olympic Board of Directors, whose doctoral dissertation was written on American women in the Olympic Games, that Abbott’s achievement was fully acknowledged.

After 10 years of research, Welch contacted Margaret’s family.

“It’s not every day that you learn your mother was an Olympic champion, 80-odd years after the fact,” Philip Dunne wrote in Golf Digest in 1984. “The champion herself had told us only that she had won the golf championship of Paris.”

Abbott passed away in 1955 without knowing the scale of her Olympic accomplishment, but she is now recognised fully as a trailblazer for Team USA -- and all women and girls with Olympic dreams in their hearts.