The athlete musician
In two days’ time, she would have celebrated her 85th birthday, on Sunday 23 December. Sport and music provided rhythm in the life of France’s Micheline Ostermeyer. The strength of her muscles and her skill, her finesse and dexterity made her at once a brilliant pianist and an outstanding athlete.
A family trait with a dash of talent
Micheline owed her success to her perseverance and her genes. Born into a literary and musical family, Micheline embraced her vocation at an early age. By the time she was 4, she was learning the basics of musical theory and playing notes next to her mother, a piano teacher. On the family Steinway, Micheline’s talents developed quickly. By the age of 13, her piano playing earned her a place at the Conservatoire National de musique in Paris, which cultivated artistic excellence. At 16, with the Second World War threatening, Micheline temporarily interrupted her studies to join her parents and brother Roland in Tunis (Tunisia). The family had been living there since 1929. This return to the family fold encouraged the eldest child of the Ostermeyer family to work on her athletic abilities.
Sport, a safety valve for music
In North Africa, parallel to her studies and piano practice, she discovered a passion for sport. Her physique (73kg, 1.79m) naturally led her towards basketball and athletics. Encouraged by her father, she quickly developed a second talent: that af an athlete. In athletics, she made her mark in the high jump, shot put and discus. Yet she did not abandon her piano, choosing to combine the two worlds often held to be incompatible by the professionals of both. For Micheline, apart from being careful not to break a wrist or finger, there was no incompatibility. Her sporting abilities complemented her piano playing qualities and vice-versa: her strength in throwing and in the forte sections of compositions, her flexibility in her body rotation and the finesse of her fingers on the keyboard. Sport was her way of letting off steam after hours spent at the piano: “I practised sport for pleasure; the piano was always my priority.” Micheline excelled in both areas, and her outstanding results − Conservatoire prize winner and several times French athletics champion − were the expression of both body and soul.
A virtuoso symbol of Olympic womanhood
In 1948, Micheline Ostermeyer competed in the first post-war Olympic Games in London. Knowing that the first women’s athletics events were included in the programme of the 1928 Games in Amsterdam and that the Games were not held in 1940 or 1944 because of the War, the 25 year-old athlete pianist was very brave to take part. Indeed, in London, women accounted for only 390 athletes out of a total of 4,104. Some 56 years later in 2004, they represented 4,306 of the 10,568 athletes taking pat in the Olympic Games in Athens.
Women began their Olympic odyssey at the 1900 Games in Paris, taking part in a small number of sports like tennis or golf. They continued it through further editions of the Games, gradually adding other sports like swimming and fencing, before competing in the athletics events in 1928, at the Games in Amsterdam.
In 1948, women made their mark on the Games. Athletes like Fanny Blankers-Koen and Micheline Ostermeyer proved that sport and femininity could go together. For her first and only Olympic participation, the woman who made music a sport and sport a distraction won two gold medals (discus and shot put) and a bronze medal (high jump). Who said that athletics and the piano were incompatible? Not Micheline, who played her Olympic score perfectly.