Olympics of Antwerp 1920 Arose on Ice after First World War | Sunday Observer

Olympics of Antwerp 1920 Arose on Ice after First World War

18 April, 2021
The Oldest Olympian and Oldest Olympic Medalist, Oscar Swahn (centre)
The Oldest Olympian and Oldest Olympic Medalist, Oscar Swahn (centre)

The city of Antwerp hosted the Games of the VII Olympiad, commonly known as the 1920 Summer Olympics, not long after the end of the First World War. It was a magnificent edition studded with achievements that have gone down in history. The Games were opened on August 14, 1920 by King Albert I and closed on September 12, 1920.

These Olympics were the first in which the Olympic Oath was voiced, the first in which the Olympic Flag was flown and the first in which doves were released to symbolize peace. The Games also featured a week of winter sports, commencing on April 20, 1920 with ice hockey making its Olympic debut and figure skating appearing for the first time since the 1908 Olympic Games.

In the early 20th century, at a time when winter sports on ice and snow were becoming increasingly popular in Europe and North America, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin was an early advocate for their inclusion on the Olympic program, declaring that the Olympic Games were Games for all sports.

On the back of the success of these ice events, and also thanks to Pierre de Coubertin’s deeply held convictions about the “frank and pure sporting dignity” of winter sports, the IOC decided, at its 19th Session in June 1921 in Lausanne, to organize an “International Winter Sports Week” in Chamonix, as part of the Games of Paris 1924. The event which was retroactively designated as the first Olympic Winter Games, launched the Olympic cycle for ice and snow sports to be held separate from the Summer Games.

The 1916 Summer Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Berlin, the capital of the German Empire, were cancelled due to the First World War. The aftermath of the war and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 affected the conduct of the Olympic Games not only due to new states being created, but also by sanctions against the nations that were blamed for starting it.

Host City Selection and Organization

In March 1912, during the 13th session of the IOC, the bid on the behalf of Belgium to host the 1920 Summer Olympics was made by Baron Edouard de Laveleye, President of the Belgian Olympic Committee. The organizing committee with 4 Presidents and 22 Vice Presidents was created on August 9, 1913 and the first action was to send an official letter to the IOC in Paris.

On September 13, 1913, Pierre de Coubertin, President of the IOC, visited the future Olympic Stadium. In 1914, a brochure was created to promote the idea of Antwerp as a host city for the Olympics. It was sent to all IOC members and used during the 6th Olympic Congress in Paris in 1914, where the candidacies of Amsterdam, Antwerp, Budapest and Rome were discussed and the outbreak of the First World War soon afterwards prevented any further progress.

It was at the same Olympic Congress in 1914, Pierre de Coubertin presented the Olympic flag, with its five interlocking rings, for the first time.

The IOC members wanted to pay tribute to the suffering endured by the Belgian people during the conflict.

Thus, Antwerp was selected as the host city of the Games on April 5, 1919 at the 17th IOC Session in Lausanne, where Coubertin had established the IOCs headquarters during the war.

An executive committee was established on April 17, 1919, with Henri de Baillet-Latour as chairman and Alfred Verdyck, as general secretary. Seven commissions were created, to deal with finances, accommodation, press relations, propaganda, schedules, transport, and festivities. The program of events was published in February 1920.

The first stone of the new Olympic Stadium at Beerschot was laid on July 4, 1919 by Jan De Vos, Mayor of Antwerp, and inaugurated in less than a year on May 23, 1920.

The documents of the Games were archived at the Belgium Olympic Committee headquarters in Brussels.

Nations, Sports and Highlights

A total of 29 nations, participated in the Antwerp Games. Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Empire were not invited, having lost the First World War. Brazil, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and New Zealand were among the nations sending their athletes to the Games for the first time at Antwerp in 1920 and all of them produced their first medalists.

A total of 2,626 athletes - 2,561 men and 65 women, took part in 156 events in 29 sports disciplines under 22 sports. Nedo Nadi won 5 gold medals in the fencing events. At the age of 72, Sweden’s 100m running deer double-shot event champion Oscar Swahn, who had participated in the 1908 and 1912 Games, came in second in the team event to become the oldest person to win an Olympic medal.

The Olympic legend, Paavo Nurmi secured 3 gold medals in 10,000m cross country, 8000m cross country and the team cross country, and a silver in the 5000m. He followed it up with 5 gold medals at Paris 1924 and one gold medal at Amsterdam 1928 to achieve 9 gold and 3 silver medals. Duke Kahanamoku retained the 100m swimming title he won before the war in 1912.

Alfred Neuland, who had fought in the First World War and the Estonian War of Independence, resumed his weightlifting career, and travelled to Antwerp to compete for his newly-independent country, Estonia. He won Estonia’s first gold in the lightweight category (- 67kg), lifting an Olympic total of 257.5kg.

The United States sent a women’s swimming team for the first time, and the Americans won seven out of seven available swimming medals. In a rather strange moment in Olympic history, the 12-foot dinghy event in sailing took place in two different countries. The final two races in the event were independently held in the Netherlands, on its own accord, supposedly because the only two competitors in the event were Dutch.

The 30m military pistol event was won by Guilherme Paraense, with a score of 274 out of a possible 300, making him Brazil’s first-ever Olympic champion. The Games in Antwerp saw five weight categories introduced for the first time in weightlifting, ranging from featherweight (- 60kg) to heavyweight (+ 82.5kg).

These were the first Olympics where the host nation did not win the most medals overall. The top six nations that won medals at the 1920 Games: United States – 41G, 27S, 27B, total 95; Sweden – 19G, 20S, 25B, total 64; Great Britain – 15G, 15S, 13B, total 43; Finland – 15G, 10S, 9B, total 34; Belgium – 14G, 11S, 11B, total 36; Norway – 13G, 9S, 9B, total 31.

Canada’s Success in Ice Hockey

Canada, as would be the case at several subsequent Winter Games editions, was represented by the club that had won the national championships - “Winnipeg Falcons”. All other teams competing at the Games were national teams.

Canada won the first of what is now a record haul of nine Olympic titles. In their first match, they inflicted a 15-0 defeat on Czechoslovakia; second match, against major rivals the USA, was a tightly contested affair and the Canadians sealed a 2-0 victory; third match was the gold-medal decider and Canada beat Sweden 12-1. Ice hockey had shown its merits on the Olympic stage, and it would become a permanent fixture on the program at the Winter Games from the first edition in 1924.

Most Decorated Figure Skater

Gillis Grafstrom, a Swedish skater, etched his name into the annals of the Olympic Games in Antwerp. Legend has it that he broke the blade of one of his skates just before the competition and went looking for a replacement pair in town. He managed to get his hands on an old pair of skates, with which he nevertheless put in a dazzling performance.

He is now recognized as one of the greatest compulsory figure specialists in the history of his sport. The inventor of the “Grafstrom Pirouette” and the “flying sit spin”, and the first skater to make the axel a controlled jump. He was awarded first place by the judges in the free skate.

Grafstrom, renowned for his athletic abilities and his flair for skating to music, won Olympic gold again at the Chamonix 1924 and St Moritz 1928 Winter Games. To date, he is the only three-time Olympic champion in figure skating men’s singles and, having won a silver at Lake Placid 1932, the most decorated figure skater ever in singles.

In the women’s competition, Magda Julin from Sweden competed while she was three months pregnant. She delivered solid performances in both segments and took the gold, even though she was not placed first by any of the judges; the pairs event was won comfortably by Finland’s Walter and Ludowika Jakobsson, who were multiple world champions.

“The Duke”, Father of Modern Surfing

Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku nicknamed “the Duke” became the first swimmer to win Olympic 100m freestyle twice in a row. This came after his first title eight years earlier in Stockholm 1912. He defended his 100m freestyle title in the “dark, cold and muddy” waters of the Olympic pool. The legendary swimmer won his races with ease, finishing semi-final in blistering time of 1:01.4, an Olympic record, and matching his own world record set in 1918.

After being warmly congratulated, he left the pool and took a power nap behind the stands. But he still had one more race left, 4x200m relay. Just as the starting whistle was about to blow, he had to be woken up to get to the edge of the pool and his team won in a world record time of 10:04.4.

“The Duke” will always be remembered as the champion who introduced surfing to the world at the beginning of the 20th century. While continuing to popularize and promote surfing, he also competed in his third Games in Paris in 1924. There, he won the silver in 100m and shared the podium with his brother.

Trailblazer for Women Swimming

Women first competed in swimming at the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, taking part in two events: 100m freestyle, and 4x100m relay. At Antwerp 1920, a third event was introduced: 300m freestyle. Ethelda Bleibtrey, aged just 18 raced in and won, all three!

Bleibtrey’s story is that of an emancipated woman who made a real difference for all female swimmers in her country. She first took up swimming in 1917 to help her recover from polio. At the time, social convention in the USA dictated that women had to cover up their legs with stockings when swimming. In 1919, at Manhattan Beach, Bleibtrey removed her stockings; this was considered a reprehensible act of “nudity” and Bleibtrey was arrested.

Her arrest caused public outrage, however, to such an extent that not only was Bleibtrey not sanctioned, but it was also subsequently decided that women could go swimming without stockings. Bleibtrey was also one of the first women to wear a swimming cap.

She took to the water on August 23, 1920 in the third heat of 100m freestyle. She won and set a new world record of 1:14.4 in the process and 48 hours later, she claimed her first Olympic title, setting another world record of 1:13.6.

In 300m freestyle, she was once again head and shoulders above her rivals. The day after her victory in the 100m, she swam her 300m semi-final in a world record time of 4:41.4. In the final, on August 28, Bleibtrey was simply on another level, breaking the world record again with a time of 4:34.0. Finally, on August 29, she swam as the anchor in 4x100m relay for the USA, secured victory and set a new world record of 5:11.6.

Belgium at the Top of the World

The Antwerp Games took the sport of football to a new dimension. “It is certainly the case that the football association tournament is unique from a competition perspective. It combines the involvement of the 15 best teams in the world, representing all the countries that practise this sport. Never before have such a group of soccer players come together in the same tournament,” the French sports daily L'Auto reported in August 1920.

In the semi-finals the Czech beat France 4-1. The Belgians reached the final by dominating the Netherlands 3-0. The report written by the journalist for L’Auto who was on the spot states: “In front of a huge and enthusiastic crowd, Belgium won the tournament final by clearly beating the Czechs 2-0. The Belgian eleven proved splendid from start to finish, triumphant thanks to their speed and the fast and lucid design of their game, and through the efficiency of their unstoppable shots. The best team in the tournament won.” The Antwerp 1920 was the forerunner of the FIFA World Cup, which was created 10 years later.

Greatest Female Tennis Player of All Time

In tennis, Suzanne Lenglen of France, then aged 21, sailed through the Olympic women’s singles tournament. She dispatched her first three opponents in straight sets with no games lost. In the final, she beat Great Britain’s Dorothy Holman 6-3 and 6-0. She also won the mixed doubles with Max Decugis, defeating Great Britain’s Kitty McKane and Max Woosnam 6-4 and 6-2.

Lenglen, the world champion at the age of 15, a six-time winner at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon and the first real global tennis star, she also won a bronze in the women’s doubles alongside Elisabeth d’Ayen.

Last Appearance for Tug of War

The origins of tug of war, a sport with two opposing teams in which each tries to drag the other towards them, are lost in the mists of time. It was an Olympic sport on five occasions, on the program of the Games in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and lastly 1920. The rules are simple: two teams of eight athletes all hold tight to the two ends of a long rope.

Two lines are drawn on the ground, around four or five meters apart. The aim is to drag the opposing team over the line on their side, or make them fall over. Each round consists of two pulls. The British team was composed mainly of members of the London police force, and they easily won their six bouts, winning 2-0 against the USA, Belgium and finally the Netherlands in the gold medal match.

Oscar Swahn on the Olympic Podium Aged 72

Oscar Swahn born on October 20, 1847 in the region of Gotaland, when Charles XV was King of both Sweden and Norway, as the two countries became separated only in 1905. Victoria reigned over the British Empire; Paris still looked like a medieval city; and the Mexican-American War would result in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and part of Colorado becoming United States territory.

Oscar Swahn’s shooting career spanned several decades, but he was already in his sixties when he competed at his first Games, London 1908, where he won gold in the individual and team running deer single shot events, and a bronze in the running deer double shot individual event. In Stockholm 1912, at the age of 64 years and 258 days, he became the oldest Olympic champion and winner of a gold medal in history (a record that still stands today) as a member of the Swedish team who won the 100m team running deer single shot event.

And there was more to come, in Antwerp 1920, he became the oldest medalist ever, at 72 years and 281 days, winning a silver in men’s 100m team running deer double shot event. Significantly, all the team medals that Oscar Swahn won in 1908, 1912 and 1920 Summer Olympic Games were with his son, Alfred, who was born on August 10, 1879 and 31 years younger.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)