Antwerp 1920, the other Olympic Games that were also held after a pandemic

Antwerp 1920, the other Olympic Games that were also held after a pandemic

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The 1920 games were meant to symbolize the recovery from the First World War, not a health crisis. Antwerp marked a symbolic resurrection of sport amidst adversity.

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By James Ellingworth

DUSSELDORF, Germany, July 29 (AP). – Olympic athletes will fight gold medals next year in a world shaken by a pandemic. And it won’t be the first time this happens.

A century before the Tokyo Games were postponed by the coronavirus, the fair was held in the Belgian city of Antwerp, shortly after the pandemic of Spanish influenza.

The games of 1920 they should symbolize the recovery of the First World War, not a health crisis. Belgium, the battleground of the conflict between powers, was the venue and for the first time the flag was waved with the Olympic rings.

“They released pigeons, although they were not necessarily peace doves because they had been used by the military in war,” Roland Renson, a Belgian sports historian, told the Associated Press.

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American Charles Paddock wins the 100m final with his famous “flight” over the finish line at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: AP

Aileen Riggin, a 14-year-old American diver who won a gold medal, symbolized both war and pandemic.

Riggin started swimming competitively after contracting the Spanish flu and toured during World War I after winning the gold medal on the three-meter springboard. He took a German helmet and some souvenir shells, but he received a tremendous surprise when he picked up a boot that was lying on the floor.

“He had one foot inside. I released her immediately, ”he said.

The coronavirus prevented Antwerp from celebrating the fair’s centenary. He forced to suspend a ceremony scheduled for March in which the King of Belgium and the President of the International Olympic Committee were to be.

Tokyo Olympics postponed for COVID-19

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Tokyo Olympics postponed for COVID-19


The Tokyo Olympics are postponed for one year. COVID-19 has also won that medal

Germany and its allies did not compete in 1920, and neither did Russia, now controlled by the Bolsheviks. They were not vetoed, but they were not invited either. One figure skater was banned from using German music on her show.

There were some financial problems. He saved money by doing things like build a pool in a ditch next to the city’s fortifications – Riggin and others said they hated cold, dark water – but organizers lost money and left unpaid debts anyway.

“Antwerp never rejoiced in the Olympic legacy over the economic debacle,” said Renson.

The postponement of the Tokyo Games until next year is estimated to cost organizers at least $ 2 billion.

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The poster for the Antwerp Olympics. Photo: Special

Spanish influenza spread throughout the world from 1918 to the early 1920s. It is estimated to have killed 50 million people, although it is difficult to estimate the figure due to war and poverty.

The coronavirus is mostly fierce in the elderly, but influenza affected mainly the young.

Seven Olympic athletes are believed to have died from the pandemic, according to statistics provided by Olympic historian and physician Bill Mallon.

They included three veterans of the war and Martin Sheridan, an Irish-born New York policeman who won gold medals competing for the United States in discus and bullet at previous Olympics.


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Mallon and other researchers identified 48 cases of COVID-19 among Olympic athletes and 19 deaths.

The Antwerp Games were to mark a new dawn, but many of the traditions that came from before the war were preserved.

The athletes had to be amateurs, which implied that the competitions were often mediocre, among the wealthy. The poor were marginalized and many events had little public, except for soccer.

Belgians loved cycling, but ignored the Olympic trials to follow other more exciting professionals, according to Renson. Some sailing categories had only one participant, so it was enough for the crew to complete the course to take the gold medal.

Times, however, were changing. Antwerp represented the Olympic debut for Paavo Nurmi, whose scientific methods for training and racing posed helped him win nine gold medals, including three in Antwerp. Sport was beginning to be a full-time occupation, sometimes circumventing the rules of amateurism.

“The United States rowing team was made up of elements from the Navy that trained every day. It was legitimate to ask if they were really amateurs, ”said Renson. “Amateurism was a way to exclude the working class, that simple. Paavo Nurmi was not a saint. He was a total professional. ”

In the 1920 games many women were excluded. Two years later, the women staged their own Women’s Olympic Games. This pressured the IOC to accept gender equality.

Few 1920 Olympic champions are remembered today, but the games marked a symbolic resurrection of the sport amidst adversity.

“They organized the games in a very short time, although they were quite improvised,” said Renson. “They had to do it with the available means, which were not abundant in a city badly hit by war.”


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