Though flawed, '20 Games were triumph of resilience On heels of Great War, Antwerp did its best

March 24, 1996|By Bob Herzog | Bob Herzog,NEWSDAY

World War I not only caused the cancellation of the 1916 Olympics in Berlin, but it also cast a giant shadow across the 1920 Games. When the fighting ended in November 1918, the International Olympic Committee decided to award the Games to Antwerp, Belgium. The decision was meant to reward and honor a nation that had suffered great losses at the hands of the Germans during the war years. Instead, it resulted in a spirited but troubled event.

Belgium was forced to build outdoor stadiums, indoor arenas, pools and housing, all in about 18 months. Even if the weather had been good, it was an enormous task for an economically depressed nation.

But with months of steady rain, the efforts were doomed. The running track was rutted and bumpy, resulting in slow times. The housing arrangements were less than satisfactory folding cots and crowded rooms producing grumpy athletes. And, with the sad state of Belgium's economy, most locals were unable to afford tickets to the venues, resulting in small crowds. Organizers had to arrange for schoolchildren to attend events for free, just to pump up attendance.

Through it all, Antwerp put on a happy face for the world. The Great War was over, and optimism reigned. A record 29 nations attended the Games, with 2,668 athletes (77 women) competing in 21 sports. Among those nations not invited, however, were Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey all considered World War I aggressors.

The Olympic oath was introduced for the first time, as was a new Olympic flag designed by Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France. The flag featured five interlocking rings of blue, yellow, black, green and red, symbolizing the unity of all mankind and nations. The rings remain the Olympic symbol today.

Fittingly, the most heroic figure of the 1920 Games was a French war veteran named Joseph Guillemot. His army unit had been attacked by Germans in 1917 and hit by a barrage of poisonous mustard gas. Guillemot's lungs were badly burned and scarred. Once doctors determined he would survive, they weren't sure how to treat him.

A regimen of jogging and then distance running was prescribed in the hope that the necessary deep breathing would help the healing process. Miraculously, that's exactly what happened. He returned to active duty by the end of the war, and afterward started competing in running races.

In Antwerp, the 5-foot-3 Guillemot dueled one of the giants of running, Paavo Nurmi, in the 5,000 meters. He out-kicked the Finn to win by 30 yards. It was Nurmi's only defeat of the Games, as he won the team and individual cross-country golds as well as a "rematch" with Guillemot in the 10,000 meters. In the longer race, it was Nurmi out-kicking the Frenchman, who settled for the silver.

Nurmi was the second of the so-called Flying Finns of distance-running fame. The first one, Hannes Kolehmainen, had won three golds at the 1912 Olympics and returned to capture the marathon in Antwerp by 70 yards, the closest finish in the Olympic history of that race.

Another athlete who had competed eight years earlier was American swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, the son of Hawaiian royalty who had been named for the duke of Edinburgh. He had flutter-kicked his way to a world record in the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm in 1912 and went one better in Antwerp, winning the 100 and 800 freestyle events.

Two American women also excelled in the pool. Ethelda Bleibtrey, who had suffered from polio as a child, won three gold medals, and 13-year-old Aileen Riggen won the springboard diving title and for many years was the youngest female to win an Olympic gold.

In boxing, American Edward Eagan won the light heavyweight title, but he is better known for becoming a Rhodes Scholar and later winning a gold medal in the 1932 Olympic four-man bobsled, making him the only athlete ever to win gold medals in both the winter and summer Games.

All in all, Belgium and the Olympic movement showed true grit in managing even to stage the Games less than two years after the end of World War I. As Coubertin proudly noted, "These festivals are, above all, the festivals of human unity."

1920 Games

Site: Antwerp, Belgium

Dates: April 20-Sept. 12

Men: 2,591

Women: 77

Nations: 29

Medals .. .. .. .. .. .. ..leaders:

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..G .. .. .S .. ..B .. ..T

United States .. .. .. ..41 .. ...27 .. .28 .. .96

Sweden .. .. .. .. .. ...19 .. ...20 .. .24 .. .63

England .. .. .. .. .. ..15 .. ...15 .. .13 .. .43

Finland .. .. .. .. .. ..15 .. ...10 .. ..9 .. .34

Belgium .. .. .. .. .. ..14 .. ...11 .. .10 .. .35

Norway .. .. .. .. .. ...13 .. ....7 .. ..8 .. .28

Italy .. .. .. .. .. .. .13 .. .. .5 .. ..5 .. .23

France . .. .. .. .. .. ..9 .. .. 19 .. .13 .. .41

Holland .. .. .. .. .. ...4 .. .. .2 .. ..5 .. .11

Denmark .. .. .. .. .. ...3 .. .. .9 .. ..1 .. .13

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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