Olympics and History of the Modern Games Antwerp Belgium 1920

About the Olympics and the modern games, account of the games in Antwerp, Belgium in 1920.


No Olympics were held in 1916, due to the war. In 1920, the defeated nations--Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Turkey--were not invited. Russia also did not compete--not again until 1952. The American team sailed on the Princess Matokia, which had returned U.S. war dead and reeked of formaldehyde. Accommodations were cramped, the athletes sleeping in hammocks deep within the ship. Food was scarce. The only cheerful notes were struck on ukeleles by Duke Kahanamoku and his fellow Hawaiian swimmers, appropriate music for a shipboard romance between Dick Landon of Yale (later a gold-medal high jumper) and diver Alice Lord. Accommodations were no better in Antwerp. When hop-skip-and-jump champion Dan Ahearn's request for a bed instead of a small cot was denied, he sought a hotel room and was thrown off the team for insubordination. Many teammates refused to compete and, despite a fiery speech by Ahearn against capitalistic and aristocratic oppression, he was reinstated and peace was restored.

Although Americans won the unofficial team title, Finland's athletes provided many highlights. This was the Olympic debut of Paavo Nurmi, the Phantom Finn, who at 12 had quit school in order to work following his father's death; at 15 he had begun to train after hearing about Hannes Kolehmainen's Olympic victories of 1912. Legend has it that he practiced by racing a mail train through his town.

Paavo's face never showed emotion. One reporter called him "a mechanical Frankenstein, created to annihilate time." He wore a stop-watch and consulted it at the beginning of each lap, to keep his predetermined pace, not caring where other competitors were on the track. His heart beat only 40 times a minute; his favorite food was oatmeal.

Nurmi led most of the 5,000-m. at Antwerp, but was overtaken by Jacques Guillemot, a French veteran who had been badly gassed in the war. The next day, the 2 met in the 3,000-m. race and the tables were turned. Nurmi won a 2nd gold medal and the Finns took 1st in the discus, javelin, shot-put, hop-step-and-jump, pentathlon, and marathon, Kolehmainen repeating. The U.S. and Finland tied in track and field gold medals.

The American star was Charlie Paddock, "the world's fastest human," with a flying-leap finish in the dashes which was spectacular and disconcerting to rivals.

Navy won 8-oar crew competition and Jack Kelly, a Philadelphia bricklayer, triumphed in single scull rowing and, with his cousin, won the doubles, too. Denied entry in England's Diamond Sculls--"a gentleman's event"--because he worked with his hands, Kelly lived to see his son, John Kelly, Jr., win that event twice, and see his daughter, Grace, give up a film career to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco.

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