Olympic Archives

The Olympics after the first World War and during the Great Depression (Antwerp 1920 to Berlin 1936)

Melosport’s Countdown to London 2012 coverage continues today with – The Olympics after the first World War and during the Great Depression (Antwerp 1920 to Berlin 1936)


Antwerp 1920 Olympics

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, the scheduled 1916 Games in Berlin did not take place. The war lasted four years, ending in 1918. The initial host for the 1920 Games was Budapest but as the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a German ally in WWI, the Games were awarded to Antwerp instead. It was felt appropriate that Belgium would host the Games following the devastation that the country suffered during the war.

The aggressors of the first World War were not invited to the Games.

The 1920 Olympics were the first to unveil the official ‘five-ring’ Olympic flag. In addition, the Olympic Oath was first taken in 1920, plus doves were released at the Games as a symbol of peace.

Memorable athletes from the 1920 Games included Italian Nedo Nadi, who won five gold medals from six fencing events, and Paavo Nurmi of Finland who started his (and Finland’s) period of Olympic dominance by winning three golds and one silver medal in long distance running events. The US finished top of the medal pile again with 41 golds and 95 medals overall. Sweden finished in second place with 19 golds and 64 medals in total.

The 1920 Olympics cost Belgium 600m Francs due to poor spectator numbers. The stadium was not completed and the athletes were put up in poor conditions. However, after the horrors of war, having the Olympics return to the calendar did help in bringing people back together again.

Paris 1924 Olympics

Twenty-four years after the French capital almost ruined the Olympics’ identity, the Games returned to Paris. The 1924 Games became a truly global event as the National Olympic Committees increased by 50% compared to 1920. Over 1,000 journalists were in Paris to cover the Olympics. Paris 1924 were the first Games where an Olympic Village housed all of the athletes participating.

Finland ensured the US did not dominate Track and Field events, as Paavo Nurni won five golds (1,500m, cross-country, 5,000m plus two team events). His most impressive feat was winning the 1,500m after which he returned to the track less than one hour later to win the 5,000m. Ville Ritola and Albin Stenroos joined Nurni in winning gold medals for Finland.

  • The pool events had some glamour about them, as future Hollywood star, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), won two events.
  • The US continued their overall superiority by finishing top in the medals table, comfortably ahead of runners-up, Finland.
  • The Paris Games were the last held under Pierre de Coubertin’s presidency. Four years later, the Games remained in Europe, hosted by The Netherlands.

Amsterdam 1928 Olympics

Dutch architect, Jan Wils, designed a cauldron which housed the very first Olympic flame in 1928 – at the top of a tower. A further precedent was set at the Opening Ceremony as Greece led the Parade of Nations, with the hosts joining the Parade last. This has been Olympic protocol ever since.

The highlights of the 1928 Games were as follows:

  • India (pictured below) and Hungary both commenced a period of monopolisation in the Olympics. India were triumphant in hockey and would go on to win a further five consecutive Olympic titles.  Likewise, Hungary won their first of seven Olympic golds in team sabre fencing.
  • Paavo Nurni won his ninth Olympic gold – winning the 10,000m.
  • Coca Cola made its debut as a sponsor at the Olympics.
  • Germany returned to the Olympics for the first time since 1912 after it’s exile. The Germans became an immediate force in finishing in second place in the medals table, behind the USA.

Los Angeles 1932 Olympics

Although the 1932 Games were held during the Great Depression, Los Angeles put on a great spectacle which has shaped the modern-day Olympic Games as we know them. A Coliseum like Olympic stadium was erected accommodating 100,000 spectators during the Opening Ceremony. The Depression though, accompanied with California’s geographic location meant that many athletes did not travel and as such there were only half the amount of athletes compared to the 1928 Amsterdam Games. Nevertheless, the Americans put on a show and the level of competition was excellent.

Previously to 1932, (after the Athens 1896) the Olympics were spaced out over a two to three-month period. In 1932, the duration of the Games was 16 days which is consistent with today’s Games.

There was a podium for the medal winners and the flag of the gold medal athlete was raised during the medal ceremony.

Los Angeles’ 1932 memorable moments

  • Due to the lack of competitors, there were only three nations participating in hockey. Despite being destroyed 24-1 by India, the USA hockey team still finished with a bronze medal.
  • Stanislawa Walasiewicz of Poland won the 100m but after her death in 1980, an autopsy revealed that she had both male and female sexual organs.
  • Paavo Nurmi was not allowed to participate as he had become a professional athlete.
  • The Japanese mens swimmers took all but one title in the pool.

The US team topped the medal charts on home soil, winning 41 gold medals compared to runner-up, Italy’s 12.

1936 Berlin Olympics

In 1931 Berlin won the right to host the tenth Olympiad – two years before the Nazi’s came into power. Due to the Nazi influence during the Games, there was much political debate whether countries should compete.

A firm Nazi and Head of the Reich Sports Office, Hans von Tschammer und Osten, played a large part in the structure and organisation of the 1936 Berlin Games. His ideology was that sports would harden the German spirit and that unity would be instilled amongst the German youth. He also believed that sport would weed out ‘the weak, Jewish and other undersirables’. Many Jewish athletes were banned from competing in the Olympics, which included 10-time German national champion Lilli Henoch.

The 1936 Olympics were the first Games which were broadcasted on television. Furthermore, Leni Riefenstahl (Hitler’s favourite film maker) was commissioned by the German Olympic Committee to film the Games. Riefenstahl created the famous film, ‘Olympia’ which thanks to the use of multiple cameras on one subject, has shaped today’s world in the filming of sports. Furthermore, Dr Carl Diem introduced the torch based relay which started in Greece and travelled 3,000 kilometres around Europe, finishing in Berlin.

Adolf Hitler wanted to demonstrate to the world the supremacy of the Aryan race. Although Germany did finish top of the medals table, things did not go quite to plan, as there was an athlete who scuppered the Nazi’s plans. Jesse Owens, representing USA (of African-American descent) was the most successful athlete at the 1936 Olympic Games winning four gold medals (100m, 200m, long jump and 4 x 100m relay). During a time when blacks in the USA did not receive equal rights, Owens was allowed to travel and stay with the other athletes at the Olympic village. Much has been made of Hitler snubbing Owens at his first medal ceremony (100m) but Owens always refuted this, instead preferring to talk about his annoyance that his own country did not recognise his achievements, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR (Franklin D Roosevelt) who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” Neither President Roosevelt or his successor President Truman acknowledged Owens’ achievements. Owens had to wait almost 20 years before President Eisenhower, in 1955, honoured the sprinter by naming him an ‘Ambassador of Sports’.

History was created at the 1936 Games where two records still stand today. Firstly, the youngest ever gold medalist. 13 year-old, American athlete, Marjorie Gestring won gold in the springboard diving event. Secondly, 12 year-old Dane, Inge Sorensen, became the youngest athlete ever to win a medal in an individual event as she won the bronze in the 200m breaststroke.

Three years after the Berlin Olympics, the Nazis invaded Poland resulting in the second World War. Even more devastating than the first, approximately 50 million lives were lost. The Olympics were halted for 12 years. The war ended in 1945 and so the Olympic torch relay, the Olympic flame and the Olympic flag would be seen again, three years later in London.


Coming soon on Melosport: The post World War II Olympic Games and the world’s introduction to Cassius Clay (London 1948 – Rome 1960)


The progression of the early Olympic Games (Paris 1900 to Stockholm 1912)

– The ancient Olympics and the revival of the modern-day Games

– Athens 1896 – The Inaugural modern-day Olympic Games

Categories: Olympic Archives

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