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100 years ago, in Antwerp, Belgium, the VII Olympic Games of the modern era were held. Two years after the end of the First World War, they symbolized the return to peace.

“After four years spent under German rule, Antwerp having regained all its serenity of yesteryear has been able to receive delegates from all the nations of the world, from those who defended with their blood or their propaganda the great cause of freedom”. 100 years ago, in its August 15 edition, Le Matin newspaper describes with exaltation the opening ceremony of the 7th Olympic Games of the modern era that has just taken place in the Belgian city of Antwerp. “A salute of seven cannon shots is heard and a flight of carrier pigeons soars to the sky, while above the triumphal arch of the stadium is hoisted the white Olympic flag with five entwined rings”, we can also read in the daily Le Temps.

The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Antwerp, August 14, 2020. © Wikimedia, La Vie au Grand Air, September 20, 1920

Antwerp, martyr city

Barely two years after the armistice that ended the First World War, men no longer clash on the battlefield, but in the sports arena. The last competition dates back to Stockholm in 1912. The Games of the VI Olympiad were to be held in Berlin, but were canceled due to conflict. Four years later, Antwerp was not chosen by chance. The Flemish city, martyr city, was unanimously designated in April 1919, during the Lausanne congress, as a symbol of the Belgian resistance to the German attack of 1914. While the guns of the Great War fell silent, this Olympiad is meant to be one of peace. However, as recalled the newspaper L’Œuvre, the “enemies of yesterday” do not take part in the celebration. Big losers in the conflict, Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria were excluded. In total, 29 countries from five continents are represented.

In the stadium of Antwerp, the opening ceremony is eminently political. During the parade of athletes, the French, crowned with the recent military victory, are particularly applauded, according to Le Matin. “Our representatives, elegantly dressed in white with a blue collar and a white beret with the tricolor cockade bravely worn, never received such an ovation”, tells the special envoy with a very patriotic tone. The blue-white-red selection is the largest with 409 participants, “a real army”, as emphasized the magazine La Vie au grand air.

All the athletes gathered in Antwerp are represented by Belgian swimmer Victor Boin who, for the first time in the history of the Olympics, takes the Olympic oath. “The narrator declares to have never violated the laws of honor and to work only for the purest glory of the sport”, relates the Excelsior. The Olympic flag also flies for the first time in the stadium. It was imagined in 1913 by the French Pierre de Coubertin, at the origin of the renovation of the Games and represents the five parts of the world.

Sporting achievements

But with only a few months of preparation, the Belgian organizers could not work miracles. As the country barely recovers from four years of occupation, conditions are rudimentary. “Many of the 2,626 competing athletes from 29 countries had to sleep on cots for the duration of the Games” official website of the International Olympic Committee (CIO).

This does not prevent them from achieving feats. One hundred years later, the names of great champions still resonate. American swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey She left her mark on the competition by winning gold medals in all events included in the women’s swimming program, breaking three world records in the process. She “inspires generations of female athletes”, underlines the IOC.

American swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey and her compatriot Duke Kahanamoku at the Antwerp Games in 1920. © Wikimedia, Library of Congress

On the athletics track, it was Paavo Nurmi, nicknamed the “Flying Finn”, who distinguished himself by winning three gold medals and a silver medal, the prelude to an exceptional Olympic career. The 72-year-old Swedish shooter Oscar swahn will also go down in history as the oldest athlete to ever win an Olympic medal, winning a silver medal. On the French side, the delegation ranks 8e rank with 9 gold, 19 silver and 13 bronze. Tenniswoman Suzanne Lenglen particularly stands out with three medals, including the women’s singles and mixed doubles titles. His compatriot Joseph Guillemot also succeeds in beating Paavo Nurmi in the 5,000 meters.

Paavo Nurmi at the Antwerp Games in 1920. © Wikimedia, Unknown author (Suomen Urheilumuseo)

A century later, their heirs are deprived of OJ due to the pandemic of Covid-19. The Tokyo Games, initially scheduled for July 24 to August 9, 2020, will theoretically take place from July 23 to August 8, 2021. Despite this postponement, Thomas Bach, President of the IOC, made a point of marking this anniversary: ​​“One hundred years after the hosting of the Olympic Games by the city of Antwerp, the spirit of the organizers continues to teach us that by working together , we can meet enormous challenges. We should always carry on this legacy of unity, peace and strength as we face new and unforeseen challenges on a global scale. ” In 2024, it will be the turn of Paris to host the biggest sporting event in the world. The Games of the XXXIIIe Olympiad will take place exactly 100 years after those already organized in the French capital.

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