'Olympic Games Are an International Farce': The 1920 Antwerp Games and the Question of Great Britain's Participation

By Llewellyn, Matthew P. | Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

'Olympic Games Are an International Farce': The 1920 Antwerp Games and the Question of Great Britain's Participation


Llewellyn, Matthew P., Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies


On July 6, 2005 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2012 summer Olympic Games to the city of London. In defeating a highly favored Paris bid, the British capital realized the unrivaled prospect of hosting the summer games for the third time since Baron Pierre de Coubertin's 1894 revival of the Olympic movement. Reflecting on the IOC's decision, former Prime Minister Tony Blair described London's nomination as a "momentous day" for Great Britain. (1) London bid leader and former Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe reiterated Blair's message, expressing his joy that Britain had captured "the biggest prize in sport," the Olympic Games. (2) The euphoria that surrounded the IOC's decision creates the impression that the Olympic Games, like the World Cup in soccer, are central to the aspirations of British sport. Upon closer inspection, however, British affinity for the Olympic Movement appears to be a very recent phenomenon. In fact, history reveals that Olympism (3) held an extremely tenuous position in Great Britain throughout the formative years of modern Olympic competition. The nation's apathy emerged most clearly during the 1920 Olympic Games, organized in haste and held in the war-torn city of Antwerp, Belgium. (4)

When the guns stopped firing on November 11, 1918, Pierre de Coubertin and the IOC turned their immediate attentions towards reviving the modern Olympic movement. In recognition of Belgium's bravery during the Great War, the IOC awarded the Games of the VIIth Olympiad to Antwerp at a meeting on April 5, 1919, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the new administrative home of the Olympic movement. For Coubertin, the choice of Antwerp, a city recently liberated from German occupation and oppression, provided an ideal setting for the first postwar games. (5) The Reverend Robert S. de Courcy Laffan, vice-chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA) and a "noble ally" of Coubertin, pledged his unwavering support to the IOC's decision to revive the cycle of modern Olympic Games. (6) Writing in the Times on April 14, 1919, Laffan, a chaplain to the British Forces during the Great War, made a patriotic appeal to the British public. Even though the "time is short and the difficulties are great," Laffan admitted, Britain must show "their gratitude and admiration towards the heroic Belgian people by doing their utmost to make the Olympic Games of Antwerp a signal and convincing success." (7)

The continuation of the Olympic program so soon after the culmination of the Great War was the source of widespread indignation throughout Britain. The horrors of the war, a bitter four-year struggle in which 723,000 British servicemen perished on the battle fields of Europe, were still fresh in the minds of many Britons. (8) With the national debt soaring at over 7.5 billion [pounds sterling], ten times its pre-war level, unemployment rates reaching an alarming high, and an economy locked in a recession, the idea of diverting the nation's depleted energies and resources towards an event long-dismissed by many throughout Britain as a trivial and debased French festival of athleticism, was met with hostility and discord. (9) Immediate post-war developments also proved less than conducive to an Olympic revival as Britain's imperial sovereignty came under threat following the emergence of large-scale, newly-organized nationalist movements in Egypt, India and the recently acquired Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, Russia was now led by Bolshevik revolutionaries, and in Ireland the British government was embroiled in a bitter guerrilla struggle following the declaration of an independent Irish republic. In this socially and politically challenging post-war environment, the raising of a British Olympic team for Antwerp seemed rather inconsequential.

In the face of post-war austerity and continued British sporting parochialism, the Council of the British Olympic Association's (hereafter cited as BOC) attempts at ensuring the nation's participation in Antwerp proved extremely difficult. …

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