Philip Barker ©insidethegames

A hundred years ago the Olympics were scheduled for Berlin, but they never took place because of war. The 1916 Games were the first to be cancelled in the modern era.

The decision to award them to the German capital had been made at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session before the 1912 Games in Stockholm. Budapest were also keen to host the Games but their representative Jules De Musza agreed his city would stand aside and concentrate instead on 1920. Berlin was therefore chosen by a unanimous vote.

Count Adalbert von Francken-Sierstorpff told the IOC members: “We shall present an event in accordance with the importance of the Olympics."

A telegram was dispatched to the Imperial Palace in Berlin to tell the Kaiser the good news and German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg replied on behalf of his monarch.

“His Majesty has learned with great interest of the choice of Berlin to offer hospitality to the Olympiad of 1916 and has charged me with conveying his thanks," he said.

IOC President Pierre de Coubertin was delighted. Only a few years before, he had paid tribute to the Germans as one of the great pillars of the Olympic movement. They had a rich sporting tradition and had led the way in excavating the site of the ancient games at Olympia in Greece.

When Coubertin founded the IOC he made sure the Germans were involved. They were soon enthusiastic about staging the Olympics and initially targeted the Games of 1908. However, at the 1904 IOC Session in London, Berlin agreed to withdraw to leave the way clear for Rome. Ultimately, the 1908 Games were held in London after Rome was forced to withdraw.

Germany’s enthusiasm for the Games remained unabated. Berlin staged the IOC Session in 1909. The proceedings were a great success and German sports administrators now looked ahead with optimism to 1916.

The German team at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 was their largest so far. It numbered 185 and they won gold medals in swimming, rowing, equestrianism and tennis. At the closing banquet in the Swedish capital, Coubertin addressed the assembled guests.

A march past at the opening of the new Berlin stadium
A march past at the opening of the new Berlin stadium ©Philip Barker

“A custom has arisen that the last word spoken shall be to salute the dawn of the Games to follow," he said. "In the name of the International Olympic Committee, raise your glasses in honour of the sixth Olympiad. May it be prepared in the fruitful labour of peaceful times, may it be celebrated when the day comes, by all peoples of the world in gladness and concord.”

In Berlin, the German organising committee was established at Dorotheestrasse in the north-west of the city. Carl Diem, an academic and President of the German Amateur Athletic Union, was installed as General Secretary. The committee announced the sports that would take place. Boxing returned over the classic eight weight divisions. In 1912, there had been no contests because it was outlawed in Sweden. There had been objections in Germany too, where police had stopped bouts.

Football remained on the programme but a French proposal to include 15-a-side rugby union was refused.

Fencing and cycling were included but only for men. There was, however, no place for archery which had been part of the Games in 1908.

A brand new stadium was to be built at the centre of the Berlin Racecourse in the Grunewald area of the city. Constructed at a cost of some three million marks, it included tracks for cycling and athletics. A swimming pool was also part of the complex.

This was opened with great fanfare on June 10, 1913. The Guest of Honour was Kaiser Wilhelm himself. It was a hot and sunny day. As the Royal Party arrived, the flags of the sporting organisations present were dipped in salute. General Victor Von Podbielski gave a speech of welcome. As his final words rang around the stadium, 10,000 carrier pigeons were released.

The procession began with 10,000 gymnasts including many girls and women. Then came groups of lawn tennis players, swimmers, athletes and university footballers drawn from clubs and even despite the weather, skaters and skiers.

At the end of the procession came groups from the League of Youth and Girl Scouts.

The Kaiser was on his feet for two hours returning salutes and watching the gymnastic displays in which women swung clubs, guardsmen scaled obstacles and younger girls gave displays of basketball.

Later, the Royal party headed for the adjoining restaurant for lunch. Guests included the Duke of Somerset, who had just become the new IOC member in Britain, and Mary Theresa Olivia, Princess of Pless, known to her friends as Daisy.

The dates of the Games were originally fixed for mid June but the Americans claimed that this would make it impossible for college athletes to take part. By October, the German organisers had adjusted their programme so that the main portion of the Games would take place from July 1 to 10.

Kaiser Wilhelm watched on at the stadium opening
Kaiser Wilhelm watched on at the stadium opening ©Philip Barker

In addition, hockey and football tournaments were scheduled for May and June with rowing in August.

Just as it will be in 2016, golf was included on the programme. The sport was developing steadily in Germany. The Kaiser's sons were enthusiastic about “the Royal and Ancient past time”. Royal influence was applied to allow the Berliner Golf Club to lay out a new course near the Imperial Palace.

The Austrians proposed bicycle polo, which had appeared as a demonstration in 1908, but this was rejected.

Prince Joachim had enrolled in the officer section of the Berliner Sports Club and planned to take part in track and field athletics with his cousins Princes Sigismund and Friedrich Karl of Prussia.

As with any host nation, the Germans were determined to make sure the home crowds would have plenty to cheer.

“We propose to find athletic talent capable of meeting any competition,” said Diem.

“The programme of all future athletic meetings, large and small, will be formulated with a single eye to developing winners in 1916. We shall stake everything on victory.”

In 1913, a high powered delegation sailed for the United States to learn about American training methods. Diem was joined by Lieutenant Walter Von Reichenau, later an IOC member and an infamous Nazi military leader, Dr Martin Berner, a sportsman and writer from Berlin, and Joseph Waltzner, a trainer from Munich. They spent a month travelling across the US.

“Athletics and athletic life in America have astounded us,” said Diem. “The palatial clubhouses, perfect training equipment, athletic fields and stands and everything in connection with the furtherment (sic) of track and field games show a development unequalled in any country in the world.”

Apart from their quest for knowledge, the Germans also wanted a man to lead the training of their competitors. The man they turned to was Alvin Kraenzlein, winner of four titles at the 1900 Olympics who had become an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was signed up on a five year contract, then worth $25,000, to train German athletes for the Berlin Games.

Kraenzlein returned to Germany with Diem and his group on the steamer Kaiser Wilhelm.

When war came, IOC member Sir Theodore Cook wanted Germany expelled from the Olympic movement
When war came, IOC member Sir Theodore Cook wanted Germany expelled from the Olympic movement ©Philip Barker

“My work in Germany is to organise German athletics on as near as the American plan as local conditions will permit," said Kraenzlein. "I am assured that the chief requisites, physical material and popular enthusiasm, are plentiful." He made his base in Berlin and soon identified what Germany needed.

Albert Spalding, a sports goods supplier and former director of the American team, also made a visit to Europe. He sailed home on the Lusitania in early 1914.

“What a difference there is today," he reported. "The Europeans are putting forth every effort to beat the Americans in 1916.”

In France, Armand Rio, writing in the magazine Lectures pour tous, suggested that “France spend money like the Americans.”

Rio criticised “the chaotic condition of our athletic clubs, each with its own rules of organisation, each thinking itself better than the others.”

Coubertin himself joined the chorus of criticism of French preparations for the previous Games.

“I sincerely trust that the rude lesson of 1912 will be profitable and that we will do much better at Berlin," he said. "You would not believe the extent that we lacked in organisation and preparation at the last Olympiad.”

To avoid a repetition, the French government earmarked some £20,000 to prepare their team for Berlin.

The Germans were keen for the British to play a full part. IOC member Sir Theodore Cook attended the IOC session held in Paris in 1914 shortly before war broke out and recalled: “As soon as the British delegates made any suggestion, the German Committee at once gave it their most earnest consideration and generally agreed to it in the end.”

The British had launched a campaign to raise money to send a team to Berlin. The appeal hoped to raise £100,000 and was backed by distinguished personalities including England cricketer Bernard Bosanquet and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. When he wasn’t dreaming up more adventures for Sherlock Holmes, Conan-Doyle was a keen sportsman and had reported on the Olympic Games for the Daily Mail.

The panel was led by Kynaston Studd, a future Lord Mayor of London who came from a distinguished sporting family. He outlined plans for a talent identification programme, some 90 years before the idea became commonplace in Britain. This called for “immediate steps to ascertain if there was any talent existing in the country which might not be discovered in the ordinary course of events.”

When war came, Coubertin recorded that “barely two weeks had passed since the invasion of Belgium when I received proposals for transferring the Games.”

In August 1914, American Olympic Committee secretary James Sullivan admitted it was “looking a long way ahead to predict the effect of the war abroad will have on the Olympic Games of 1916".

The stadium built for 1916 was later enlarged for the 1936 Games
The stadium built for 1916 was later enlarged for the 1936 Games ©Philip Barker

"Personally I hope that Europe will be at peace," he said. "If, however, a shift is necessary, the United States is the logical country in which to hold the Games.”

Coubertin had intended to stand down as IOC President in 1914 but the war modified his actions. He enlisted in the French Army and asked the Swiss Baron Godefroy de Blonay to lead the Committee through the war years. In 1915 he moved the IOC Archives to Lausanne in neutral Switzerland. The Olympic headquarters remain in the city to this day.

Although he recognised that the war “created a state of affairs which could have threatened the very existence of the Olympic Institution” Coubertin still clung to the hope that Berlin would stage the Games. They believed at that time in a "rapid war and certain victory”.

In July 1915, Von Franken-Siepersdorf was still confident that the Games would go ahead, but as the war showed no sign of ending, greater hostility to the Imperial Powers came from many in Britain. IOC member Sir Theodore Cook had been a strong advocate of the Olympic movement in its formative years and a key figure in the organising committee for the 1908 Games but now he called for the Germans to be expelled and even resigned his own IOC membership.

“It seemed to me that sport with Germany as a comrade had become impossible,” said Cook.

The move to call off the Games was backed by the Scandinavians and the Americans. Any plans to move them to the USA proved impossible. They were never held, though they are listed to this day in the record books as the Games of the Sixth Olympiad.

Germany were excluded from the Olympic movement immediately after the war, but their capital did finally get its chance to hold the Olympics in 1936. They had won the right in a face-off with Barcelona in 1931, almost two years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power. In opposition, Hitler had denounced the Olympic Games. Installed as German leader he made sure that no expense was spared. Infamously, they were the most politically charged of all time and Swastikas outnumbered the Olympic Rings at many functions.

Less than a quarter of a century after war had prevented Berlin’s 1916 Games, Hitler’s war then caused the cancellation of the Olympics of 1940 and 1944.