Philip Barker

The 19th Mediterranean Games are scheduled to open on June 25 next year in the Algerian port city of Oran, but 70 years ago next week, they had just become the newest addition to the sporting calendar. They were held in Alexandria, another North African port city.

It had been waiting for a long time for such a major event.

In the early years of the century Angelo Bolanaki, who previously spelled his surname Bolanachi before later changing it, had been a notable sprinter who competed in international competitions as far afield as Athens. 

He was born in Alexandria and was a member of an influential Greek expatriate community in the city. He had met Pierre de Coubertin and in 1910 became the first International Olympic Committee (IOC) member in Egypt.

"Even before this I had the idea to create in my home city, a stadium where one day we would be able to hold the Olympic Games," Bolanaki wrote.

Alexandria was amongst the cities who expressed interest in holding the 1916 Olympics. These were eventually awarded to Berlin but never staged because of the war.

In 1914, Alexandria’s Chatby Stadium was where the five ringed Olympic Flag first flew in a stadium, at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the IOC.

Soon, there were aspirations for continental Games in Africa. Although the stadium conceived of by Bolanaki was built and inaugurated in grand style, the Games were postponed to 1929 and then cancelled.

Bolanachi subsequently took up Greek citizenship and remained in sport, but as an IOC member in Greece. He changed the spelling of his name to Bolanaki.

Mohammed Taher Pacha became an IOC member in 1934 and was an important figure in making the arrangements for the 1938 Session held in Cairo. The members were taken on a cruise of the Nile and paid tribute to his "ingenious organization."

War interrupted any thoughts of developing regional sport but in 1947, Taher Pacha addressed his IOC colleagues at the IOC Session in Stockholm.

He had hoped to organise "African" Games in 1950 but had received a lukewarm response.

The previous edition of the Mediterranean Games took place at Tarragona in Spain ©Getty Images
The previous edition of the Mediterranean Games took place at Tarragona in Spain ©Getty Images

Instead, he proposed that "they would be replaced by Mediterranean Games which would attract greater participation."

World Athletics leader Lord Burghley remained concerned about a possible clash with the European Athletics Championships which also involved many Mediterranean athletes.

A more positive response came from IOC President Sigfrid Edstrom who agreed that the idea would be laid before the Executive Committee.

When Olympic officials gathered in London for the 1948 Olympics, Taher Pacha seized on the occasion, with Ioannis Ketseas of Greece in support, representatives from France, Italy, Lebanon, Malta, Monaco, Spain, Syria, Turkey and Yugoslavia joined discussions.

In May 1949, a "Mediterranean Games" boxing tournament involving France, Spain and Italy was held in Palermo. This is considered unofficial, but Taher Pacha was able to tell the IOC Session meeting in Rome that the first official Games had been scheduled for 1951.

The Organising Committee letterhead even featured Olympic rings, a symbol of IOC approval.

"Some work at existing facilities was all that was needed to ensure the success of these Games," Taher Pacha insisted.

Games director Ahmed Touny had been energetic in securing financial support.

Andre Toriel, a prominent and wealthy Alexandria citizen was said to have pledged CHf3 million (£2.3 million/$3.2 million/€2.7 million) and the Suez company weighed in with CHf500,000 (£396,000/$535,000/€462,000) (1950 exchange rate approx CHf10 (£7.93/$10.70/€9.25 to the pound)

At the 1950 IOC Session in Copenhagen, Pacha reported that "progress was being made in a satisfactory manager."

Participation was open to "all countries bordering the Mediterranean."

Invitations were sent to ten countries but not Israel, which did not yet have a recognised Olympic Committee. In decades to come, Arab nations remained unwilling to allow them to participate. It was a bitter and long running dispute.

A stamp issued to mark the first edition of the Mediterranean Games in 1951 ©Philip Barker
A stamp issued to mark the first edition of the Mediterranean Games in 1951 ©Philip Barker

Organisers announced that the 1951 Mediterranean Games programme would be similar to the 1952 Olympics except sailing, modern pentathlon and canoeing were not included "for technical reasons."

The Games bulletin also launched the official poster featuring flags of competing nations surmounted by an Olympic flag above a stylised stadium. The work of Ali Ahmed Rashid, it was selected by Touny. 15,000 copies were produced.

By now the future already seemed secure because Barcelona’s Municipal Council proposed hosting the 1955 Games.

In June, Taher Pacha met Barcelona Mayor Antonio Maria Simarro and other Spanish sports grandees to discuss the proposition.

The formal decision to grant Barcelona the Games was made in October 1951. IOC member Baron de Guell, initially head of the 1955 Organising Committee, cabled the news back to Spain.

Taher Pacha was keen that many of his fellow IOC members should travel to Alexandria.

Olympic Chancellor Otto Mayer received a telegram informing IOC members that "a special flight would be laid on from Geneva to Cairo with connection to Alexandria."

Travel and accommodation costs were paid by the Organising Committee.

Some 734 men from ten nations eventually took part. There were no events for women.

When the Turkish team set out, the Milliyet newspaper told its readers: "The Mediterranean Games are considerably important as a kind of preparation for the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki and will show the strength of our sport in Europe."

On October 5 1951, trumpets sounded to announce the arrival of King Farouk of Egypt who made the official opening declaration.

The spectators in the diplomatic stand included French ambassador Maurice Couve de Murville, a future Prime Minister of France under President de Gaulle.

IOC member Angelo Bolanaki wrote about the venues used for the first Mediterranean Games ©Philip Barker
IOC member Angelo Bolanaki wrote about the venues used for the first Mediterranean Games ©Philip Barker

Greece led the way according to Olympic tradition. Arabic determined the order of the other participating nations. Malta sent just three competitors. The largest team of 239 was for the host nation.

"On this great day for sport in our country, I sincerely hope the Mediterranean Games realise the goal we are seeking, that is the triumph of the sporting spirit which is the symbol of purity of heart and character," Taher Pacha said.

"Certainly we cannot see the future but if our hearts beat in unison under the light of the Torch of friendship, we can we sportsmen work for the future wellbeing of humanity."

France had only decided to compete late in the day and arrived on charter flights. Their athletes paraded in tracksuits which had evidently been purchased shortly before the team’s departure. Gaston Meyer in L’Equipe said "we were not very proud."

Algerian born long distance runner Alain Mimoun was the star name in the French athletics team, but he was so often eclipsed by his great contemporary Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia that he earned the nickname "Zatopek’s shadow."

Zatopek had in fact broken more world records the week before but Czechoslovakia were not part of the Mediterranean Games.

In the 10,000 metres, Mimoun took the lead by the end of the second lap. 

He finished over 200m ahead of silver medallist Franjo Mihalic, a Croatian running for Yugoslavia.

The winning time was over a minute slower than Zatopek had achieved but the local press were full of praise. 

"It had been accomplished in a dust storm and heat which at one time threatened to cancel the meeting," reported the Egyptian Gazette. "The track did not lend itself to record breaking."

Mimoun later completed the distance double with 5000m gold.

Egyptian Fawzi Chaaban delighted the home crowd with a leap of 14.09 metres to seize the lead in the triple jump, but was eventually forced to settle for bronze, behind Avni Akgun of Turkey and Victor Sillon of France.

The first medals for the host nation came in weightlifting that same day.

The front cover of a document by Angelo Bolanaki about the history of the Stade d'Alexandrie ©Philip Barker
The front cover of a document by Angelo Bolanaki about the history of the Stade d'Alexandrie ©Philip Barker

Kamal Magoub’s success in bantamweight was soon followed by Sayed Khalifa Gouda in the featherweight and lightweight Ibrahim Shams.

French gymnast Raymond Dot was the dominant figure in gymnastics. He won seven medals in all with his haul including gold in the all around competition, on the floor, the rings and pommel horse.

Turkey achieved a clean sweep of gold in freestyle wrestling.

"It was a very good decision that we took part in the Games. Here all Turks are crying at the wrestling  victories," wrote Burhan Felek, a founder of the Turkish Athletics Federation, in the Cumhuriyet Gazette.

Next door to the stadium, an impressive swimming pool hosted the aquatic events in the open air. Future Olympic champion Jean Boiteaux won freestyle gold over 400m and 1500m and in the relay.

Christian D’Oriola, a dominant fencer at the time, added a Mediterranean individual foil gold to his impressive list of titles.

Spain won only two gold medals, in shooting and water polo.

"It was a great effort, I was only 19 and to win the gold medal was the ultimate," Juan Luis Abellan said. He was not the youngest team member, Jorge Granados was only 15.

As the Games came to an end, Olympic Review paid tribute to the "dynamic power and fierce perseverance" of Taher Pacha.

"It is considered a great feat of achievement on the part of Egypt. Its conception was most original when one considers that the land of the Pharaohs lies far away from its neighbours dwelling on the shores of the Mediterranean."

Before leaving Alexandria, a permanent Games committee was founded and Taher Pacha was named Honorary President. 

Bolanaki, Ketseas and the senior French member Armand Massard also formed part of the committee.

The Games now would be unrecognisable from those staged in 1951.

In 2018, 4,541 athletes from 26 nations took part in 28 sports at the Games in Tarragona.

A similar number is expected in Oran next year. Taher Pacha would surely have been delighted.