David Owen

This year marks the centenary of perhaps the most well-meaningly batty Olympics of the modern era - Antwerp 1920.

At the 1914 Olympic Congress, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had been offered the choice of four cities - Amsterdam, Rome, Budapest or Antwerp - to host the Games of the Seventh Olympiad, but had reserved judgement.

At this time, Antwerp was probably the most important port in Europe, and Belgium - the world’s most densely-populated country - the fourth- or fifth-largest global commercial and industrial power.

With war having erupted and Belgium abruptly finding itself under German occupation, the French city of Lyons subsequently threw its hat into the ring, offering to stage the 1920 Olympics if Antwerp were unable to do so, or the 1924 event if the Belgians wished to stick to their original plan.

As recounted by the Antwerp 1920 Official Report, straight after Armistice Day, IOC President Pierre de Coubertin asked the nobleman who was running the Belgian section of the Committee helping prisoners of war in Berne to notify the King of the Belgians and the National Government that there was a desire to name Antwerp as host of either the Games of the Seventh or the Eighth Olympiad.

The Report comments at this point: "This enterprise which, let us admit, already seemed bold in 1914…had become almost a folly by 1918".

Nevertheless, the 1920 bid was confirmed. When future IOC President Comte Henri de Baillet-Latour went to Lausanne to convey this message, "the welcome he received was a brilliant homage to Belgium’s heroism".

Belgium was left ravaged by World War One ©Wikipedia
Belgium was left ravaged by World War One ©Wikipedia

On 5 April 1919, Antwerp was chosen unanimously to host the Games that were to demonstrate how this still relatively recently relaunched sports movement had survived the war to end all wars.

You can appreciate the symbolic importance of awarding the 1920 Games to a country much-scarred by the war, particularly one whose bid had been lodged before hostilities had started.

But the practical problems the decision threw up were immense: as the Report puts it, "There could be no illusion about the innumerable difficulties that would arise in a period characterised by daily price changes, the progressive increase of salaries and by exchange fluctuations".

The way in which arrangements for the accommodation of athletes were made gives an idea of the seat-of-pants nature of much of the decision-making.

Originally, the Official Report explains, it was hoped that British army camps set up after the Armistice could be utilised – but this did not prove possible.

So it was decided to turn schools into temporary hotels.

The problem here was to obtain furnishings and other necessities. Organisers approached city authorities, the Red Cross, the Army for help. "Alas, in the wake of the war, everything had been used to hospitalise those evacuated from the north of France and the south of Belgium at the end of 1918."

Even once it was acknowledged that the requisite supplies would have to be bought, "the department stores were out of stock and unable to supply bedding, glassware, crockery or kitchen utensils".

After the Games, furniture that had been bought was sold off for 50 per cent of its value.

Special efforts were needed to ensure that Antwerp was ready to host the 1920 Olympic ©Olympic Museum
Special efforts were needed to ensure that Antwerp was ready to host the 1920 Olympic ©Olympic Museum

Not surprisingly, given the turbulence, not to say misery, heaped upon them in recent years, many inhabitants seemed to have other things on their mind, even as the Opening Ceremony approached.

"Somehow one had expected rather more obvious excitement over the Seventh Olympiad, the first since the Great War, than is apparent in the ancient city of Antwerp," wrote the Press Association’s “Special Correspondent” in a piece published in the UK’s Nottingham Journal.

"It would not be too much to say that the ordinary inhabitant of the town seems hardly aware of the fact that Saturday will see the opening of his magnificent new stadium…

"It would almost seem as though the authorities were afraid of letting the details become too widely known."

The parochial nature of one or two sports competitions perhaps also reflected the extent to which simply getting the Games on was a monumental achievement.

Take archery, staged in Nachtegalen [Nightingale] Park, as a prime example.

It is not unusual for countries to perform better on home soil when they are hosting an Olympic Games than they usually do - and Belgium was certainly no exception to this rule of thumb.

The host-nation ranked fifth in the medals table with 14 golds – 35 per cent of all Summer Olympic gold medals Belgium has won since the Games were revived at Athens in 1896.

The return of Olympic Games following World War One was widely considered a success ©Getty Images
The return of Olympic Games following World War One was widely considered a success ©Getty Images

No fewer than eight of these victories, or 20 per cent of all Summer Olympic gold medals Belgium have ever won, came from archery - a tally run up more easily than one might usually expect because Belgian archers appear to have faced no international competition whatsoever in four of the 10 events.

These were the so-called "fixed bird" events that were something of a local speciality.

Instead of aiming at a round target a certain distance away, competitors would try to shoot model birds "perched" on cross-pieces jutting out horizontally from a 31-metre vertical pole.

In one discipline, athletes, competing individually and as a team, shot solely at small birds all with the same value.

In the other, different birds were assigned different point values, with the "popinjay" worth the most.

It must have made for a singular spectacle, although frankly it is probably no more outlandish to the casual viewer than, say, the keirin.

Belgium fared well in the other archery events too, against competition from The Netherlands and France, with the super-archer Hubert van Innis winning no fewer than four gold medals and two silvers, to go with the three medals he had already secured at the first Paris Games twenty years earlier.

This makes Van Innis comfortably the most decorated Olympic archer. He was still good enough to win a World Championship title in 1933, aged 67.

Sadly for him, archery was dropped from the Olympics after Antwerp 1920, only to return at Munich in 1972, more than a decade after his death.

Tug of war, which never featured more than five nationalities at a single Games, also reached the end of its Olympic road at Antwerp, in its case never to return.