Philip Barker ©ITG

A century ago, the Olympic flag was raised as King Albert of Belgium opened the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp.

They took place less than two years after a devastating World War, in the country which had been arguably the hardest hit. In parallel with today, they were held after a virus pandemic which claimed many lives.

There were many who doubted that the 1920 Olympics could or should be organised. Some even felt it would be better to postpone. In many ways, it was a scenario with echoes of this summer.

Antwerp was the first Olympics to be held since the 1912 Games in Stockholm. Those Games had been dubbed "Sunshine Games" and seemed to promise an optimistic future.

The Belgians had thrown their hat into the ring as potential hosts for 1920. Baron Édouard de Laveleye, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) member in Belgium, had taken up a suggestion by Charles Cnoops of the Belgian fencing circle.

A provisional committee was founded as the result of a meeting at the Royal Yacht Club in Antwerp.

They produced a lavish book supporting their bid. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the IOC President, later wrote that "Antwerp had been represented by a delegation which presented us with an eloquent address that had been magnificently printed and bound".

In 1914, the IOC marked their 20th anniversary with a Session and Congress in Paris. For the first time, the world saw a new Olympic symbol, five interlocking rings, representing the unity of the five continents.

But the wind did not stand fair for France, Belgium or, for that matter, any other Olympic nation. Only a few days after the Session concluded, the world was at war. The Belgians found themselves at the centre of the conflict.

The 1916 Games had already been awarded to Berlin. The Germans had built their stadium, but the complex in the capital was ultimately used for competitions in which only members of the German armed forces took part.

The Opening Ceremony of the Antwerp 1920 Games with the Olympic Rings featured for the first time ©Getty Images
The Opening Ceremony of the Antwerp 1920 Games with the Olympic Rings featured for the first time ©Getty Images

The 1916 Olympics remain listed in the record books as the Games of the sixth Olympiad, but there is a footnote: "not celebrated".

At first, Coubertin had hoped the war would be a quick one, enabling the Olympics to proceed. He was by no means alone in this sentiment.

With many others, he was eventually forced to bow to the inevitable. Although he was 51, he enlisted in the army. He appointed Baron Godfroy de Blonay as interim head of the IOC. 

De Blonay was from neutral Switzerland and the Olympic headquarters were also moved to Swiss soil. Coubertin chose Lausanne on the banks of Lake Geneva.

"In the present state of Europe, administrative stability had become essential to Olympism," he said.

The IOC did not meet again in a formal Session until 1919. Belgium had suffered terribly from the war, and much of the fighting had taken place on its soil.

In 1918, to compound the misery, a threat came from a strain of influenza. Scientists called it the H1N1 virus, but it rapidly became more widely known as Spanish flu. 

Academics are still disputing the numbers but World Health Organization records state that between 20 million and 50 million are thought to have died worldwide.

The virus affected soldiers in the wartime trenches where sanitary conditions were very poor. Those returning home helped pass on the infection.

The Belgian military historian Nicolas Mignon has uncovered many family journals which tell of the impact of  the virus in Belgium.

A diary entry by notary Adolphe Hambye in October 1918 records "in the midst of our anxiety, the events of the war had taken second place".

The war ended in November 1918. Shortly after the armistice, Coubertin contacted Comte Edouard d'Assche to ask if Antwerp was still ready to act as host city.

Mayor Harry Lyman Davis of Cleveland, Ohio had also made enquiries. The Italians had apparently called a meeting to discuss a bid from Rome. This was led by their IOC member Carlo Montu, and was widely reported but came to nothing.

Eduoard Herriot from the French city of Lyon had also tabled his interest. "I was careful not to discourage him," wrote Coubertin.

The first post-war IOC Session was held in Lausanne and the Belgian plans were represented by Comte Henri Baillet-Latour.

Hal Prieste, then 103, holds the original Olympic flag that he stole from a pole during the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, where he won a bronze medal in diving. He handed it back to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch during the IOC Session in Sydney in 2000 ©Getty Images
Hal Prieste, then 103, holds the original Olympic flag that he stole from a pole during the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, where he won a bronze medal in diving. He handed it back to IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch during the IOC Session in Sydney in 2000 ©Getty Images

The distinguished German historian Volker Kluge has studied many of the papers from the time. In the latest issue of the Journal of Olympic History, he wrote: "Before his departure, he was commissioned by the Belgian NOC to propose to the IOC that the Olympic Games be postponed to 1921 and that the next, thereafter, be held in 1925."

Kluge concludes that "long before COVID-19, there was therefore the intention to deviate from the Olympic cycle".

In fact, as Kluge points out, the early Olympic regulations only specified "the regular celebration of the Games".

Yet in 1919, when the IOC met in Lausanne, the minutes simply stated: "The IOC, in a gesture of homage to Belgium, has decided to entrust them with the care of organising the VII Olympiad."

Coubertin himself saw no reason for delay in reviving the Games. 

"If ever a gesture were called for, at such a moment, what could have been better than the choice we were making of Antwerp as the venue for the seventh Olympiad?" he said. "What other candidature could equal it?"

Baillet-Latour took the lead in spearheading the Games. Yet Coubertin describes "serious efforts made to discourage him".

Alfred Verdyck, later to become the successful general secretary of the Games, and Rodolphe Seeldrayers, Belgian football's representative and a future FIFA President, were among those who were skeptical. 

Seeldrayers records that the pair had "every intention of proving that it was totally impossible for a country which had been bled dry by war, to prepare in one-and-a-half years".

National Olympic Committee secretary captain commandant Léon Delfosse insisted: "It is better to refrain from holding them from the outset, than to face the risk of a fiasco that could only lead to blame and reproach for the organisers."

The minutes then recorded: "The IOC invites all the National Olympic Committees to associate themselves with this homage and give their best efforts to assuring participation in these Games."

The invitation did not extend to Germany, Austria-Hungary or their allies. The hostility towards Germany was reflected in the decision of Sir Theodore Cook, one of the chief organisers of London 1908, to step down from the IOC.

Before the outbreak of war, Hungary's capital Budapest had seemed to be Antwerp's main rival for the 1920 Games, but the fighting had changed everything.

French tennis great Suzanne Lenglen won singles and mixed doubles gold in Antwerp ©Getty Images
French tennis great Suzanne Lenglen won singles and mixed doubles gold in Antwerp ©Getty Images

The minutes reveal that only those European nations with IOC representation would be permitted to enter the Games, and it was conveniently decided that members from Germany and Austria-Hungary were to be considered suspended.

As Coubertin reflected: "It was only a few months since the last German soldier had left Belgian soil. Common sense suggested that it would hardly be wise for a German team to appear in the Olympic Stadium before 1924".

"On the other hand, to ostracise any member country, even right after the conflict that had torn Europe asunder, would create a rift in the Olympic constitution," he added.

Coubertin considered the solution lay in the practice at that time.

"It is the Organising Committee that sends out the invitations," he said. "In this way, the Organising Committee is in control of distribution, without the fundamental principle of universality having to suffer any direct infringement. 

"The IOC had therefore no new decision to take."

Many years later, after successive boycotts of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984, the IOC changed the method of sending out invitations. They reasoned that an invitation which came from Lausanne would be harder to decline.

Last month, when the IOC met in their virtual Session online, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee were able to confirm the same schedule for their re-organised Games in 2021.

A century ago, communications were by no means as instant. The American Olympic Committee had reformed and was enthusiastic about attending the Games. However, they reported that "no definite word of the sports upon the Olympic programme was received until the middle of February 1920".

In fact, events in winter sports such as ice hockey and figure skating were staged in April, long before the rest of the programme, and teams were forced to scramble an entry at the last minute.

Travelling to the Games was also a problem. The official American report described the immediate post war trans-Atlantic shipping as "in a chaotic condition". 

Many ships had been destroyed during the war, while some had been used for other purposes. Political unrest in some countries had also affected the number of vessels available. There had been a strike on the Scandinavian line and, as a result, sailings were cancelled.

Britain's Albert Hill won the 800 and 1,500 metres at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics ©Getty Images
Britain's Albert Hill won the 800 and 1,500 metres at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics ©Getty Images

Many of the existing lines were fully booked until shortly before the Games. The living conditions on board the liner which did eventually transport the American team were so poor that there was almost a mutiny.

When the athletes did arrive in Belgium, many  found a city in which sanitary conditions were still wanting.

At the Opening Ceremony, many paraded in military uniform.

Among those on the Organising Committee was the journalist Victor Boin. He was a remarkable all round sportsman who had played water polo for his country in the pre-war Olympics, and now took part in fencing. 

He also had a part to play in the Opening Ceremony when he took an oath on behalf of all competitors. It was the first time this had been done.

At the cathedral in the city, a religious service was conducted by Cardinal Desire Mercier.

"The ceremony had a special grandeur about it this time, owing to the tragic fact that the list of Olympic dead was terribly long," said Coubertin. "And all those present came away, I believe, deeply impressed by the words spoken in the cathedral."

A meal plan was offered by the organisers at a daily cost of 28 Belgian francs. 

This included a breakfast of bacon and eggs or cold meat. For lunch, there was beef steak, vegetables and a dessert of fresh or stewed fruit.

Dinner consisted of soup followed by meat and vegetables, bread and butter, dessert and coffee.

Dietary requirements for athletes in those days were clearly somewhat different.

The legendary "Flying Finn", Paavo Nurmi of Finland, won his first three gold medals and the marathon went to his countryman Hannes Kolehmainen.

Only a breaststroke double by Hakan Malmrot of Sweden prevented a clean sweep in the pool by the US.

Great Britain beat the Dutch to win the tug of war. It was the last time the event was contested at an Olympics.

Paavo Nurmi won three gold medals in Antwerp ©Getty Images
Paavo Nurmi won three gold medals in Antwerp ©Getty Images

Philip Noel-Baker, the 1,500 metres silver medallist and later a British Government Minister and Nobel Peace prize winner, wrote: "After four years of struggle and enemy occupation, they had not even repaired the damage in the battle zones."

To prepare for the Olympics "imposed a heavy burden on Belgian organisers", he added, before concluding: "By Herculanean efforts, it was admirably carried out."

At the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, a report made by Baillet-Latour described "a heavy task carried out thanks to the dedication amongst the Belgian federations".

In 1920, financial problems beset the Organising Committee. The trouble was partly caused because the Belgian authorities wanted to hold an international exhibition at the same time.

Eventually, after liquidation of assets, the losses incurred by Antwerp's Organising Committee were in modern terms around $1 million (£766,000/€848,000).

The report produced did not list results, although in 1957 a further official document was made. It was not until 2002 that historians Bill Mallon and Tony Bijkerk finally published the first truly authoritative account of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.

The cost of postponing Tokyo 2020 is on an altogether different scale and seems set to run into hundreds of millions. The IOC are thought to have set aside $800 million (£613 million/€679 million) and additional costs to Japan could well exceed $2 billion (£1.5 billion/€1.7 billion).

Back in December 2012, when Tokyo dispatched their bid book to Lausanne, city Governor Naoki Inose told IOC President Jacques Rogge: "The earthquake and tsunami of 2011 deeply affected the Japanese people. 

"We are in need of a dream that we can share that will strengthen our solidarity. A dream can give us strength and with strength we can build a future."

The Games would "demonstrate to the world how far we have come in rebuilding our country and give courage especially to those who are faced with a challenge or a hardship", Inose added.

It was a theme which Tokyo 2020 readily harnessed when the Flame lighting ceremony was held in Ancient Olympia in March. "Hope Lights our Way" was the philosophy chosen for the Torch Relay.

Japanese Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita said: "The Japan Olympic Committee has been cooperating with various people in order to support those affected in the disaster by giving them courage. 

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 by a year has parallels to the challenges faced by Antwerp ©Getty Images
The postponement of Tokyo 2020 by a year has parallels to the challenges faced by Antwerp ©Getty Images

"I recognised the importance of continuing such work beyond 2020 in order to support the affected people through the power of sport."

At the time, many countries were starting to introduce measures to counter coronavirus.

In Olympia, publicly at least, there was no admission that there might be a postponement of the Games.

Yet, within a day, the Torch Relay had ground to a halt after crowds mobbed film star Gerard Butler when he carried the torch in Sparta.

Less than a fortnight later, the decision was taken to postpone the Games.

The Antwerp organisers of a century ago would surely have recognised the trials of Tokyo with a knowing glance.