Are you familiar with tug of war? Did you know that only two teams took part in the rugby 15s competition, that the oldest Olympic medallist in history was a 72-year-old Swede or that Brazil already had its first gold medallist 100 years ago? Here are some facts from the great history of the Games.
Last Games appearance for tug of war
The origins of tug of war, a sport with two opposing teams in which each tries to drag the other towards them, are lost in the mists of time. It was an Olympic sport on five occasions, on the programme of the Games in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and lastly 1920, in Antwerp. The rules are simple: two teams of eight athletes all hold tight to the two ends of a long rope. Two lines are drawn on the ground, around four or five metres apart. The aim is to drag the opposing team over the line on their side, or make them fall over. Each round consists of two pulls.
On 17 and 18 August 1920, five teams were competing: from Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and the USA. The Bergvall system was used, with a first elimination round at the quarter-final stage leading to a final for the gold medal; a second round to decide the silver medal-winner among the three teams beaten by the final winner; and a third round for the bronze medal, between the teams beaten in the previous two rounds.
The British team was composed mainly of members of the London police force, and they easily won their six bouts, winning 2-0 against the USA, Belgium and finally the Netherlands in the gold medal match. Among the members of the team who won the last Olympic title in this sport were Frederick Humphreys, Edwin Mills and James Shepherd, who each won their third Olympic medal, having been part of the teams that won gold in 1908 and silver in 1912. The silver medal went to the Netherlands, the winners of the second round, with Belgium taking the bronze by beating the USA in the final of the third round.
Only two teams for the rugby 15s title
With the exception of the 1924 Games in Paris, no bronze medals were awarded in rugby’s first Olympic incarnation, as rugby 15s, at the Games in 1900, 1908 and 1920, in Antwerp. In the Belgian city, like in London in 1908, there was just one match. This saw the USA facing off against France on 5 September in the Olympic Stadium packed with more than 20,000 spectators. On the one side, a team of Californian university students who had had to raise the funds needed to pay for their trip to Europe. On the other, a team hurriedly assembled from players at various clubs in Paris.
The Americans were physically stronger than the French players, who tried to focus on moving the ball around but were hampered by the rain, the slippery grass and their own technical mistakes caused by the pressure imposed by their opponents. The USA took the advantage in the second half through a penalty kick taken by Dink Templeton, and then a try by Lou Hunter which Templeton converted. The final score was 8-0, and the USA successfully defended their title in 1924 in Paris.
After this, in October 1920, the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA), the governing body for French rugby, organised a tour for the Olympic champion Californians in France. The “Antwerp revenge” game was held on 10 October in the Stade de Colombes in Paris, and the French won this 14-5.
Ten archery events before the sport left the Games for 52 years
Archery had been on the Games programme since 1900 in Paris, but 20 years later, there was still no international federation to govern the sport (this would be created in 1931), so that the programme of each Olympic edition was left up to the respective organising committee. In Antwerp, while there was a total of 10 events, these were open only to men. There were five disciplines (fixed large bird, fixed small bird, moving bird 50m, moving bird 33m, and moving bird 28m), each of which featured individual and team events.
Belgium’s Hubert Van Innis, then aged 54, and winner of three medals at the 1900 Games in Paris 20 years beforehand, was the great star of these events held in the Nachtegalen Park in Wilrijk, with podium finishes in all the moving bird events: gold in the individual 28-metre and 33-metre moving bird target events, silver in the 50-metre competition and two more golds the 33-metre and 50-metre moving bird target team events. By also picking up a silver for good measure in the 28-metre team competition, he took his Olympic medal haul to six golds and three silvers, making him Belgium’s most successful Olympian still today, 100 years later. Archery disappeared from the programme after these Games, before returning in Munich in 1972 with men’s and women’s individual events.
Oscar Swahn on the podium aged 72!
When Oscar Swahn was born on 20 October 1847 in the region of Götaland, Charles XV was King of both Sweden and Norway, as the two countries became separate only in 1905. Victoria reigned over the British Empire; Paris still looked like a medieval city; and the Mexican-American War would result in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and part of Colorado becoming United States territory.
Oscar Swahn’s sports career spanned several decades, but he was already in his sixties when he competed at his first Games, in London in 1908, where he won gold in the individual and team running deer single shot events, and a bronze medal in the running deer double shot individual event. In 1912 in Stockholm, at the age of 64 years and 258 days, he became the oldest Olympic champion in history (a record that still stands today) as a member of the Swedish team who won the 100m team running deer single shot event.
And there was more to come, as in Antwerp in 1920 he became the oldest medallist ever, at 72, winning a silver medal in the men's 100m team running deer double shot event. All the team medals that Oscar Swahn won in 1908, 1912 and 1920 were with his son, Alfred, who was born in 1879!
New nations at the Games and first medallists!
Brazil, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and New Zealand were among the nations sending their athletes to the Games for the first time at Antwerp in 1920. And all of them produced their first medallists!
Beverloo Camp hosted the shooting competitions, with a total of 21 events, all of them open only to men. On 3 August 1920, the 30m military pistol event was won by Guilherme Paraense, with a score of 274 points out of a possible 300, making him Brazil’s first-ever Olympic champion. The South American country won three medals on its first Olympic appearance, all of them in shooting, with a silver medal for Afrânio da Costa in the 50m free pistol, and a bronze medal in the team 20m free pistol, in which Paraense and Da Costa both won a second medal.
Other than in 1900, 1908 and 1912, weightlifting has been on the Olympic programme since the first edition of the modern Games in Athens in 1896. But before 1920, there had only been two events, one-handed and two-handed lifts, and no bodyweight categories. The Games in Antwerp saw weight categories introduced for the first time. There were five of them, ranging from featherweight (-60kg) to heavyweight (+82.5kg).
Alfred Neuland, who had fought in the First World War and then in the Estonian War of Independence, resumed his weightlifting career (he had been Russian champion in 1913 and 1914), and travelled to Antwerp to compete for his newly-independent country. On 29 August 1920, he won in the lightweight category (-67kg), lifting an Olympic total of 257.5kg. He was the first of Estonia’s 13 Olympic gold medallists to date.
Until then, New Zealand’s athletes had competed in the Games as part of the Australasian team, alongside their Australian counterparts, at the Games in 1908 and 1912. After the War, the two countries decided to send their own teams to Antwerp, so the New Zealand flag made its first Olympic appearance, with a team of four athletes including a woman, swimmer Violet Walrond. The only “Kiwi” rower, Darcy Hadfield, won the bronze medal in the skiff event, his country’s first medal at the Games.
After the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, Czechoslovakia was created in 1918. Its ice hockey team took part in the first Olympic competition, held at the Palais de Glace d’Anvers in April 1920, and won the bronze medal. Four months later, the mixed doubles tennis pair composed of Milada Skrbková and Ladislav Žemla, future husband and wife, won 8/6, 6/4 in the bronze medal match against Denmark’s Amory Hansen and Erik Tegner. These were the first of 168 medals for Czechoslovakia at the Games until 1992, when it was split into two states.