A symbol of new-found peace after the global conflict of 1914-1918 which had left Europe in ruins, the Games of the VII Olympiad in Antwerp in 1920 were the setting for exploits by legendary champions, but also an opening ceremony that made its mark in the history of the great sports gathering imagined by Pierre de Coubertin. The Olympic flag was flown for the first time, and Belgium’s Victor Boin pronounced the first athletes’ oath.
With the 1916 Games awarded to Berlin, Antwerp submitted its candidature for those in 1920, as did the city of Budapest. On 23 June 1914, at the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s 16th Session in Paris, the two cities’ candidatures were accepted. But just over a month later, the First World War broke out, and the IOC had to suspend all its activities. Looking for neutral ground, Pierre de Coubertin decided to move the organisation’s headquarters to Lausanne. Berlin did not get to host the 1916 Games. And the capital of Vaud hosted the 17th Session: on 5 April 1919, Antwerp was chosen to stage the Games in tribute to the heavy price paid by Belgium during the war. Amidst the devastation of Europe, this great sports gathering took place under the sign of peace.
Indeed, the Games poster shows a range of intertwined flags to signify the coming together of different nationalities after the dramatic period from 1914 to 1918.
The Games of the VIII Olympiad did not start with the Opening Ceremony (which would not take place until 14 August), but with ice sports events held when it was cooler in April 1920: a first appearance for ice hockey and a return for figure skating after its initial appearance in London in 1908. In the hockey, Canada, whose team consisted of players from the Winnipeg Falcons, beat the USA and Czechoslovakia. In the figure skating, Sweden’s Gillis Grafström won the gold medal – an achievement he repeated at the Winter Games in 1924 and 1928. His compatriot Magda Julin won the women’s competition, and Finnish couple Ludowika and Walter Jakobsson took gold in the pairs competition.
Before the official opening, there was also archery, featuring Belgium’s Hubert Van Innis, who at the age of 54 won six medals, four of them gold; polo, where Great Britain beat Spain 13-11 in the final; and road and track cycling.
An Olympic flag designed seven years earlier by Pierre de Coubertin
The Antwerp Olympic Stadium, with a capacity of 35,000 spectators, was built specially for the 1920 Games, and the Opening Ceremony was held there on 14 August. It was notable for at least two reasons: the Olympic flag made its first appearance, and the athletes’ Olympic oath was pronounced for the first time. The five interlinked rings (blue, yellow, black, green and red on a white background) express the activity of the Olympic Movement: they represent the union of the five continents and the gathering of the world’s athletes at the Olympic Games. This highly symbolic flag was designed by Pierre de Coubertin in 1913, but was first flown in this Belgian city.
In the morning of the Opening Ceremony, on that Saturday 99 years ago, “a religious service in memory of the athletes who died for their country was held in the cathedral, followed by a Te Deum and an address by His Eminence Cardinal Mercier”, the official report tells us.
In the afternoon, the moving Opening Ceremony took place, with a parade by the athletes from 29 nations preceded by their flagbearers, who lined up neatly in the centre of the Stadium, and a speech by IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour. Addressing the King of Belgium, Albert I, he declared: “From the four corners of the world, in response to our invitation, the athletes have gathered in Antwerp to celebrate with us the return of Peace. May these contests take place with courtesy and fairness, and may the best person win! Such is the wish I express. Please be so kind, Your Majesty, as to declare open the Olympic Games of Antwerp.”
For the very first time, after King Albert I declared the Games of the VII Olympiad open, the Olympic flag made its entry into the Stadium, before being solemnly raised up the flagpole. Tibetan trumpets sounded, and doves featuring the colours of the participating nations flew off into the Antwerp sky.
Lastly, Belgian flagbearer Victor Boin became the first athlete in history to pronounce the athletes’ oath. Victor Boin was a multi-talented sportsman: he was a water polo medallist in 1908 and 1912, a freestyle swimmer and a fencer who won a team silver medal at these Games, but also a war hero, as a pilot in the Belgian Air Force. He walked forward, stepped onto a podium and declared: “We swear that we shall take part in these Olympic Games in a spirit of chivalry, for the honour of our countries and for the glory of sport.” That marked the start of just over three weeks of competitions, featuring the legendary achievements of Paavo Nurmi in athletics, Nedo Nadi in fencing, Ethelda Bleibtrey in swimming, Suzanne Lenglen in tennis, and Oscar Swahn, the 72-year-old gold medallist, to name but a few.
The five-ring flag continued to float inside the Olympic Stadium until the final day of the Games on 12 September 1920, when the Closing Ceremony included a speech by Pierre de Coubertin and a cantata performed by 1,200 choristers and musicians. The Olympic flag was handed over to representatives from Paris, host of the Games in 1924. The Olympic visual identity was born, and would grow stronger over the years until today, when the rings are one of the most well-known and recognised symbols in the world!