Blog post

The 1920 Olympics Games in Antwerp

Learning about European history in the 1920s

black and white photograph of opening event for the 1920 Olympic Games
Dung Pham Thuy (EuroClio)

The Olympic Games - the biggest sports contest in the world - have always drawn international interest and attention. Countless stories can be told about the Olympics - of competition and championship, and also of politics and identities. The Olympic Games are thus a vital part of history.

Let's travel back in time to the 1920 Olympic Games, and learn the daily life of European citizens in the early 1920s, as well as the aftermath of World War I.

Evolving sports and rules

Travelling back a century in time, things were of course very different in the summer of 1920. There were, for example, several disciplines included in the 1920 Games that no longer take place today, such as tug of war and equestrian vaulting. An interesting surprise was the inclusion of art as a separate discipline in the agenda. Like the athletes participating in the Games, architects, painters, sculptors, and musicians also had the chance to receive medals with their sport-inspired artworks.

black and white silhouette illustration of two figures running

Nowadays, we are used to having the Summer and Winter Olympics as two separate sports tournaments. But, in 1920, ice hockey and figure skating were also included in the Antwerp Olympics alongside all the other summer sports. Taking place at the Ice Palace of Antwerp, the ice hockey tournament marked the debut of the sport in the Olympics. It was also the only time this winter sport appeared in a Summer Games - since 1924, it has been part of the Winter Games.

black and white photograph of interior of an ice-sport stadium

We also see several rule changes relating to gender. Racewalking, for instance, used to be reserved only for male athletes. It was not until 1992 that women were allowed to participate in this sport.

black and white photograph of male athletes lined up at beginning of a race in a busy stadium

Life in 1920s Europe

While sports rules have mostly witnessed changes, the 1920s life of European people saw on the contrary many similarities with our today’s activities.

Just like today, the 1920s European public were also highly passionate about football. The final match of the 1920 Olympics football tournament, in which Czechoslovakia went against Belgium, attracted no less than 50,000 spectators. Some of whom - failing to burst through the sea of people - were even watching from outside the stadium.

black and white photograph of people looking through a metal fence

We also know that drama and controversies are by no means something recent in football history. Violent collision between players, and dissatisfaction with referee decisions, were as major a part of football as they are today. During the 1920 Olympics, the Swedish team nearly withdrew from the tournament in protest at the referee of their match against the Netherlands. The team from Czechoslovakia also left the field in their final match against Belgium, in opposition to a decisive penalty that caused their loss.

black and white photograph of a football match in a croweded stadium

That Belgian national football team was initially unpopular among the Antwerp public due to the absence of players from Beerschot, the local football club. The discontent was so great that it swayed the coach’s decision, and more Beerschot players were eventually added to the field. Just like today, football reflects national, regional and local identities and pride.

black and white photograph of a football team

The impact of World War I

The 1920 Antwerp Olympics took place in a special historical context. World War I had ended just nine months before, and European countries were still struggling to rebuild their society after the destruction. Most people at that time could not afford tickets to see these Olympic games, since their spendings had to focus on food and reconstruction. Football - many fan’s favourite sport - was only the exception.

Like other cities in Belgium, Antwerp was badly damaged by the war. The decision that it would host the 1920 Games came fairly late, giving it less than a year for preparation. The rushed construction of the stadium, its incomplete state when the Games began, and debts that the organising committee had to bear... all testified to the difficulties resulting from the war.

However, World War I was also a reason why Antwerp had been chosen as the host city for the Olympics. This choice was to reward Belgium for its bravery and perseverance during the war. This was reflected in the architecture of the stadium, whose entrance featured a soldier holding a grenade, instead of the traditional discus thrower.

black and white photograph of the entrance to the Olympic stadium in Antwerp

Sports can act as a great way to learn more about history. Not only can we learn about legendary athletes and thrilling sports matches, they can also gain more knowledge of the economic, political and social life in the past.

This blog was inspired by a Source Collection on Historiana, which offers free historical content, ready to use learning activities, and innovative digital tools made by and for history educators across Europe. It is inspired by a detailed Sports Collection created by sports history students in Mechelen, Belgium, under the guidance of sports historian Jurryt van der Vooren. Read more about their project here.