History of the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium

American swimmer and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii preparing to dive in his fourth Olympic meet. He won gold medals in the 100 meter freestyle event in 1912 and 1920, and was considered the "father of modern surfing.". (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)

The 1920 Olympic Games (also known as the VII Olympiad) closely followed the ending of World War I, being held from April 20 to September 12, 1920, in Antwerp, Belgium. The war had been devastating, with massive destruction and monstrous loss of life, leaving many countries unable to participate in the Olympic Games.

Still, the 1920 Olympics went on, seeing the first use of the iconic Olympic flag, the first time a representative athlete took the official Olympic oath, and the first time white doves (representing peace) were released.

Fast Facts: 1920 Olympics

  • Official Who Opened the Games: King Albert I of Belgium
  • Person Who Lit the Olympic Flame: (This was not a tradition until the 1928 Olympic Games)
  • Number of Athletes: 2,626 (65 women, 2,561 men)
  • Number of Countries: 29
  • Number of Events: 154

Missing Countries

The world had seen much bloodshed from World War I, which made many wonder whether the war's aggressors should be invited to the Olympic Games.

Ultimately, since the Olympic ideals stated that all countries should be allowed entrance into the Games, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Hungary were not forbidden to come, they were also not sent an invitation by the Organizing Committee. (These countries were again not invited to the 1924 Olympic Games)

In addition, the newly formed Soviet Union decided not to attend. (Athletes from the Soviet Union did not reappear at the Olympics until 1952.)

Unfinished Buildings

Since the war had ravaged throughout Europe, funding and materials for the Games was difficult to acquire. When the athletes arrived in Antwerp, construction had not been completed. Besides the stadium being unfinished, the athletes were housed in cramped quarters and slept on folding cots.

Extremely Low Attendance 

Though this year was the first that the official Olympic flag was flown, not many were there to see it. The number of spectators was so low—mainly because people could not afford tickets after the war—that Belgium lost over 600 million francs from hosting the Games.

Amazing Stories

On a more positive note, the 1920 Games was notable for the first appearance of Paavo Nurmi, one of the "Flying Finns." Nurmi was a runner who ran like a mechanical man - body erect, always at an even pace. Nurmi even carried a stopwatch with him as he ran so that he could evenly pace himself. Nurmi returned to run in the 1924 and the 1928 Olympic Games winning, in total, seven gold medals.

The Oldest Olympic Athlete

Although we normally think of Olympic athletes as young and strapping, the oldest Olympic athlete of all time was 72 years old. Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn had already participated in two Olympic Games (1908 and 1912) and had won five medals (including three gold) before appearing at the 1920 Olympics. 

At the 1920 Olympics, 72-year-old Swahn, sporting a long white beard, won a silver medal in the 100-meter, team, running deer double shots.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "History of the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/1920-olympics-in-antwerp-1779595. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, July 31). History of the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/1920-olympics-in-antwerp-1779595 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "History of the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/1920-olympics-in-antwerp-1779595 (accessed April 1, 2023).