A century ago, sports rises from ravages of war and disease

AP – The world in 1919 was hardly a place for fun and games.

A war like no other had ravaged Europe, killing untold millions and leaving the continent devastated. The Spanish Flu pandemic was waning but still wreaking its horrors, with some 50 million people dead worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States (US).

But hundreds of thousands of troops from various countries were still in Europe. The war was over but they were bored, with little to do until the time came to be shipped home.

And so was born an international competition like no other. The Inter-Allied Games would bring together nations weary of war in some traditional — and not so traditional — sports.

A century before the Tokyo Olympics were postponed as coronavirus spread across the earth, sports helped in the healing.

Italians played basketball for the first time, while Americans won medals by throwing grenades like the baseballs they tossed at home. There was golf and tug of war, and a black American was a big star, 17 years before Jesse Owens stared down Adolf Hitler in Berlin.

Fourteen countries competed on the outskirts of Paris, including a team from the Kingdom of Hejaz (now part of Saudi Arabia) that brought four camels used in the opening parade. Women were not invited to compete, but French tennis phenom Suzanne Lenglen — who would win her first Wimbledon title the next month — played demonstrations and beat every man she met on the other side of the net.

And it was all done in a stadium built in 90 days — mostly by American troops — and named after General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. The stadium not only sat 25,000 but had dressing rooms, showers and a special bungalow built for Pershing to host friends and dignitaries with a private entrance to the stadium.

“Here were these people who came together in the spirit of sport and really showed that it could be a healing property,” said Senior Curator of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri Doran Cart. “They wanted to continue the feeling of camaraderie with the allied nations and keep the troops occupied. Sports were seen really as an activity everybody could take part in.”

Silent films from the time show the parade of athletes circling the track on opening day, then jumping hurdles and running relays. A boxing ring was set up in the middle of the stadium, and the swimming was outdoors.

All the competitors were amateurs, as was the order of the day, and collected small medals as their prizes. Various countries also donated prizes, with the winner of the rifle shooting competition getting a statue from Pershing of an American doughboy in action during the war.

Though ostensibly an international competition, the games had a distinctly American flavour. They were the brainchild of Elwood S Brown, who headed athletics for both the American Army in Europe and the YMCA. Brown saw them as a way to keep troops out of trouble after the war was over while showing that America was as good on the playing field as it was on the battlefield.