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29 June 2020, 7am

A deadly pandemic killed millions in the lead up to the 1920 Olympics

War games

by Hugh Jones

‘Unprecedented’ has become perhaps the world’s most overused word since the coronavirus struck – but there was a precedent.

One hundred years ago, in the build-up to the 1920 Olympic Games, a virus emerged that at first appeared as just a more contagious and virulent form of the usual annual flu bugs. An early reported case was in March 1918 when an American army cook in Kansas was afflicted by a 40ºC fever. It spread rapidly through the camp and from there, through troop deployments, to Britain and France. In the next three months three-quarters of the French army and half of the British became infected. That was the first wave, in which the death rate seemed no more than that of a seasonal flu.

The 1916 Games were to have been held in Berlin but wartime hostilities led to Germany’s exclusion from the post-war Olympic Games (until 1928). A Belgian Olympic organising committee had been formed as early as August 1913 which proposed Antwerp as the host city. IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin made a site inspection in September and in June 1914 the 6th IOC Congress in Paris considered a 109-page bid document. Proposals from Amsterdam, Budapest and Rome were also discussed but no decision was made.

The ‘Great War’ inflicted such damage on the leading Olympic nations that there was some uncertainty whether the Games would be held but immediately after the war ended the IOC gave Antwerp first refusal to host the Games. In March 1919 the Belgian Olympic Committee accepted and on 5 April 1919 Antwerp was officially declared the host city for the games of the VIIth Olympiad*.

Wartime censorship had mostly kept the lid on news of the virus that had swept through the allied armies but as neutrals Spanish journalists could report more freely and for that reason it became known as ‘Spanish flu’. Infections receded over the summer but when the virus mutated it returned with a vengeance, now able to kill otherwise healthy adults within 24 hours of them showing symptoms.

From late August 1918 troop deployments again spread the disease – now a global pandemic – and the death toll escalated in the autumn: 195,000 Americans died in October alone. This lethal second wave abated by December but from January 1919 there came yet a third wave, migrating back to Europe and the US from Australia. Mortality rates were just as high but, now that the war was over, the conditions that had allowed the disease to spread so easily no longer existed and the death toll was consequently much lower.

The third wave had run its course by the summer of 1919 by which time it is estimated that 500 million people had been infected and upwards of 17 million had died. Yet despite the huge death toll there was no question of the 1920 Olympic Games being cancelled. Preparations went on at full speed with construction of the new Olympic Stadium started in July 1919 and completed on 23 May 1920.

Only the French Olympic Committee demurred, arguing that: “The Olympic Games should not be held before 1921 as there would not be sufficient time for the Allied countries which have supported, and are still supporting, the burdens of the war to prepare adequately for a meeting in 1920”. There was no mention of the Spanish flu pandemic.

A century ago people lived with the impact of infectious diseases every day of their lives to a far greater extent than we do today. The idea of suspending major international sporting events attracting thousands of spectators was never seriously considered. An Inter-Allied Games was held in Paris from 22 June–6 July 1919 attended by 1500 athletes from 18 nations.

The protracted 1920 Olympic Games opened in Antwerp on 20 April and lasted until 12 September with 29 athletics events held between 15–23 August. The number of athletes exceeded those who had attended the previous Games in Stockholm in 1912.

On Sunday 22 August in cool, damp conditions 48 runners started the Marathon in the Beerschot Stadium. The race began and ended with 1.5 laps of the track. The weather was cool and damp. South Africa’s Chris Gitsham and Belgium’s Auguste Broos led through the first 3km. Approaching halfway the lead pack consisted of Gitsham, Broos, Hannes Kolehmainen, and Italy’s Ettore Blasi, with Estonia’s Juri Lossmann and the Finn, Juho Tuomikoski, close behind. Kolehmainen then took over the lead and he and Gitsham ran together for almost 15km. Gitsham withdrew with leg problems at 37km leaving Kolehmainen, who had won gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and cross-country at the last Olympic Games, with what looked like it would be an easy victory. But Lossmann was closing fast and finished only 13 seconds behind Kolehmainen as they both ran faster than the previous world record. Kohlemainen’s new world record figures were 2:32:35.8. His older brother Tatu finished 10th in 2:44:02. Of the 35 finishers 24 ran under three hours.

Innovations at the VIII Olympiad included some that can be seen as a reaction to the suffering of the previous six years: the five-ring Olympic flag, signifying the universality of the Olympic Games, was flown for the first time; the Olympic oath was taken for the first time by an athlete on behalf of all competitors; and for the first time doves were released as a symbol of peace.

The local Olympic Organising Committee went bankrupt during the Games and no official report was ever produced. The documents of the Games were archived at the Belgium Olympic Committee headquarters in Brussels and a report was produced in 1957 by the Belgium Olympic Committee.

[* “Olympiads” are counted as the 4-year intervals since Olympic foundation, so the VI Olympiad was in 1916 even though the Olympic Games were not held. Tokyo is the Games of the XXXII Olympiad but will be only the 29th Modern Olympic Games.]

Including material from Bob Phillips, Track Stats


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