By Pete Usher.
Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) winning boxing gold at the 1960 Olympics.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Olympics.
Picture courtesy IOC.
And, in the later stages of Parkinson's disease, carrying the Olympic flag at the 2012 Olympics.
Picture courtesy BBC.
The Olympic story of Muhammad Ali.
“All I’ve done is run fast. I don’t see why people should make much fuss about that.”
Fanny Blanker-Koen, 1948 quadruple gold medallist.
After the Nazi-dominated Berlin Olympics and the horrors of the Second World War, the Olympic movement restarted in a world that was very different from the one it had last been active in.
59 countries, 4104 athletes, 17 sports, 136 events.
Failed bids: Baltimore, Lausanne, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia.
Sweden and Yugoslavia compete in the 1948 Olympic football final at Wembley. Sweden won, 3-1.
Picture courtesy BBC.
The first Games after a globe-spanning conflict were very different in tone to the Berlin Games, over a decade before. The “Austerity Games” used existing facilities, and even the athletes were housed around the Wembley area, rather than in a specialised Olympic Village. Because rationing was still in place in Britain, competing athletes were allocated the same increased rations as dockworkers and miners, which was more than double the calorie content of the standard ration.
The Olympic Torch Relay travelled through Europe, although the Greek Civil War meant that the torch went fairly directly from Olympia to Corfu, and then onto Bari, from where it wended its way to Calais, then Dover and the south east of England. There were 1416 torchbearers for a journey of nearly 2000 miles.
Politics impacted attendance at the Games. The defeated Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Bulgaria were not invited to the Games as they were still under Allied military occupation. Israel was not invited as the IOC did not yet recognise the new state, which staved off a potential boycott by Arab states. Both sides were involved in the First Arab-Israeli war (1948). Of the Arab League, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria sent athletes, although only Egyptian athletes won any medals (2 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze). The Soviet Union did not compete, but did send observers in readiness for the 1952 Games.
Fourteen countries made their Olympic debut at the 1948 Games, and India, Pakistan, and The Philippines competed as fully independent nations for the first time.
The 1948 London Olympics were also the first to be televised, although this was only available to the London area, as the BBC only had the one transmitter at Alexandra Palace. However, with the right conditions, the signal could go further, and there was a report of a viewer in the Channel Islands being able to watch at least some of the coverage. Because the coverage was based around the events held at Wembley, there were a couple of firsts for the BBC – the semi-final between Sweden and Denmark was the first football match involving two non-UK teams to be shown on the BBC. It was also the first evening kick off to be televised.
London did have one other first, in the form of Marie Provazníková, a coach for the Czechoslovakian women’s gymnastic team. On 18th August, 1948, four days after the Games had closed, Marie refused to return home, citing a “lack of freedom” in her home country, where a Communist coup in February had led to the country being incorporated into the Soviet Bloc. Prior to the Games, Provazniková had led a demonstration in support of former president Edvard Benes. She would not be the last athlete to defect during an Olympics.
69 Countries; 4932 athletes; 17 sports; 149 events.
Failed Bids: Amsterdam, Athens, Chicago, Detroit, Lausanne, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Stockholm.
Bob Hoffman, USA weightlifting coach. Accused the Soviet Union of doping its athletes. As if drugs would ever be involved in top-level sports.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Helsinki had previously been the second host for the 1940 Games (originally awarded to Tokyo) prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Indeed, one of the strengths of Helsinki’s bid was the facilities that had been started for the cancelled 1940 Games.
Once again, geopolitics would impact the Games. The Cold War had begun, and the Soviet Union had joined the IOC in mid-1951, accepting the invitation to the Games later that year. The Soviets saw the Games as a propaganda opportunity and had invested a lot of time, coaching, and money (and, it would be fair to assume, drugs) in getting their athletes medal ready. Originally, it was planned to fly Soviet athletes to and from Leningrad every day. Another option was for them to stay in the Porkkalanniemi garrison, part of the Soviet Naval base leased from Finland. However, the Organising Committee required all competitors to stay in the Olympic Village, so a compromise was found whereby a second village was set up for Eastern Bloc athletes.
Meanwhile, the United States only took part after a report from their embassy in Helsinki assured them over the political situation. Nonetheless, the Organising Committee were concerned enough by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 that it took out insurance with Lloyds of London to cover the costs of any cancellation. However, the war had pretty much reached a stalemate by mid-1951.
The aftermath of the Chinese Civil War had an impact on the Games as well. The Republic of China (ROC), now confined to Taiwan, had been entering the Games from before WWII. In 1952, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) entered for the first time, although only one swimmer (Wu Chaunyu) arrived in time to compete. However, the PRC would not return to the Olympics until 1984. The decision to allow the PRC to attend led to the ROC withdrawing in protest.
Israeli competitors took part for the first time, with the independence of the country having been established, and recognised by the IOC.
Finally, athletes representing the defeated Axis powers were allowed to compete again. Japan and Bulgaria entered teams. For a divided Germany, the original plan was to enter a united team. However, the East Germans refused to participate, which meant the team identified as Germany only had West German members. An independent Saarland also entered for the only time (the protectorate would vote to join West Germany in 1955).
The Games themselves passed off without significant scandal or turmoil. There was some suspicion around Soviet doping – the US weightlifting coach Bob Hoffman was quoted as saying: “I know they’re taking that hormone stuff to increase their strength.”
The USA topped the medal table, with the Soviet Union coming second. Nevertheless, Pravda proclaimed that the Soviet Union had won the most medals, and amassed a higher ‘points score’ than any other nation. The stage was set for the Olympics to be a key battleground in the Cold War for decades to come.
72 countries; 3314 athletes; 17 sports; 151 events.
Failed bids: Buenos Aires, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Minneapolis, Montreal, Philadelphia, San Francisco.
Feelings were running high in the Hungary-USSR water polo match in 1956. Erwin Zádor leaving the pool after being punched by the Soviet player Valentin Prokopov.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The 1956 Olympics were the first to be held in the southern hemisphere, and were held at a different time of the year (November/December), to coincide with the Southern spring/summer. Other Olympics held in the southern hemisphere would not be shifted in the same way. There had been some concern that this shift in timing would cause some issues for northern hemisphere athletes, who would normally be resting at this time.
There was also concern about funding and building progress, and new IOC President Avery Brundage remained sceptical of Melbourne’s ability to deliver the Games. As late as April 1955, Brundage was still suggesting that Rome, slated to host the 1960 Games, was further ahead in preparation, and that the Games should be relocated. Nonetheless, everything was completed on time and the Games ran smoothly.
"Because of the strict quarantine rules for Australia, the equestrian events were held in Stockholm in June 1956. This meant that several nations managed to achieve the remarkable feat of both attending and boycotting the same Olympics. Spain, Switzerland, and The Netherlands took part in the equestrian events, but the Soviet response to the October 1956 Hungarian Revolution prompted these countries to boycott the Melbourne Games as a protest against the ongoing Soviet participation. Similarly, Egypt and Cambodia (along with Iraq and Lebanon) announced they would boycott the main Games in response to the Suez Crisis, and the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Additionally, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) once again maintained its boycott in the face of the continued participation of Taiwan as the Republic of China (ROC)."
With the Soviet Union established as a regular competitor, East German athletes competed as part of the unified German team for the first time.
And once the Games started, it was almost inevitable that the politics would start to impact on the Games. The flashpoint came in the pool, in the penultimate round of the finals of the men’s water polo tournament. The match was Hungary against the USSR, and the way the fixtures and results had worked out, the winners would be in pole position for the gold medal. Hungary were the defending Olympic champions, and the team had been at a mountain training camp when the Soviet Union had crushed the uprising just a few weeks previously. It is reported that the team did not know what had happened until after they arrived in Melbourne, having been moved to Czechoslovakia in the interim to ensure their safety. The Soviets had also been accused of spying on the Hungarians to gain an advantage.
Before the match began, Dezso Gyarmati, the Hungarian captain, refused to shake the hand of his Soviet counterpart. The crowd was dominated by ex-patriot Hungarians, who gave their team vociferous support. Water polo is a physical game, but this match was particularly violent. Within a minute, a Soviet player was sent to the penalty box, and soon after the Hungarians took the lead, Gyarmati scoring the opener. Hungary continued to dominate, and were leading 4-0 late in the final quarter of the match. With just over a minute to go, the referee blew for yet another foul. Erwin Zádor, a young player regarded as the future of Hungarian polo and who had scored two goals, looked to the referee to see what the offence was and the Soviet player Valentin Prokopov punched him, causing a gash above Zádor’s eye.
As Zádor left the pool, blood streaming down his face, the crowd was furious. Some spectators jumped onto the concourse surrounding the pool. Missiles were thrown at the Soviet players, while others were spat at. In order to prevent a riot, the police moved the crowd away, the match was abandoned, and the victory awarded to Hungary.
The image of a bloodied Zádor was shown across the world, and the game was dubbed the “Blood In The Water” match. Hungary went on to beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final round of games, and claimed the gold medal, although Zádor’s injury meant he could not play. After the Games, Zádor was one of a number of the Hungarian athletes and staff who defected to the West.
Not every event that crossed political divides was so violent. Olga Fikotová represented Czechoslovakia in the discus, and became her country’s only gold medallist, beating two Soviet athletes into second and third. During the Games she met American hammer thrower Harold Connolly, who also won gold. Despite language and political barriers, the couple fell in love. The romance was positively reported in western media, and Harold travelled to meet Olga at her home in Prague. Olga was granted a permit to marry a foreigner, and the couple tied the knot in 1958 and set up home in the USA. Olga wanted to continue to represent Czechoslovakia, but the Czech Olympic Committee refused, so Olga Connolly represented the USA in the next three Olympics, even carrying the flag in 1972.
There was one final first at the end of the Games. At the closing ceremony, the various teams were allowed to mingle, in a tradition that continues to this day.
83 nations; 5338 athletes; 17 sports; 150 events.
Failed bids: Brussels; Budapest; Detroit; Lausanne; Mexico City; Tokyo; Toronto.
Knud Jensen of Denmark collapsing during the 100km time trial.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Originally slated for the 1908 Games, Rome finally hosted the Olympics in 1960. Compared to previous Games, there was little political impact – China (the People’s Republic) maintained its boycott, and East & West Germany competed as a United German team. A team under the banner of “Antilles”, representing the West Indies Federation, had athletes from Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. However, there were no other boycotts, and no significant political incidents during the Games. That isn’t to say that the Games were not significant, though.
The Rome Games were the first Olympics to be broadcast in the United States (as well as Canada and Mexico). As this is before the satellite technology to share broadcasts was in place, events were recorded and edited on tape in Rome. These tapes were then sent to Paris, where they were re-recorded onto new tapes, which were then flown to the USA. On landing, the tapes were then fed from a mobile unit to the broadcasters. While this was not live, it still meant viewers in North America were seeing a lot of same day coverage of Olympic events for the first time, and improved coverage meant that new stars were born.
In the marathon (which was still only a men’s event), Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first black African Olympic champion. Not only did he win, but he ran the race barefoot. Bikila had trained barefoot, and his team-issued running shoes were causing him a lot of pain. In a race that was unsual for neither starting nor finishing in the Olympic stadium, Bikila won in what was a world record time, and remains the record for a barefoot marathon. Bikila would defend his Olympic title in 1964, although this time he would be wearing shoes.
Another athlete who came to global prominence at the 1960 Olympics was American sprinter Wilma Rudolph, who had contracted polio as a child. Despite the poorer health care available to African-Americans at the time, with the support of her family and with treatment in Nashville, Wilma was able to walk without a brace or orthopaedic shoe by the time she was twelve, and she began to compete in track at school, competing in the 1956 Melbourne Games when she was just 16. Before starting college at Tennessee State, she became pregnant and had her first child, before continuing with her training.
Her performance in Rome was nothing short of dominating, earning her many nicknames including “the fastest woman in history”, as she won the 100m, 200m, and anchored the 4x100m relay team to victory. During qualifying, she set Olympic records in the 200m and 4x100m. With the television coverage, Wilma was thrust into the public eye. She would go on to create a foundation for training young athletes, and to be an active voice in the Civil Rights movement.
A final athlete to mention is Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammed Ali, who won the light-heavyweight boxing gold medal. Dozens of books, articles, films, and TV programmes have covered the career and life of a man who is a true cultural icon. Famously, Ali said he threw his medal away after being refused service at a ‘whites only’ restaurant in the USA, although some sources say that while the service refusal was true, Ali simply lost the medal. Regardless, he was presented with a replacement at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Television had changed what it meant to win a gold medal. And the Games themselves were changing, due to two things – money and drugs.
The ‘true amateur’ ethos of the Games was falling away, both through the ‘jobs’ that Soviet athletes had to allow them to train full time, and also from commercial deals. The German sprinter, Armin Hary, who would go on to win the 100m, was paid by Puma and Adidas to wear their shoes.
In addition, in 1960 the Games got its first big drug scandal. Knud Jensen was a Danish cyclist, part of the 4-man team in the 100km time trial. The event was held in punishing 40°C heat, and one of Jensen’s teammates dropped out after the first lap of the course, meaning that the remaining three cyclists had to finish or they would not get a time, so the remaining riders kept going. Jensen then told his teammates that he was feeling dizzy, so they held him up and sprayed water in his face. As this apparently made him feel better, they then let go – Jensen collapsed and hit his head on the pavement, fracturing his skull. Despite medical attention, Jensen died without regaining consciousness.
Afterwards, the Danish team doctor told investigators that he had given some of the cyclists a vasodilator (nicotinyl alcohol). Although the official autopsy indicated Jensen had died of heatstroke, and that no drugs were found, rumours persist that traces were found of substances, including amphetamines. Regardless, the IOC set up a medical committee in 1961 and by the 1968 Games, mandatory drug testing was introduced, which would prove to have immediate results. As of 2023, Jensen remains the second, and last, athlete to die during Olympic competition.
93 nations; 5151 athletes; 19 sports; 163 events.
Failed bids: Brussels, Detroit, Toronto, Vienna.
The changing faces of South African sport.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Originally awarded the cancelled 1940 Games, Tokyo became the first Asian host of the Olympics in 1964. These were the first Olympics to be telecast live around the world using satellite technology, feeding to the USA via Syncom 3, then via Relay 1 to Europe. There were also some colour broadcasts for the first time, although these were confined to some sports and were only shown in Japan. Nonetheless, live coverage of the Olympics was now a regular thing.
Sixteen nations made their debut at the Games, and the United Germany team made its final appearance, with East and West Germany competing as separate teams for future Games.
Even with the ongoing Cold War, and subsequent medal rivalry between the USA and USSR, there was still space for other political matters to intervene. So far, 1964 is the only Olympic Games where one country has started the Games, but another has finished it. Northern Rhodesia was still part of the British Empire at the start of the Games, but the move towards independence was well underway. The final day of the Games coincided with Zambian independence, so the team carried a placard with the new nation’s name at the closing ceremony, the only team to do so.
1964 was the first Games that the IOC suspended South Africa for, as a direct result of the country’s policy of apartheid. In the run up to the 1960 Games, the South Africans had contended that the all-white composition of their team was coincidental and that no non-white athletes had reached the Olympic qualification standard. However, by 1962, a ban on South African athletes competing in mixed-race events inside or outside of South Africa had been announced by the South African Home Affairs Minister Jan de Klerk. This led to the IOC having to move its 1963 conference from Nairobi to Baden-Baden as the Kenyan Government refused a visa to the South African delegate. The South Africans offered to hold their Olympic trials abroad, but the events would still be segregated. The South African National Olympic Committee (SANOC) was asked to declare its opposition to the official government policy. When SANOC did not do so, South Africa were suspended from the Games, a ban that would remain in place until 1992.
Indonesia and North Korea were also not at the Games, mostly due to the aftermath of the 1962 Asian Games, which had been held in Jakarta. At the Asian Games, athletes from Israel (in solidarity with Muslim majority countries in the Middle East) and Taiwan (in solidarity with China) were not allowed entry into the country. Because of this, Indonesia was initially suspended from the IOC, and then subsequently banned from the 1964 Games.
Indonesia then set up the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1963, an alternative event with an ant-Western, anti-colonial alignment. The IOC responded by stating that any athletes taking part in GANEFO would be banned from competing in the Olympics.
The first GANEFO was held in Jakarta in late 1963. In total, 51 states participated from Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, including Arab Palestine. There was no involvement of any country’s official IOC, and some states – such as the USSR and Japan – sent athletes who were not up to Olympic level, ensuring that there was no opportunity for any ban to have an impact on performance in Tokyo. Although Indonesia was then reinstated to the IOC, both Indonesia and North Korea boycotted the 1964 Games.
A second GANEFO, almost entirely made up of Asian nations, was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 1966. A third was planned for Beijing in 1970, but the organisation collapsed after the Chinese dropped their plans for the event.
The Olympics movement headed towards the next Games in 1968 as a global movement, televised around the world, drug testing ready to be implemented, the losing powers of World War Two fully reintegrated, and with politics mostly confined to the rivalries and competition.
That’s going to continue, right?
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