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Sport in Alternate History. Part 4: Sport and Politics (I)

By Pete Usher

Final sword match (foil) at the 1896 Olympics.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sports and politics don’t mix. Eric Heiden, US Olympic Speedskater

Although Eric Heiden is most commonly credited with the sentiment that sport and politics don’t mix, it is a common cry whenever any political matter (or perceived political matter) has even the most marginal interaction with sporting events. In the last few years, sports response to Black Lives Matter, sportswashing in both football and golf, sanctions against Russian teams and individuals after the invasion of Ukraine, exclusion of non-Covid-vaccinated contestants, and the award of hosting the FIFA World Cup to Qatar have all generated a lot of discussion, debate, and rancour amongst fans and commentators.

But this is not a new phenomenon. We can go back to March 6th, 1457, when James II of Scotland signed into law an Act banning golf and football , although that did not turn out to be very successful, as this had to be restated in 1471 (by James III) and 1491 (and James IV, ironically himself a golfer). In each case, the act is clear that the reason for this is that sports like golf (and football) should not be practiced, but the time should be spent on archery.

The modern history of sport is loaded with examples of how politics influences sport (or could do) which offers a number of Points of Divergence, or parallels in Alternate Timelines. I’m going to start by looking at the largest multi-sport event in the world – the Summer Olympic Games.

The Modern Olympic Games are, at their core, a revival of the Ancient Greek Olympics, which are traditionally said to have started in 776 BCE, and were held every four years. The games remained active even after the Roman conquest of Greece, and were held until at least 393 CE, a span of 1168 years, covering 293 iterations. At some point after that, the games ceased.

Although the importance of the games waxed and waned, they were still regarded as the most important of the Panhellenic games. The games themselves were political, with the Greek city states vying for dominance, and a martial truce (if not a political one) was in force for the duration of the games.

The revival of the term “Olympic” is documented from the 17th Century (the Cotswold Olympick Games), and various revivals took place in Revolutionary France (1796-1798), Sweden (1834-1843), and the United Kingdom (Much Wenlock, 1859 to present; Liverpool, 1862, 1867). But it was geopolitics that led to a revival of the Olympic games.

The Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire (1821-1829) led to the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Greece. One legacy of the successful revolution was the revival of aspects of Greek culture. An Olympic revival was first mentioned by the poet Panagitos Soutsos, in his poem Dialogue of the Dead, written in 1833. Then, in a 1835 letter to the Greek Interior Minister, he proposed a revival as part of making March 25th, the anniversary of the war’s outbreak, a national holiday. The national holiday was enacted but the games were not.

It took a successful businessman, Evangelos Zappas, part of the Greek diaspora in Romania, to change that. In 1856, having been inspired by Soutsos, he sent a letter to King Otto of Greece, not only suggesting a revival, but offering to fund it as well. Although there was initial resistance, there was no official response until Soutsos published a newspaper article making the letter known.

The upshot was that the Games would go ahead, combined with an Exposition – which rather foreshadowed future events. Games took place in 1859, 1870, 1875, and 1888-9. By 1870, the ancient Panathenaic Stadium had been restored, and housed training and events.

Both the Wenlock and revived Greek games inspired the rather more well known Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man largely regarded as responsible for the founding of the modern Olympic Games. In 1894, the newly founded International Olympic Committee (IOC) set the first two events up – 1896 in Athens, leveraging the legacy of Zappas and the facilities already in place, and 1900 in Paris.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, with a magnificent moustache.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So, an event revived out of national pride was set to grow into the multi-billion dollar quadrennial event that dominates the sporting world, and that would be the end of the impact of politics? Not really. It might be easier to find an Olympiad without political or social impact, potential or actual.

1896. Athens.

14* nations, 241 athletes (all men), 9 sports, 43 events.

100 m final, 1896 Olympics.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The 1896 Olympics could have failed before it even started. Despite the IOC’s decision being well received in Greece, with Crown Prince Constantine taking the presidency of the organising committee, the Greek state was less convinced, with Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis and the Zappas Olympic Committee (still using bequests from Zappas to plan further Games) unconvinced that it was practical. With a report in later 1894 estimating that the cost would be three times more than the original estimate (a theme that plagues the Olympics even now), it took the intervention of Constantine to ensure that the games went ahead, and the winner of the very first event was James Connolly of America, who won the Triple Jump.

And even though only 14 nations took part, often with entrants who just happened to be in Greece at the time, or whose participation is debated (Chile had one athlete, whose entry is disputed as he won no medals; Bulgaria had one Swiss national who was living in Bulgaria at the time), there could have been fewer. Although the Franco-Prussian War had concluded nearly a quarter of a century before, it clearly still rankled. French enthusiasm for the Games was lessened because French nationalists were annoyed by the participation of German athletes. Rumours spread that Coubertin had sworn to prevent German participation, which led to Germany threatening not to send any athletes, and it took a letter of denial from Coubertin to the Kaiser to resolve the matter.

The Games were seen as a great success, but this was slightly tarnised by a disagreement between Coubertin and the Greeks. Coubertin (and therefore the IOC) wanted the Games to move around the world, a different host every four years, while the Greeks wanted the Games to have a permanent home, as the ancient Games had had. Eventually the peripatetic hosting model won out, but it could easily have been different.

1900, Paris.

26* nations, 1226 athletes, 19 sports, 95 events.

Women's golf, 1900 Olympics. The first Games ever to allow female competitors.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The second Olympic Games was nearly a victim of internal as opposed to external politics. The Games were held as part of the 1900 Paris Exposition (also called the Exposition Universelle, or The World’s Fair). Coubertin thought that this would help increase awareness of the Games, but his view of what the games should be did not coincide with those of Alfred Picard, the Exposition director. Coubertin’s plans for new stadia, reminiscent of the ancient Greek Olympia, were never acted on. Nevertheless, a committee to organise the Games was formed, and organise they did. A provisional programme was drawn up, and competitors and organisations from Great Britain and Ireland, the USA, Russia, and Australia confirmed their desire to compete. And then things got messy.

The Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA) announced it would have sole right to any organised sport during the Exposition. The USFSA had already organised the first French rugby union championship, and organised the first recognised French football championship. Surprisingly, Baron de Coubertin was the secretary-general of the USFSA at the time, alongside his involvement with the Olympic movement. However, rather than face a political battle, the head of the organising committee, Viscount Charles de la Rochefoucald, stepped down, and Coubertin was urged to step aside from the Games as well, which he did.

A new committee was set up with Daniel Mérillon, head of the French Shooting Association, installed as president by Picard. The new committee then issued a new programme, which was entirely different from the original one, to the point where previously confirmed entrants withdrew as the plans had changed so much. The events themselves were not referred to as Olympics, but by the phrase: “Concours internationaux d’exercises physiques et de sport” in the official Exposition report, and the reporting in the media used a wide range of names.

The upshot was that the Games were poorly coordinated, with many competitors unaware that they were even in the Olympics, and the Games sprawled over five months. Indeed, it was only in 2021 that the IOC updated the official record to the current 26 nations and 1226 athletes. It was the first Games to allow female competitors. Complete records of “The Farcical Games” do not exist.

1904. St Louis.

12 nations, 651 athletes, 16 sports, 95 events.

Start of the one mile 1904 Olympic Championship swimming race. The building for the World Fair can be seen in the background.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Both international and internal politics impacted the 1904 Games. The Games were originally awarded to Chicago, but internal politics led to a move. In 1899, plans had started for an Exposition to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, which had been concluded in 1803. Although the Exposition (also known as the St Louis World’s Fair) was initially planned to take place in 1903, it was delayed until 1904 to allow for more participation by both US states and other countries. The St Louis organisers threatened to hold a rival athletics competition, which threatened to overshadow the Chicago Olympics. Faced with this, the IOC, via Coubertin, moved the Games to St Louis.

In the wider world, the Russo-Japanese war had started in February 1904, and this discouraged international travel. Along with the relative inaccessibility of St Louis, this discouraged participation from beyond North America. Indeed, only a fraction over 10% of the athletes were not American, Canadian, or Cuban; 80% of the overall field was American. This very neatly coincided with both the gold medals won (76 of 97, 78%) and total medals (231 of 280, 82%). The St Louis Games were notable for being the first modern Games to award gold, silver and bronze medals.

As in 1900, the Games were somewhat overshadowed by the World’s Fair, and were a long, drawn out affair – starting on July 1 and not officially concluding until November 23. Overall, the Olympic movement was in trouble, with many countries who might attend the next games in 1908 having had an 8 year gap, dampening enthusiasm and interest. Perhaps fortunately, the impact of the original Games would provide some much needed impetus.

1906*. Athens (Intercalated Games)

20 nations, 854 athletes, 12 sports, 78 events.

Part of the fallout from the 1896 Games was the disagreement between the IOC and the Greek organisers about the venue for future editions. The Greeks wanted the Games to have a permanent home, as the Ancient Games had had, but Coubertin and the International Committee wanted the event to move around the globe. Although the IOC won the argument, and the Games have moved around the globe since, a compromise was brokered after the poorly received 1900 Games, where Greece would host a Games every four years, offset by two years from the standard Olympic cycle. These Intercalated Games would have a permanent home. The compromise was reached in 1901, which meant that logistics made it infeasible to stage the event in 1902. As a result, the Second Athens Games were scheduled for the summer of 1906, with the full support of the IOC.

The Games were a success – they were completed in a short period of time (less than two weeks from opening to closing ceremony) and the number of competitors and nations was increased from St Louis. Egypt was the only competing country that did not win a medal.

The Games were not as politically impacted as the previous editions, but there was one incident, the first political protest at an Olympics. Only athletes nominated by National Olympic Committees (NOC) were eligible for the Games, which was a late rule change. At the time, Ireland did not have an NOC, so when three athletes nominated by the IAAA and GAA (Peter O’Connor, Con Leahy, and John Daly) registered, they were ‘claimed’ by the British Olympic Committee. When O’Connor won silver in the long jump competition, the British flag was raised in the medal ceremony. O’Connor protested by scaling the flagpole and waving an Irish tricolour, while Leahy guarded the pole.

Unfortunately, the 1906 Intercalated Games were to be the only edition. The planned 1910 Games were seen as too close to the next main Games in 1908 (as it turned out in London); 1914 was nixed by the tensions ahead of World War I; 1918 by the last part of that war. 1922 would have been 16 years later, so all the momentum was lost.

The legacy of the 1906 event is mixed. It was the first event to have the now traditional parade as part of the opening ceremony. It clearly showed the advantage of having a short, focused programme, rather than the sprawling events of 1900 and 1904. It had what is thought to be the first Olympic closing ceremony. But it is not recognised as an official Olympic Games by the IOC – the medals and records are not counted in official totals.

A world where the Olympics were every two years would be a very different one, just from a sporting perspective.

1908. London.

22 nations, 2008 athletes, 22 sports, 110 events.

1908 Opening Ceremony. British team marching in front of a packed stadium.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The 1908 Olympics were less impacted by geopolitics than they were by geophysics. The Games had originally been awarded to Rome. However, on April 5th, 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted. The eruption killed more than 100 people and caused significant damage to Naples and the surrounding area. The Italian Government wanted to focus on this rather than the Olympics, and asked to step back. London was selected on short notice. Rome would finally host the Olympics in 1960.

The momentum from 1906 carried on, with the 1908 Games being the most international so far. The innovations from previous games (medals, opening ceremony parade) were retained. Although the opening and closing ceremony were on a similarly short timeline as 1906 (July 13th for the opening parade, July 25th for the closing) this is technically the longest Olympics of all. This is partly because some events started in late April (Rackets and Indoor Tennis), while a few events (Football, Rugby, Hockey, Lacrosse, and the first appearance of Figure Skating) were not held until October, finishing at the end of that month. Nevertheless, the Games were seen as a success.

It was not without political impact, however. Finland made its first appearance at the Games (if you don’t count 1906). However, as Finland was part of the Russian Empire, the Finnish athletes were expected to march under the Russian flag. As it was, many chose to march under no flag at all. Likewise, Irish athletes were once again expected to compete under the British flag. Fearing a backlash, the British team was renamed as Great Britain & Ireland, and in two events, polo and hockey, Ireland was entered as a separate team, going on to claim silver medals in both events.

When it came to the parade, the USA flag bearer, shot-putter Ralph Rose, refused to dip the Stars and Stripes as the team passed the Royal Box, where Edward VII was. It is fair to say that there were a lot of disputes between British and American interpretation of rules, as many events did not yet have global standard rule-sets.

Finally, the Swedish flag was not displayed above White City Stadium, so the Swedes did not take part in the opening ceremony. It would not be the last time there was a flag controversy at the Olympics.

The main thing was that the modern Olympic Games had survived – the short, compressed format and public engagement, an increased global reach, and high attendance at the events meant that the spectre of 1900 and 1904 had been banished. Would Rome 1908 have been similar? Probably, but perhaps not.

Failed Bids: Milan, Berlin.

1912. Stockholm.

28 nations, 2406 athletes, 14 sports, 102 events.

US Olympic shooting team, 1912. They'll need those skills in a few years.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast to the previous Games, the 1912 Games were devoid of political controversy, although there was some Olympic politcking in the award of the Games. Berlin was also interested in hosting the Games, having previously been a candidate for the 1908 version. A deal was struck whereby Stockholm would be supported for 1912, and Berlin for 1916. Stockholm was therefore the only candidate city for the 1912 bid.

1916. Berlin (cancelled)

We had this instead of the 1916 Olympics. French military cemetery in Verdun.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As per the deal for the 1912 Games, Berlin was awarded the 1916 Games. By June 1914, plans were well advanced and the Berlin Organising Committee revealed a programme of events at the 6th Olympic Congress. Winter sports were to be included, and the bulk of events would be held in early July. However, as the Congress came to a close, on June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and within a few weeks the Great War had engulfed Europe.

Even then, the organisers expected the war to be over before the 1916 Games, and plans and works continued. In March 1915, the Germans told the IOC that the Games were still going ahead, but only German allies and neutral nations would be invited.

Although a number of US cities made late bids to host the Games, the IOC announced that the Games would not be removed from Berlin, but on March 19th, Coubertin (still head of the IOC) announced that the Games were not going ahead. Berlin would finally go on to host the Games in 1936.

Failed bids: Alexandria, Amsterdam, Brussels, Budapest, Cleveland.

1920. Antwerp.

29 nations, 2626 athletes, 22 sports, 156 events.

Start of the 5000 m final, 1920 Olympics.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The first Olympics after the First World War had originally been bid for by Belgium in 1912, although no specific city was selected until 1913, when Antwerp was confirmed as the centre of the Belgian bid. The 1920 Games were discussed at the 6th Olympic Congree in 1914, where Berlin had shared their programme for 1916, and no decision on 1920 was made, although there is believed to have been a slight preference for Budapest. The outbreak of war delayed any decision.

In 1915, the city of Lyon prepared a bid, but after discussion, the French put their support behind Antwerp. This meant Amsterdam was unlikely to be successful, and Budapest, as an enemy city, was not going to win. The ongoing war meant that a final decision was not made, and interest was also shown by Cleveland, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Havana, as the Americas remained untouched by the conflict.

Once the Armistice has been signed, a decision was made to proceed with the Games, and the event was formally awarded to Antwerp in April 1919. The short preparation time and the need for reconstruction after the War meant that Games were quite austere – the athlete’s village was crowded and used folding cots. Despite this, things were organised quickly and effectively. The Olympic Stadium, for example, was inaugurated less than 11 months after the foundation stone was laid. The Antwerp Olympics were the first to feature both the Olympic Oath and the Olympic Flag, the latter a symbol of unity with the famous five rings representing the continents. This was also the last ‘summer’ Games to feature winter sports (in this case Ice Hockey and Ice Skating). From 1924, a separate Winter Olympics would be held.

First appearance, 1920 Olympics.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Politics impacted the countries attending the Games: the defeated Central Powers (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) were not invited, and the ongoing Polish-Soviet war meant those two nations did not send teams either. As a result, there was a net increase of just one nation competing, with six to eight new teams, depending on if you count Czechoslovakia as a successor to Bohemia, and New Zealand as part of the previous Australasia teams. Still, there were nations from six continents (the Olympic flag counts North and South America as one continent), and the Games were re-established.

To be continued... There's more politics to come.

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