Charlie Paddock, the Revolt of the Matoika and the1920 Games in Antwerp

American, Charles Paddock, finishes in front of teammate Morris Kirksey (left) and Brit (Harry Edward) (right).
American, Charles Paddock, finishes in front of teammate Morris Kirksey (left) and Brit (Harry Edward) (right).

Under the newly created, now omnipresent Five-Ring Olympic flag, a lieutenant in the US Marines, who served in WWI, was crowned the fastest man in the world. Charley Paddock from Gainesville, Texas edged out teammate, Morris Kirksey in an Olympic record of 10.6 seconds.

As you can see in the above photo finish, Paddock completed the race in his unique style – leaping over the finish line. He took home another gold when he and his American teammates set a world record in the men’s 4X100 relay, handily beating France. Amazingly, you can see Paddock’s victory run on film as well!

World War I ended on November 11, 1918, a deadly conflict that ended the lives of over 16 million combatants and civilians. In the wake of the so-called “Great War”, the International Olympic Committee decided that the Olympic Games should continue its cycle in 1920. While Hungary was originally the first choice, it was one of the nations on the losing side of the war, along with Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Turkey, so was not even going to be invited.

Not that the nations on the winning side in Europe were in great shape. The IOC decided to hold the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, which according to the book “A Picture History of the Olympics” by James Coote, didn’t have much of a sporting culture or sports facilities appropriate for the Games. And yet, the Games must go on, and in Antwerp, they did.

For Paddock and the Americans, getting to Antwerp must have felt like a flashback of the war. To get to Europe, the American team boarded a ship called Princess Matoika. As it served to bring back the war dead from Europe, it was known as the “death ship”. While the team was told to expect “reasonable accommodation” according to Coote, the conditions were so below expectations that vigorous protests ensued, and continued when the team landed in Antwerp.

The Princess Matoika on the Atlantic in 1917
The Princess Matoika on the Atlantic in 1917

“The living quarters were former barracks, and when Dan Ahearne, he veteran triple jumper, was suspended for refusing to live in official quarters, the entire US team threatened to boycott the Games. These incidents undoubtedly reflected on the American results, and they had far fewer successes than had been expected.”