Belgium put in their bid for the 1920 Olympics in 1912. Little did they know that Archduke Ferdinand would be assassinated in 1914, sparking World War I. Germany overran Belgium, clearly overriding any planning for the Olympics. In fact, the Olympics in 1916 were cancelled.
But when the war ended in 1919, Antwerp was selected to hold the 1920 Summer Games.
Over 9 million soldiers died in World War I. Around 7 million civilians died as a result of the war. The invasion of Belgium by Germany is often called “The Rape of Belgium“, during which over 27,000 Belgians were killed by German soldiers, an additional 62,000 died of hunger or due to lack of shelter, and one and a half million Belgians fled the country.
Aileen Riggin was part of the first ever US women’s team in the Olympics, which competed at the 1920 Antwerp Games. She got to Belgian in the SS Princess Matoika, which was known as the Death Ship as it had transported war dead from Europe to the US. In the book, Tales of Gold, Riggin shared memories that showed the war was still very much in the minds of people living and competing in Antwerp. As Riggin was a 14-year-old girl at the time, I simply cannot imagine how she felt.
“When we were not training, we went on several trips around Antwerp in our truck, and one was to the battlefields. The mud was so deep that we could not walk, so we stopped along the line and bought some wooden shoes and learned how to walk in them. They were not too comfortable but they did protect our feet from the mud. I do not know how we happened to be allowed on the battlefields, because they had not yet been cleared.”
“In places they were still the way they were in 1918, when the Armistice was declared. We even picked up shells and such things and brought them home as souvenirs. There were trenches and pillboxes and things like that scattered about the fields, and we looked into some of them, and they were deep in water. There were some German helmets lying on the field, and we brought some home with us. I picked up a boot and dropped it very hurriedly when I saw that it still had remains of a human foot inside. It was a weird experience, and we were glad to leave. It must have taken them another year to clear off the battlefields from the way we saw them. They were in shambles.”
How a war devastated country could take on an international event while still in a “shambles” is hard to imagine. But the Belgian authorities did what they could, improvising in some ways. For example, the diving competition was held in a large ditch at the base of an embankment, created as a form of protection if a war were to come to Belgium. Riggin, who competed as a diver, describes the venue.
“On our second day in Antwerp an army truck came to drive us to the stadium where we were to swim. Words fail me in describing our first view of this place. I had never seen anything like it. it was just a ditch. I believe they had had rowing races there at one time. There were boardwalks around the pool – I have to call it a pool – to mark the ends. In the center were the diving board and the diving platform. On one side there was a hill, and on this were placed bleachers where some 10,000 persons could sit. This was, of course, all outdoors, and we heard later that this had been the city moat. It was a ditch that had been dug with an embankment on one side to be a protection in case of war.”
Despite the very black and very cold water of the moat, Riggin went on to take gold in the 3-meter springboard, becoming America’s youngest gold medalist at that time.