Planning for Olympics in a pandemic has echoes of 1920 Games

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DÜSSELDORF, Germany — Olympic athletes competing for gold medals in a world reeling from a pandemic? It won’t be the first time.

A century before the Tokyo Games were postponed because of coronavirus, the Olympics were held in the Belgian city of Antwerp following the Spanish flu pandemic.

The 1920 Games were meant to symbolize a recovery from World War I, not a health crisis. Belgium, a battleground for the opposing powers, was the host country and the five rings of the Olympic Flag flew at an opening ceremony for the first time.

“They released doves, although these were not necessarily doves of peace, because these were doves which had served in the war and they were released by military men,” Roland Renson, a Belgian sports historian, told The Associated Press.

Both the pandemic and the war were epitomized by Aileen Riggin, a 14-year-old American diver who won a gold medal.

Riggin first took up competitive swimming after becoming sick with the Spanish flu, and she went on a tour of a World War I battlefield after winning gold on the springboard. She took a German helmet and some bullets as souvenirs, but got a shock when she examined one of the many boots lying in the churned-up mud.

“I picked up one that had a foot in it, so I dropped it in a hurry,” she recalled later.

The coronavirus has blocked Antwerp’s attempt to mark the centenary. A ceremony in March due to feature the King of Belgium and the president of the International Olympic Committee was canceled.

Despite taking place in the wake of a major war, reconciliation at the Antwerp Olympics had its limits. Germany and its wartime allies didn’t compete, nor did Bolshevik-controlled Russia. They weren’t officially banned, simply not invited. One Swedish figure skater (then in the Summer Olympics before the Winter Games started in 1924) was reportedly forbidden from performing to German music.

There were financial problems, too. Ingenious shortcuts like making a pool from a ditch in the city fortifications — Riggin and other athletes hated the cold, dark water — helped keep costs down, but the Belgian organizing committee still lost money and left behind unpaid debt.

“Antwerp has never cherished its Olympic heritage because of the debacle,” Renson said.

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 is estimated to cost Japan at least $2 billion.

The Spanish flu swept around the world from 1918 until early 1920, killing an estimated 50 million people, though war and poverty made a precise count impossible.

Older people make up a large share of the coronavirus death toll, but the Spanish flu was a particular threat to younger people. That included the soldiers gathered in often squalid conditions as WWI ended. The flu-infected troops in France and Belgium and then hitched a ride when they were demobilized. Parties to welcome soldiers home became infection hot spots.

Seven Olympic athletes are believed to have died from the Spanish flu, according to records provided by Olympic historian and physician Bill Mallon.

They include three WWI veterans as well as Martin Sheridan, a New York policeman who was born in Ireland and won gold medals for the United States in the discus and shot put over multiple early Olympics.

“This flag dips to no earthly king,” Sheridan reportedly said at the 1908 London Olympics when the U.S. team refused to lower its flag in a sign of respect to the British royal family. The comment was first published decades later and its veracity is disputed, but the United States continues the tradition of not dipping the flag at Olympic ceremonies.

Mallon and other researchers have identified 48 cases of COVID-19 among Olympians, with 19 deaths attributed to the disease.

For Belgium, the Spanish flu was another setback to rebuilding after the devastation of WWI. However, Renson said he has not found any direct impact from the pandemic on Olympic preparations.

The Antwerp Olympics were meant to mark new beginnings, but many traditions from before the war remained.

Athletes had to be amateurs, but that rule often meant mediocre competitions between wealthy gentlemen. Working-class people were alienated and many events were poorly attended, with the exception of soccer.

Belgians loved cycling but snubbed the Olympic races for more exciting professional events, Renson said. Some sailing classes had only one entry, meaning the crew simply had to finish to earn a gold medal.

Times were changing, though. It was the Olympic debut for Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, whose scientific approach to training and race strategy helped him to nine gold medals in his career, including three in Antwerp. Sports were increasingly a full-time occupation, even if that meant bending the rules on amateurism.

“The American rowing team, these were all Navy men and they trained every day. So you can ask questions whether they were amateurs or not,” Renson said. “Amateurism was a means to exclude working-class people, simple as that. Paavo Nurmi was not a saint. He was a pure professional.”

The 1920 Olympics excluded many women, too. Two years later, female athletes staged their own breakaway Women’s Olympic Games. That eventually forced the International Olympic Committee to move closer to gender equality.

Many Olympic champions from 1920 are little remembered today, but the games were a symbolic resurrection of sports in adversity.

“In a minimum of time, they organized the games, but they were relatively improvised games,” Renson said. “They had to do it with the means they had at their disposal, and they were at that time far from abundant in a city so heavily hit by war.”

MORE: Original drawing of Olympic Rings sells for more than $200,000

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Elena Fanchini, an Italian Alpine skier whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini, the 2005 World downhill silver medalist at age 19, passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in the combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her World Cup win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won her world downhill silver medal in Italy in 2005, exactly one month after her World Cup debut, an astonishing breakout.

Ten months later, she won a World Cup downhill in Canada with “Ciao Mamma” scribbled on face tape to guard against 1-degree temperatures. She was 20. Nobody younger than 21 has won a World Cup downhill since. Her second and final World Cup win, also a downhill, came more than nine years later.

In between her two World Cup wins, Fanchini raced at three Olympics with a best finish of 12th in the downhill in 2014. She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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