Games in the time of turmoil

Given the tension among countries in 1956, Melbourne-based John Ian Wing suggested that during the Closing Ceremony, instead of the teams marching behind their National flags, the athletes from different nations walk into the arena together. This symbol of world unity became an Olympic tradition and is followed to this day.


Adolf Hitler at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was against Jews and blacks participating in the Games, but relented only after threats of boycott from other nation.   -  Getty images

Though conceived with the aim of promoting peace and tolerance, the Olympics were not impermeable to wars or clash of ideologies that has, in some cases, led to boycotts by nations. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that the Olympics could not be staged in 1940 and 1944. And the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the first Games to be held outside Europe and the United States, was blighted by boycotts over political issues.

The turmoil aside, there were some memorable performances on the track during the period, such as American sprinter Jesse Owen’s haul of four gold medals (1936 Berlin), Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s stupendous barefoot run to win the marathon gold (1960 Rome) and American Al Oerter’s remarkable comeback following an accident to win his second successive discus gold (1960 Rome) among others.

1928: Held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, from July 28 to August 12. Forty-six nations sent 2883 athletes, including 277 women, to compete in 109 events from 20 disciplines. The United States held on to its place atop the table with 22 gold, 18 silver and 16 bronze medals.

For the first time, the Olympic Flame was lit during the Games and the parade of the nations took place. The tradition started here, with the parade beginning with the Greece contingent and ending with the host nation; it continues to this day.

The practice of having a 16-day schedule for the Games began here, and for the first time, the term ‘Summer Olympic Games’ was used.

Paavo Nurmi won his ninth and final Olympic gold medal by claiming the 10,000m title and etched his name among the great cross-country runners of the world. Norway’s then crown prince Olav won the gold medal in sailing.

India won its first gold medal in hockey to start a streak of six successive titles in the Olympic Games.

Germany, banned from the Games in 1920 as one of the nations responsible for the First World War, returned to the Olympics and finished second in medals tally.

1932: Held in Los Angeles (USA) from July 30 to August 14, 1332 athletes, including 126 women, from 37 nations participated in the Games. Competitions were held in 117 events spread over 20 disciplines, and the United States continued to reign supreme with 41 gold, 32 silver and 30 bronze medals.

Held during the ‘Great Depression’, these Games attracted less than half the number of participants who took part in the previous edition.

For the first time, an Olympic Village was built and victory podium was used.

India swamped USA 24-1 in hockey, but the host still won the bronze since only three countries took part in the event.

Paavo Nurmi, suspended by the IAAF four months before the Games over his status as an amateur, could not attempt a 10th Olympic gold medal as a seven-member council rejected his entry in the 10000m just three days before the event.

Takeichi Nishi won Asia’s first and only equestrian medal when he claimed the gold in the individual jumping competition.

1936: Held in Berlin (Germany) between August 1 and 16, the Games saw 3963 athletes, including 331 women, from 49 countries taking part. A total of 129 events were held in 25 disciplines, and Germany displaced USA at the top of the table with 33 gold, 26 silver and 30 bronze medals. USA finished with 24 gold, 20 silver and 12 bronze medals.

It was the first Olympics to be televised, and the radio broadcast reached listeners in 41 countries. Over 70 hours of coverage reached special viewing rooms in Berlin and Potsdam. Since three different types of TV cameras were used, a blackout was a constant feature when switching from one type to another. Overall, the quality of transmission was poor.

In addition, for the first time, the Olympic Flame was moved from Greece to the Olympic venue by adopting a relay system.

It was only after threats of boycott by other nations that Adolf Hitler allowed Jews and Black people to participate in these Games.

American sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals, including one in long jump. Compatriot and competitor Luz Long offered Owens useful advice after he almost failed to qualify in long jump. Long was later awarded Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.

1940: Awarded to Tokyo, then to Helsinki, but cancelled due to World War II.

1944: Awarded to London but cancelled due to World War II.

1948: Held between July 29 and August 14 in London (United Kingdom), 4104 athletes, including 390 women, from 59 countries took part in competitions in 136 events (23 disciplines). The US was back on top with 38 gold, 27 silver and 19 bronze medals.

Germany and Japan, administered by Allied Military forces, were barred from taking part. The USSR, though invited, chose not to participate.

The first post-war Games were also known as the “Austerity Games”. Though Britain followed food, petrol and building rationing, it allowed athletes increased rations — 5467 calories a day instead of the stipulated 2600.

Athletes were housed in existing accommodation since building an Olympic Village was considered very expensive, given the post-war economy.

Olympic pictograms were used for the first time. It meant 20 pictograms — one for each discipline — plus one each for the arts competition, the Opening and Closing ceremonies. Incidentally, the arts competition was held for the last time in these Games.

1952: Held in Helsinki (Finland) from July 19 to August 3. The Games saw participants from 69 countries totalling 4955, including 519 women, competing in 149 events (23 disciplines). USA maintained its supremacy with a haul of 40 gold, 19 silver and 17 bronze medals.

The USSR, Israel and the newly formed People’s Republic of China made their Olympic debut. Germany claimed 24 medals but failed to win gold for the first time.

Emil Zatopek (Czechoslovakia) ran the marathon for the first time and won the gold, in addition to his 5000m and 10000m titles.

India won its fifth consecutive gold medal in hockey.

1956: Held from November 22 to December 8 in Melbourne (Australia), the Games saw 3314 athletes, including 376 women, from 72 countries taking part. The number of events went up to 151 spread over 23 disciplines. The Soviet Union topped the table for the first time, winning 37 gold, 29 silver and 32 bronze medals.

The Olympics — the first to be held outside Europe and the United States — was marred by withdrawals and boycotts. Since the Soviets crushed the ‘Hungarian Revolution’, their presence at the Games led to the withdrawal of Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Earlier, the Suez Canal crisis (Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal, and Israel, France and the United Kingdom responded by invading Egypt) forced Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt to pull out of the Games.

With only a fortnight to go for the Games, the People’s Republic of China boycotted in response to Republic of China being allowed to take part in the event.

Owing to Australia’s strict quarantine rules, equestrian events were held in Stockholm — five months before the Games in Melbourne. Given the tension among countries in 1956, Melbourne-based John Ian Wing suggested that during the Closing Ceremony, instead of the teams marching behind their National flags, the athletes from different nations walk into the arena together. This symbol of world unity became an Olympic tradition and is followed to this day.

India won its sixth successive Olympic gold medal in hockey.

1960: Held in Rome (Italy) from August 25 to September 11, the Games witnessed 5338 athletes, including 611 women, from 83 countries competing for the honours. Competitions were held in 150 events — one less than in Melbourne four years ago — from 23 disciplines. The Soviet Union retained its place at the top of the table with 43 gold, 29 silver and 31 bronze medals.

Pakistan ended India’s golden run in Olympic hockey by winning the gold.

Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won the light heavyweight boxing gold.

Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila ran barefoot to win the marathon. He was the first black African to win an Olympic gold.

America’s Jeff Farell won two swimming gold medals even after undergoing an emergency appendectomy just six days before the Games.

The US discus thrower, Al Oerter, the defending Olympic champion, returned after an automobile accident that nearly killed him in 1957 to retain the gold.

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