Exactly 100 years ago, the Games of the VII Olympiad began on ice

Not long after the end of the First World War, the city of Antwerp hosted the Games of the VII Olympiad, a magnificent edition studded with achievements that have gone down in history. The Games began in the Flemish city on 20 April 1920 at the Palais de Glace with figure skating, returning to the Olympic programme after its debut at London 1908, and ice hockey, which was making its first appearance. Both events proved to be a huge success. 

Picture by 1920 / Comité International Olympique (CIO)

 In the early 20th century, at a time when winter sports on ice and snow were becoming increasingly popular in Europe and North America, Pierre de Coubertin was an early advocate for their inclusion on the Olympic programme, declaring that the Olympic Games were Games for all sports. As a result, the first Olympic figure skating competition was held at the Games of the IV Olympiad, in London in 1908, with four events (men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pairs and men’s special figures). The discipline was dropped from the programme, however, at Stockholm 1912.

But at the Olympic Congress in Paris in June 1914, where the reviver of the Games presented the Olympic flag, with its five interlocking rings, for the first time, ice hockey, skating and skiing became official Olympic sports which could optionally be included on the Games programme. A week devoted to speed skating, figure skating and Nordic skiing was scheduled to take place at the Games due to be held in Berlin in 1916. But this edition never took place, as the First World War interrupted the traditional four-year Games cycle.

Antwerp was selected as the host city of the Games of the VII Olympiad on 5 April 1919 at the 17th IOC Session in Lausanne, where Coubertin had established the organisation’s headquarters during the war. The IOC members wanted to pay tribute to the suffering endured by the Belgian people during the conflict. The Organising Committee included figure skating on the programme and, for the first time, ice hockey. Due to restrictions related to seasonal weather conditions in Europe, it was decided that these competitions would be staged in the Flemish regional capital several months earlier than the other sports, from 20 April 1920 at the Palais de Glace.  

The first of nine titles for Canada

The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) was founded in 1908 as the “International Ice Hockey League”, and it considers the Olympic tournament at Antwerp 1920 to be the first ice hockey world championships. Seven nations took part in this inaugural competition: Belgium, Canada, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and the USA. Teams competed with seven players at the time. The format chosen for the competition was the “Bergvall system”, whereby the gold medal was decided in an initial round that featured two knock-out matches after the quarter-finals; then a second round pitted the three teams beaten by the winner in the gold-medal round against each other to determine who won silver; and the two other teams then battled it out in a third round for the bronze medal.   

Canada, as would be the case at several subsequent Winter Games editions, was represented by the club that had won the national amateur championship, the Allan Cup: after a dominant 1919-1920 season, it was the Winnipeg Falcons who won the right to go to Antwerp. All the other teams competing at the Games were national squads.    

The Falcons went all out in their bid for the gold medal, winning the first of what is now a record haul of nine Olympic titles for Canada. In their first match, on 24 April 1920, they inflicted a 15-0 defeat on Czechoslovakia, with right winger Haldor Halderson bagging seven goals. Their second match, against major rivals the USA, was a tightly contested affair. The teams were level at half-time, before Frank Fredriksson opened the scoring for Canada. Konrad Johannesson then doubled the lead and, with goalkeeper Walter Byron successfully keeping a clean sheet, the Canadians sealed a 2-0 victory. The third match was the gold-medal decider against Sweden. Canada ran out 12-1 winners, with Fredrickson in particularly prolific form, hitting eight goals. 

Although the title had already been won, the competition continued. In the second round, the USA beat Sweden 7-0 on 27 April and then Czechoslovakia 16-0 the following day. Herbert Drury was in sparkling form in both matches and indeed throughout the tournament, finishing the competition as the top goalscorer with 14 as the USA took the silver medal. It was Czechoslovakia who ended up securing bronze, after beating Sweden 1-0 in the third round. Oddly, it was their only victory of the tournament, but it came when it mattered, in the decider for third place.     

The tournament proved to be a huge hit with the public. Ice hockey had shown its merits on the Olympic stage, and it would become a permanent fixture on the programme at the Winter Games from the first edition in 1924. The trailblazers themselves, meanwhile, Winnipeg Falcons players Byron, Fredrickson, Halderson, Johannesson, Robert Benson, Chris Fridfinnson, Magnus Goodman and Allan Woodman, were given a heroes’ welcome back home in Canada, where, 100 years on, their achievement continues to live long in the memory.   

Gillis Grafström opens his Olympic account in Antwerp

At London 1908, the first men’s title was won by a champion, Sweden’s Ulrich Salchow, whose name has gone down in history because of the jump that he invented. Gillis Grafström, another Swedish skater, also etched his name into the annals of the Olympic Games on 25 April at the Palais de Glace in Antwerp. Legend has it that he broke the blade of one of his skates just before the competition and went looking for a replacement pair in town. He managed to get his hands on an old pair of skates, with which he nevertheless put in a dazzling performance.  

Grafström is now known as one of the greatest compulsory figure specialists in the history of his sport. It was with this segment (which was dropped in the 1990s) that he skated his way into a healthy lead in the competition in Antwerp. The inventor of the “Grafström Pirouette” and the “flying sit spin”, and the first skater to make the axel a controlled jump, was also unanimously awarded first place by the judges in the free skate.    

He claimed victory ahead of two Norwegians, Andreas Krogh and Martin Stixrud. Grafström, renowned for his athletic abilities and his flair for skating to music, won Olympic gold again at the Chamonix 1924 and St Moritz 1928 Winter Games. To date, he is the only three-time Olympic champion in figure skating men’s singles and, having also won silver at Lake Placid 1932, the most decorated figure skater ever in the singles event.

In the women’s competition, French-born Magda Julin (née Mauroy) from Sweden competed while she was three months pregnant. She delivered solid performances in both segments and took the gold medal, even though she was not placed first by any of the judges; her succession of second-place finishes earned her the victory ahead of her less consistent rivals. Sweden secured a one-two finish, with Svea Norén winning silver, and the USA’s Theresa Weld took bronze. Weld was the only skater to successfully land a salchow and loop jump, but these were deemed inappropriate moves for women to be doing by several judges, who refused to award them scores.    

Finally, the pairs event was won comfortably by the firm favourites, Finland’s Walter and Ludowika Jakobsson, who were multiple world champions going into these Games. Their flawless performance saw them unanimously awarded first place by the judges. Norway’s Alexia and Yngvar Bryn were the runners-up, while Great Britain’s Phyllis Johnson and Basil Williams finished third. Johnson had already won the silver medal at London 1908 with another partner, James H. Johnson. All the Olympic champions took part in an exhibition gala on 29 April, where they performed their free skate routine once again, before the head of the Organising Committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour (the future IOC President), presented them with their respective medals.      

On the back of the success of these ice events, and also thanks to Pierre de Coubertin’s deeply held convictions about the “frank and pure sporting dignity” of winter sports, the IOC decided, at its 19th Session in early June 1921 in Lausanne, to organise an “International Winter Sports Week” in Chamonix, as part of the Games of the VIII Olympiad Paris 1924. The event in Chamonix, which was retroactively designated as the first Olympic Winter Games, launched the Olympic cycle for ice and snow sports to be held at tournaments that were separate from the Summer Games editions.