17 years before Jesse Owens had befuddled Adolf Hitler in Berlin who was keen on showing the world a resurgent Nazi Germany, there was another black American star that had stunned the world with his name echoing through the walls of the-then newly yet hastily constructed Pershing Stadium, just outside Paris. Solomon “Sol” Butler, an American athlete, had just set a national record in the long jump, although, he was never an athlete. Butler was among those Americans who were left stranded in Europe amid the armistice of World War I.
The first World War was over, which had left most parts of Europe devastated and killing millions. The Spanish Flu still had its after-effects. And amid those, thousands of Americans were left stranded in Europe, unable to go home and were weary of the war.
During the war, sports competitions became popular amongst soldiers and they embraced it enthusiastically, given that it was their only medium to escape the sufferings and horrors of war. Athletics and swimming were extremely popular among soldiers during their breaks while football was played on both sides of the front.
After the war, the passion continued with ample free time among those soldiers. Hence giving rise to the Inter-Allied Games in 1919, a multi-sport event held outside Paris, where about 1500 former soldiers of the Entente took part.
14 Allied nations had taken part in the competition with the crowd cheering as they sprinted, jumped or boxed. It even included a team from the Kingdom of Hejaz (now part of Saudi Arabia) who brought four camels for the opening parade. In a way, the games brought the war-affected nations together who showed signs of eagerness to move on.
The games were hosted in a stadium built in 90 days by mostly the American troops with a capacity of 25,000 and facilities like dressing rooms, showers and special bungalow for General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, after whom the venue was named, and his friends.
“Here were these people who came together in the spirit of sport and really showed that it could be a healing property,” Doran Cart, senior curator of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, was quoted by AP. “They wanted to continue the feeling of camaraderie with the allied nations and keep the troops occupied. Sports were seen really as an activity everybody could take part in.”
American Norman Ross bagged five golds in swimming while Butler became the talk of the town with his impressive show in the long jump.
The games was a one-off show. A year later, the first Olympics since World War I was held, in Antwerp, Belgium, with 2500 athletes competing across events. Soviet Russia did not participate while Germany was disallowed until 1928.
After the Second World War, there was another attempt to hold a similar, but “people were tired and they just wanted to go home,” Cart said. And the iconic Pershing Stadium is now a place for baseball games.