The packed stadium roared as Solomon “Sol” Butler, an American athlete cleared the high jump bar. He had just set a U.S. long jump record. But Butler wasn’t just there as an athlete, and the world-class sporting competition wasn’t the Olympics. It was the Inter-Allied Games of 1919, a sporting event designed to deal with an embarrassing lack of planning that had stranded thousands of U.S. soldiers in Europe during the uneasy armistice of World War I.
It was a sporting event the likes of which no one had ever seen, a competition that brought together soldiers from 14 Allied nations and showed off their best and brightest not as combatants, but as athletes. At the games, spectators cheered for men of all stripes as they ran, boxed and even played leapfrog.
But even though they brought Allied soldiers together, the Inter-Allied Games exposed divisions between countries busy hashing out the terms of an uneasy peace. And though they riveted a world eager to move on from a gruesome war, they were largely forgotten in the years that followed.
The competition was the result of the surprise end of World War I, a conflict that had once seemed endless. Both sides were battered and ready for an end to the hostilities, and after unexpectedly requesting an armistice, Germany agreed to harsh terms in exchange for stopping the fight.
The sudden ceasefire put the United States in an awkward situation. It had planned for the conflict to take much longer, and mobilized a huge war effort in its service. Though it needed to send overseas soldiers home, doing so was a “logistical nightmare,” writes historian Gearóid Barry. An influenza epidemic was raging at home, and overseas troops had to wait for ships to become available.
As families called for the troops to come home, officials worried about insurrection among troops who were eager to leave. Soon it became clear that, despite attempts to keep the increasingly bitter, frustrated troops busy with disciplined drills and group activities, something had to give.
Ellwood Brown, a sports organizer, suggested that officials redirect the frustration of the stranded troops into sports instead. Why not hold an Olympics-style sporting event to keep the men occupied?
Officials latched onto the idea, and enlisted the YMCA to help. French and American officials decided that the best place to hold the event was near Paris, and the YMCA put up the funds for a new stadium there. But when French laborers went on strike, the stadium’s future seemed in jeopardy. Instead, American troops went to work, constructing the stadium along with a small number of French soldiers. Named after General Pershing, the stadium was hastily constructed and derided for the sloppy work of American soldiers.
On June 22, 1919, the games officially began. Military athletes from the United States, France, Great Britain, and 11 other nations took part in events as varied as baseball, wrestling, golf, fencing, rowing, shooting and track and field. But though the games brought together different nations and gave the soldiers something to do during a period of unexpected peace, they reflected the war’s tense aftermath.
Woodrow Wilson had outlined his vision of what peace should look like in a 1918 speech, detailing 14 points he felt could create long-lasting peace in Europe. But France did not agree with Wilson’s idealistic hope that the Allies would agree to national self-determination and not punish Germany for its role in starting the war. Georges Clemenceau, France’s prime minister, was intent on a punitive approach to Germany, and helped push through the Treaty of Versailles, which pointed the finger at Germany for starting the war and levied massive reparations on the vanquished country.
The games took place as leaders were hashing out the details of the treaty, and tensions flared between athletes on both sides. They reached a head when the U.S. played France in a rugby match the day after the much reviled treaty was signed. “There was little sign of either reconciliation or accord on the field of play, as the French won what was a horribly violent final against the Americans,” writes historian Bill Marshall.
The terrible cost of the war was evident in other ways, too. Hand grenades had exacted a gruesome toll during World War I, causing an estimated 2.5 percent of all casualties in the war. Hand-grenade tossing was an event at the games, with the Americans taking the victory when former baseball player F.C. Thompson threw a hand grenade 246 feet.
Given its message of tolerance, unity and self-determination in the face of the 14 Points, the United States decided to set an example by showing off a racially and ethnically integrated team—a far cry from the country's treatment of black troops at home or during the war. When it came to its black service members, the United States’ track record was checkered. Though black men had enlisted enthusiastically, draft boards had engaged in discriminatory behavior that resulted in disproportionately high numbers of black soldiers being sent to war and a very low exemption rate on physical grounds. In addition, notes the National Museum of the United States Army, black men were rarely allowed the opportunity to participate in direct combat. Rather, most were forced to labor on behalf of white service members.
The most formidable black player on the U.S. team was Solomon “Sol” Butler, an all-around athlete who had won medal after medal during his college career. At the games, he won a gold medal in long jump, set a U.S. long jump record and won a bronze for the 90-yard dash. He was the only black person to win a medal there. He went on to compete in the Olympics in 1920.
Though only 14 of the Allied nations participated in the games, they were considered a success and widely reported on. That publicity allowed two distinctively American sports, basketball and baseball, to gain their first significant international audiences. And those audiences were treated to a display of lighthearted fun during the “mass games,” a series of demonstration games that didn’t need any equipment.
Planners had feared that non-English-speaking Allied nations might be discouraged by the likelihood of an American victory at the games, and that many participating nations didn’t have physical education programs in their home countries, let alone cultures that encouraged sporting activity. So organizers set up a series of demonstration games—relay races, chicken fights, arm wrestling, leapfrog, and even a game called “tag the Kaiser.”
When the games ended on July 6, 1919, the French flag was hoisted above the stadium. Pershing Stadium belonged to France now, a gift from the people of the United States. In 1960, it was torn down. By then, memories of the Inter-Allied Games had faded as much as the hastily assembled building. The site still remains, but is poorly maintained—a monument to a historical moment that was overshadowed by the war’s bitter treaty and the World War it helped set into motion.