KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The 1916 Summer Olympics never happened due to World War I. Once WWI ended and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, nearly 2 million soldiers were stuck in a holding pattern.
They couldn’t just hop on a flight and go home, and there weren’t enough ships to return them to their respective countries.
So with the Olympic games canceled, the Allied Powers found a way to transition from combat to competition. An Olympic style series of events called the Inter-Allied Games was held in summer 1919 in Paris, France, at Pershing Stadium (named after Army Gen. John Pershing, of Missouri).
The Inter-Allied Games used Olympic rules and had sports seen in present-day Olympics, like basketball, baseball, track and field and equestrian.
There also was a grenade-tossing event, according to Doran Cart, senior curator at the National WWI Museum and Memorial.
“I’ve always thought it was really interesting that he was a chaplain in the Army," Cart said. "So, a chaplain, he won with the hand grenade throw, and he wouldn’t have thrown a hand grenade in the war.”
The chaplain wasn’t in combat, but he was a baseball player.
Several soldiers played baseball, but weren’t on the Team USA baseball team during the Inter-Allied Games. Black soldiers weren’t allowed to play basketball or baseball.
“They were primarily in the Track and Field events,” Cart said. “The most famous fella, because he medaled, was a guy from Hutchinson, Kansas, named Sol Butler.”
Butler would later compete in the 1920 Summer Olympics in track and field.
Butler and several other Black soldiers also went on to play in the Negro Leagues.
Bob Kendrick, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president, said four of the Black soldiers from WWI are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame – Wilbur "Bullet" Joe Rogan, Oscar Charleston, Louie Santop and Jud Wilson.
Wilson, according to Kendrick, came to be affectionately nicknamed Boo Juum.
“Because of the sounds his line drives made off the outfield wall – Boo Juum,” Kendrick said.
As news of the games spread, so too was a virus.
The 1918 Flu Pandemic was still rampant. Historians said if that was survivable, so too is being triumphant during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[It's] almost eerily coincidental,” Kendrick said. “We’re coming out of a pandemic at that time. But I guess the Allied Games were kind of structured as part of the healing process, and it brought these athletes together.”
There were 1,500 people who came together in sports competition, Cart said.
“And they’re not shooting each other. Now there was a shooting competition, but they didn’t shoot each other,” he said.
More than 100 years later, Kendrick said, there are several lessons to be learned from revisiting the Inter-Allied Games.
“What it teaches us is, if you dare to dream and you believe in yourself, your capabilities, you can do anything you want to be," Kendrick said. "Even against all odds, and these athletes were going against insurmountable odds. But they refused to succumb to that, and I think there’s something that transcends time when you look at these kinds of stories.”
Team USA walked away with the most medals at the Inter-Allied Games. Host country France came in second. Many of the soldiers also went on to compete in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium.
Kevin's Chronicles of KC is a year-long series looking at the history of Kansas City. You can read more about the project and other stories at kshb.com/chronicles.