Remembering Sacrifice: A Sports Perspective

Joel FCorrespondent INovember 28, 2008

Sport has long been affected by war—it has even caused conflict in a few instances—with  some of its most promising lights extinguished at a tragically young age.

With the passing of the Armistice's 90th anniversary, Remembrance Day, and Veterans Day (and other incarnations) continue to resonate.

Whatever your political beliefs, no matter how polarising and divisive current conflicts may be, it is as important today as it was 90 and 63 years ago to acknowledge and remember human loss.

To evoke the sentiment of enduring adages, if history is forgotten the traumas and suffering of the past are liable to be repeated. This article is intended neither to present condemnation or glorification, just remembrance.

The cumulative total of deaths for the world wars exceeded 90 million. I struggled with that figure and tried to translate it into something I found remotely comprehensible; those deaths would equate to a city roughly comparable in size to Birmingham, England, vanishing every month for about 76 months.

Football (soccer) brought fleeting respite to the carnage with the Christmas Truce of 1914 but each sport was drastically impacted by the grief and loss; athletes would die and sustain personally devastating wounds, while those who survived had their careers disrupted or ended and returned to unrecognisable communities.

The War to End All Wars

In the First World War, many athletes served and perished in the trenches of the Western and Eastern Fronts, the deserts of the Middle East, the disease-ridden morass of Macedonia/Salonika (modern Thessaloniki) and East Africa, the beaches of Gallipoli, and in the world's oceans and skies.

The attitudes that prevailed in contemporary society have been extensively documented and debated since the war ended.

So instead, it seems more appropriate to try to encapsulate the rhetoric that appealed to athlete and fan alike—so many of whom appear now to society to have been idealistically naive and fatefully ignorant of what awaited them—with the words of author and amateur cricketer Arthur Conan Doyle:

"There was a time for all things in the world. There was a time for games, there was a time for business, there was a time for domestic life. There was a time for everything, but there is only time for one thing now, and that thing is war. If the cricketer had a straight eye, let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb, let him serve and march in the field of battle."

In the British Army, entire battalions were composed of people associated with sport: The 16th Royal Scots derived much of its strength from players and supporters of Hearts and other Scottish teams; the 17th Middlesex also attracted both footballer and fan, notably 41 members of Clapton (Leyton) Orient;  the 15th West Yorkshire contained cricketers from Yorkshire CCC and other athletes; while the 23rd and 24th battalions of the Royal Fusiliers also had an array of sport talent.

Despite soccer clubs initially being accused of reticence, some 2,000 of an estimated 5,000 British-based footballers served in some capacity.

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By February 1918, when the 17th Middlesex disbanded, just about 30 remained of more than 200 footballers who had been assigned to the battalion.

For Britain, the war did claim sporting greats and other significant personalities: British rugby alone lost 80 internationals, including captains of England and Scotland, Ronnie Poulton-Palmer and Fred Turner; 34 of 210 first-class test cricketers never returned; while football's dead contained players like Walter Tull, Britain's first Afro-Caribbean infantry officer, FA Cup winners Jimmy Spiers, Bob Torrance, and Sandy Turnbull, and Olympic gold medallists Tom Burn and Joe Dines.

Enough British Olympians died to create a seemingly endless roll of honour. They ranged from professional soldier and promising double bronze medallist runner George Hutson, killed during the Battle of the Marne, to Oxford rowers Duncan Mackinnon and John Somers-Smith, who won gold in 1908's coxless fours event and died during the battles of the Somme and Paschendaele.

All countries experienced similar loss of athletes, many of whom had also competed in the Olympics, among them, Germany's Hanns Braun (Silver, running), Willy Lützow (silver, swimming); Hungary's Béla von Las-Torres (silver, swimming); footballers Karl Braunsteiner, Robert Merz, Andrei Akimov, Nikolai Kynin, Grigory Nikitin, André François, René Fenouillière, Piere Six, Justin Vialaret, Hermann Bosch, Otto Thiel; New Zealand's Wimbledon champion Tony Wilding (bronze); and Australia's Cecil Healy (gold, silver), an early swimming icon who was killed shortly after his arrival on the Western Front, on 29 August 1918.

For France, the war had a profound, enduring legacy that left a vast swathe of the country scarred. The devastation wrought at the Battle of Verdun and elsewhere would culminate in an exhausted and demoralised French Army experiencing a series of temporary "mutinies" in 1917.

Among the hundreds of thousands of casualties incurred within the first month of the war were silver medallist Jean Bouin, one of France's earliest long-distance runners, bronze medallist shooter Henri Bonnefoy, and rugby internationals Emmanuel Iguiniz, Gaston Lane, and Alfred Maysonnié.

More inevitably followed, including Grand Prix motor driver Georges Boillot, cyclists Octave Lapize and François Faber, and a further 21 rugby internationals.

Today, these athletes and the millions of other casualties are still remembered as a lost generation—consumed most poignantly by the quagmire of Flanders, disfigured by the destructive implements of war where poppies flourish as they did before.

The Second World War

In a conflict driven and defined by racist ideology and extreme nationalist dogma, it was not only those athletes in uniform who suffered. A significant proportion became victims of systematic persecution by regimes which killed because of disability, ethnicity, politics, religion, sexuality, and resistance.

Some athletes born in Germany and its allied countries opposed the governing regimes, two such being Werner Seelenbinder and Paolo Salvi.

Seelenbinder was a Communist German wrestler and avowed opponent of the Nazis who received a 16-month ban in 1933 for refusing to give the Hitler salute and was only allowed to compete in the 1936 Olympics because the authorities believed he would medal.

He was was executed in a concentration camp during the war, along with Salvi, a double gold medallist in gymnastics who was murdered in Mathausen for continued anti-Nazi activities in Italy.

Perhaps the most famous dissenting voice was Austrian international footballer Matthias Sindelar, who vehemently opposed Nazi Germany's annexation of his homeland.

Obliged to play in a match designed to celebrate the Anschluss and reputedly instructed to allow the German team to win, Sindelar missed numerous chances but nevertheless scored a goal in Austria's 2-0 win.

He later retired and died with his girlfriend in mysterious circumstances at their apartment, variously the result of an accident, murder, or suicide.

Conversely, at least one athlete was killed for collaborating with his occupiers. That individual happened to be French football international Alexandre Villaplane, who became notorious for his treatment of resistance fighters. After being convicted of treason, torture, and murder, Villaplane was executed by firing squad in December 1944.

For those who decided to resist, the prospect of death was indeed a constant spectre. In Poland, the Home Army represented one of the largest organised resistance movements in occupied Europe and contained many sports people, including athlete Józef Noji and three-time Olympian skier Bronislaw Czech, who were killed in Auschwitz concentration camp, while Robert Benois, a Grand Prix motor driver and French resistance leader, was arrested in 1944 and executed at Buchenwald.

Others expressed their opposition differently but nevertheless had similar fates: cycling silver medallist Tomasz Stankiewicz was executed in Palmiry for distributing resistance literature, while footballer Antoni Lyko was killed in Auschwitz after being arrested by the Gestapo.

Various, incredulous "reasons" condemned countless sportsmen and women to their deaths in the concentration camps. Those who somehow survived could never be the same, such as retired Norwegian footballer, manager, and association secretary Asbjørn Halvorsen, who was tortured and sent to a camp because he refused to collaborate.

Those who perished witnessed and experienced unimaginable things in their final days. Victims included four of the five Dutch Jewish women and their families who won gold in the 1928 all-around team event (Estella Agsteribbe, Helena Nordheim, Ans Polak, and Jud Simons); three of the contrastingly unsuccessful men's team (Moses Jacobs, Elias Melkman, and Israel Wijnschenk); footballers Eddy Hamel (Ajax FC) and Julius Hirsch (German international); Allan Muhr, a Jewish American who represented France in its first rugby match in 1908, and became commander of the Red Cross's American military service until captured and later killed; Victor Perez, a Jewish Tunisian boxer who was shot during a death march; and Attila Petschauer, a Jewish Hungarian three-time gold and bronze medallist.

As in the First World War, in addition to the resistance and victims of the Holocaust, the Olympics experienced a diverse loss of life.

The casualties encompassed every hemisphere and included Linn Farrish, an American rugby gold medalist who operated in occupied Yugoslavia and was executed in 1943; American bobsleigher Billy Fisk, who won two gold medals in 1928 and 1932, volunteered for the Royal Air Force and was killed in a crash landing; rower John Lander, who became Britain's sole gold medallist to be killed in the war during the attack on Hong Kong; Egyptian Farid Simaika, a silver and bronze medallist diver, who joined the US Air Force and was reportedly executed by "headhunters" or Japanese soldiers in Indonesia; and Takeichi, Baron Nishi, a Japanese gold medalist equestrian killed in Iwo Jima.

In Asia, a number of Olympians succumbed to mistreatment and privations rife in Japanese camps, such as Eric Liddell, whose exploits in the 1924 Olympics would be depicted in the movie "Chariots of Fire;" Dutch field hockey players Jan Ankerman, Emile Duson, and August Kop, who won silver in 1928; and Fillipino bronze medallist swimmer Teófilo Yldefonso, who survived the Bataan death match only to die in Capas.

North American sports, unlike in 1914-18, had players enlist en masse with consequent disruption to the leagues and loss of life: Major League Baseball lost Elmer Gedeonin (outfielder, Washington) and Harry O'Neill (catcher, Philadelphia), while 116 Minor Leaguers would never have an opportunity to become major leaguers.

The National Hockey League would mourn Canadian Red Garrett and American Joe Turner, while of the more than 900 American Football players and staff who served, 23 died, with New York Giants end Jack Lummus a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor.

For Nazi Germany, which had reduced the 1936 Berlin Olympics to a platform designed to promote "Aryan" supremacy and propaganda, many of its sportsmen died, including gold medallist rower Hugo Strauß, wrestler Georg Gehring, football internationals Ala Urban and Karl Wallmüller (Austrian), and runner Luz Long, who famously finished second to Jesse Owens in 1936.

Italy would degenerate into an effective civil war epitomised by the deaths of two footballers: Dino Fiorini, a Bolonga defender who was shot by partisans, and Bruno Neri, of Fiorentina and Torino, who was killed by the German Army. 

After the surrender of the Axis powers, the world attempted to return to a state of relative normality after six traumatic years. A new generation of athlete would emerge from the war itself when some British veterans participated in a competition organised in 1948 by Dr. Ludwig Guttman for hospital patients with spinal cord injuries. That competition evolved into the Paralympics, first officially hosted in 1960, in Rome.