The Tokyo Olympics, delayed a year by the pandemic, get underway next week at a time when the worldwide COVID-19 crisis is far from over — and in a country where many fear the contagion they’ve managed to mostly keep at bay will be fanned by a sudden influx of foreigners.
But these will not be the first Olympic Games to be stalked by a deadly virus.
More than a century ago, 2,626 athletes from 29 nations descended on Antwerp, Belgium, in August 1920 to compete in the Summer Olympics just a few months after the Spanish Flu had run its course.
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From February 1918 to April 1920, over a third of the world’s population caught the Spanish Flu and 20 million to 50 million people died. That’s far more than the current pandemic, which has resulted so far in 185 million cases and some 4 million deaths worldwide.
The chief concern in 1920, however, was not whether it was safe to hold the Olympics in the shadow of a plague. It was whether the Belgians, whose country was still a wreck two years after the end of World War I, had the means to successfully stage the games.
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