From faustball to sombo, London’s forgotten Games

Amid memories of Britain’s winning Olympic bid, PHILIP BARKER remembers an earlier multi-sport event which lacked some of 2012’s public appeal

In a Stratford hotel last week, some of the cast of London’s Olympic bid team was reunited to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the moment in Singapore when Jacques Rogge, the IOC President, ripped open that envelope that declared the hosts for the 2012 Games.

London 2012 was the the largest multi-sport event ever held in the capital, and the biggest since 1985.

You may not remember the World Games, but 30 years ago they attracted around 2,000 competitors in 23 sports from 60 nations. But there was no clamour for tickets in 1985 as there was in 2012: but then petanque, faustball and body-building probably don’t have the same crowd-pulling qualities as the Olympic Games.

Tough tug: Events which had been dropped from the Olympic programme long before found a welcome at the World Games
Tough tug: Events which had been dropped from the Olympic programme long before found a welcome at the World Games

Fewer than 30,000 paying customers showed up across the entire 10 days of those 1985 World Games.

“London treated the whole event with huge indifference,” John Taylor wrote in the Mail on Sunday.

In 2012 journalists headed to Stratford by javelin train in a journey that took all of seven minutes.

Back in 1985, those who took the public transport option to Crystal Palace had a once every half-hour stopping service service calling at Balham, Streatham Hill and Gipsy Hill.

David Hunn, the former SJA chairman, was one such. Writing for The Observer, he made the journey to “the decaying mausoleum known as Crystal Palace Station”.

He was asked for directions by an eager overseas visitor. “’There’ll be signs when we get out.’ I said. I should have known better. Signs? Flags? Welcome? No, No, No! Even a village fete would have managed a lump of cardboard with encouraging phrases like ‘This way to the Karate’.”


A week earlier, Crystal Palace had staged a sold-out athletics Grand Prix meeting with the re-match of the 1984 Olympic women’s 3,000 metres, featuring Zola Budd and Mary Decker. “Had Zola Budd wanted to know where to go she would have found advice aplenty scrawled over the gateways, but that was the extent of information available,” Hunn wrote.

Internet charges were a major flashpoint for media at London 2012. Electronic media was in its infancy in 1985 but in response to what organisers called “a vast number of requests” for information, Telecom Gold offered journalists, “Free electronic mailboxes in a bid to ensure results are transmitted by the fastest and most up to date method.”

For journalists most who covered these Games, the brief was to seek out the quirky and unusual. “The sports themselves of course are magic,” said Hunn.

World Games sports included petanque. It did not attract large crowds
World Games sports included petanque, which for some reason failed to attract large crowds to Barnet Copthall sports centre in north London

Sombo (a cross between judo and wrestling) caught the eye of The Guardian’s Robert Armstrong who described it as, “freestyle judo – no holds barred.”

Chris Lightbown in the Sunday Times wrote of “glorious roller hockey matches”.

As was the case with so many ambitious multi-sport events in the 1980s, the entire event very nearly did not happen. Denied funding by the Greater London Council and Sports Council, the 1985 World Games were bailed out to the tune of £200,000 by multi-millionaire Japanese shipping magnate Ryoichi Sasakawa. Indicted as a war criminal, Sasakawa had re-invented himself as a philanthropist.

“Sport is a universal language, all mankind are brothers and sisters,” he said.

Nine of the 23 sports were held at Crystal Palace, where the Games supremo was Roy Dwight, once a Cup final star for Nottingham Forest. Disappointingly, Dwight’s nephew Elton John did not write the official Games song. Instead World Game, sung by John Denver, became the anthem purely by chance after an official heard it on local radio.

The World Games patron was  - a convicted war criminal
The World Games patron was Ryoichi Sasakawa – a convicted Japanese war criminal

A month out, a press bulletin breathlessly informed the world that, “The growing interest in World Games and the demands of host broadcaster Channel 4 has resulted in moving the opening ceremony to Wembley Conference Centre.’’

The ceremony was indoors, which ruled out The Queen arriving by a helicopter. TV commentator Ron Pickering was the master of ceremonies: “We welcome the opportunity presented by the World Games in playing host to something new in sport.”

The Games were opened by the Korean Dr Un Yong Kim, then President of the World Games. His sport was taekwondo, the Korean martial art, and Kim’s own ambitions grew in parallel as he became an IOC Vice President. Taekwondo appeared at the 1988 Seoul Games and was admitted to the Olympics in 2000. By that time, Kim himself had become embroiled in the scandal triggered by the Salt Lake Games.

Kim’s “exhausted working party” gushed about “the high standard of the venues” being used to stage the Games. These included a boy scout camp up in Hertfordshire which hosted field archery.

Channel 4 carried daily highlights, produced by Cheerleader Productions, a company best known for its American Football. There was Gerald Sinstadt explaining the rudiments of korfball which he described as “one of the fairest sports there is, played by mixed teams but men can only mark men and women can only mark women.” Sinstadt soon shifted gear to cover bodybuilding.

Martin Tyler, now best known as Sky’s voice of football. was on unfamiliar territory with sombo wrestling and Simon Reed, best known for tennis, described petanque, which shared the Barnet Copthall Stadium (now Saracen’s home ground in the Rugby Premiership) with softball, tug of war and a game called faustball.

It was perhaps emblematic that an indoor competition was delayed by the weather. The trampoline mats were stored outside and received a drenching in one downpour.

In the pool, a man called Jurgen Kolenda was every bit as dominant as Michael Phelps . Except Kolenda’s sport was fin swimming – underwater racing, aided by flippers. Unlike Phelps, Kolenda never went on to become a multi-millionaire.

That month, the British Olympic Association launched a bid to stage the 1992 Olympics. There was no appetite to provide backing from central Government at that time. In a low-key event at the Cafe Royal, Birmingham was chosen as the candidate city ahead of Manchester and London.

No one was surprised when the IOC, then with a Spaniard as its President, chose Barcelona.

But some of the lessons and experience of 1985, from staging the World Games as well as the Birmingham bid, played their part in putting together London’s successful Olympic bid 20 years later.

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