The POW Olympics of World War II

Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

American Girl Doll Introduces Joss Kendrick, First Doll With a Hearing Aid

Mattel
Mattel

Meet Joss Kendrick, the surf-loving cheerleader who never lets her hearing loss get in the way of her goals. She’s American Girl’s 2020 Girl of the Year, and its first doll to flaunt a hearing aid.

First revealed on Good Morning America, the brown-haired, brown-eyed character was born with hearing loss so wears a hearing aid in her right ear. She grew up surfing in Huntington Beach, California, and after her brother dared her to try out for her school's competitive cheer team, she discovered that riding waves isn’t her only passion.

american girl doll joss kendrick
Mattel

“American Girl has a rich legacy of creating timeless characters who encourage girls to reach new heights and discover who they’re meant to be,” American Girl general manager/president Jamie Cygielman said in a press release. “We’re proud to welcome Joss Kendrick, whose stories are sure to instill confidence and character in girls who are learning to think about the possibilities in their own lives.”

To develop the doll, Mattel-owned American Girl teamed up with Women’s Deaf Shortboard champion Crystal DaSilva, Gallaudet University’s Dr. Sharon Pajka, who specializes in portrayals of deaf characters in adolescent literature, and several other experts in surfing, competitive cheerleading, and hearing loss.

And to promote Joss, American Girl is partnering with 17-year-old surfer Caroline Marks, who will make her Olympic debut this summer on the first-ever U.S. Women’s Olympic surfing team.

“I’m so excited to be a part of the Joss launch and share her message that passion and hard work can really take a girl places—even to the Olympics,” Marks said in the press release.

american girl doll joss kendrick
Mattel

American Girl has also donated $25,000 to the Hearing Loss Association of America and will continue to promote the organization’s events and mission throughout the year.

You can shop Joss’s collection—including surf attire, cheer attire, two books, and a plush English bulldog named Murph—now on the American Girl site.

[h/t Good Morning America]

Simone Biles Just Became the Most Decorated Female Gymnast in History

Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0 br
Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0 br

Simone Biles became a household name when she won four gold medals in gymnastics at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Three years later, she has proven that she's still among the best in the sport's history. At the 2019 Gymnastics World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, Biles won her 21st world champ medal—making her the most decorated female gymnast of all time, The New York Times reports.

The U.S. women's team competed at the event in order to retain their title of best in the world. Biles racked up the highest individual scores with her vault, balance beam, and floor routines, helping the U.S. earn an overall score of 172.330 points. The team bested Russia, the second-place team, by 5.801 points and won their seventh consecutive gold at a world competition or Olympics.

Biles was previously tied with Svetlana Khorkina for most world championship medals held by a female gymnast. She now holds the record for the women's sport, and is just two medals shy of male gymnast Vitaly Scherbo's record of 23.

At 22, Simone Biles has already made a historic impact on the sport. In 2013, she had a difficult new floor exercise move named after her—a double layout with a 180-degree turn at the end.

[h/t The New York Times]

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