The Great Bitter Lake Olympics, September 1968

As sportspeople geared up for the 1968 Mexico Olympics, a small group of sportspeople on the marooned ships in the Suez Canal held their very own Mini Olympic Games.


Here is an extract from Stranded in the Six-Day War, with unpublished photos generously shared by David Kemp, who was master of the Port Invercargill from March 1968.


Olympic trophies, hand-made specially for the occasion

The GBLA 1968 Olympics

Sports on the Bitter Lake reached an international audience in September 1968. Ten days before the start of the Olympic Games in Mexico, the Great Bitter Lake Association held its own Mini Olympic Games. The Games were the brainchild of the Polish crew of Djakarta, and they organised the events. The Poles took the job seriously, as Captain A. W. Kinghorn noted:


[They] produced bows and arrows, and targets. They padded obstructions on their foredecks to make running and jumping courses, and swung out derricks to support the goals of a water polo pitch. . . . They made weights for weightlifting, certificates and even winners’ medals: gold, silver and bronze.


The ships had to undergo extensive modifications to turn them into sports stadiums. The deck of the Djakarta had four lines painted on it for the sprint race (although the sailors had to be careful to avoid the ring bolts). Some crew members lent their mattresses for the high-jump contestants to land on. A detailed programme was produced for all the participants. There were 14 sports, including sailing, diving, sprinting, high jump, archery, shooting and water polo. Table tennis took place on the Münsterland, while the swimming race was from one Polish ship to the other. Around 200 seafarers took part; those with insufficient numbers for a national team formed an international team or joined the Commonwealth team, so no one was left out. The less sporty became enthusiastic spectators.


The British Olympic sprint team taking it in their stride

George Wharton, who was a keen sportsman, described the Mini Olympics as the highlight of his time there:

. . . the atmosphere during the games was fantastic with everyone playing their part to make it the success it really was. It was open to everyone – you could put your name down to any sport you felt you were good at, and then the captain of each sport would select his best team.


High-jump competition

The Games opened with a sailing regatta on 26 September 1968 and continued for over two weeks, finishing with the high jump on 12 October. The Swedes won the high jump, the Poles the rowing and the French the sailing – their only gold medal, while the Agalampus team won the football tournament and the archery. The Germans were disappointed – their two best football players were injured, and the team missed its chance of winning the gold medal. But German sailor Franz Klofik achieved victory in the fishing contest, and the Germans won the weightlifting competition.


George Wharton recalls that the Poles won the Olympics overall, the Germans came second and the British third. The Poles won four gold medals in swimming, rowing, running and the triathlon, four silver and five bronze medals, while the Germans won three gold, five silver and four bronze medals. George Wharton remembers proudly that he won more medals than any other contestant. The gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded on rostrums to the accompaniment of the national anthems of the winners. ‘Thanks to the excellent organisation by Djakarta, the Olympics were a great success . . . there was a genuine Olympic atmosphere,’ wrote Captain Prissel and First Officer Dirk Moldenauer.

Victorious trophy winners on the podium



There’s a surprising account of a canine medal winner: Bulbul, the football-playing dog from the Sindh. He apparently took part in the Olympics soccer match and stood solemnly on the rostrum to receive his medal.




All eyes on the Bitter Lake The 1968 Mini Olympics in the Bitter Lake drew media attention from around the world. The GBLA had written to various newspapers to support the Games. From the UK, the Daily Express sponsored the teams, sending out strips and footballs, and providing a trophy. British, French, Swedish and German TV crews came out to film the events and international newspapers covered them too. The BBC came out to the Bitter Lake – as Chief Officer Kinghorn remembers, ‘assuming that the Olympiad would be a British venture – and seemed quite shocked when we told them it was Polish.’ Representatives of the Daily Express newspaper came in person to present a silver cup to the victors in the football tournament. The newspaper was proud to report another ‘world cup victory for Britain’ in the Olympics soccer contest – a follow-up to the genuine World Cup win of 1966. The coverage of the Mini Olympics sparked interest in the GBLA around the world.

Sunset on the Great Bitter Lake


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