by Charles Pappas, the World Expo historian
A few days ago, on June 21, after four rounds of voting, Serbia and Belgrade won a hard-fought, years-long race for Expo 2027. As close as the vote was in the fourth and final round, the themes of the top two contestants, Spain and Serbia couldn’t be further apart. Compared to Spain’s motif of “The Urban Era: towards the Sustainable City,” Serbia’s “Play for Humanity: Sport and Music for All” might seem almost like an anachronism.
But sports have been as much a part of World Expos as the Eiffel Tower or the Ferris Wheel. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, for example, chess organizers, realizing that faster railroads and swifter ships had shrunk transportation times dramatically, and that other nations had relaxed bureaucratic barriers to travel to the event, held the first true international competition for chess. The effort was led by George Spencer Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough (and also the great-grandfather of Sir Winston Churchill), along with Howard Staunton, the chess master who helped standardize the look and size of the game’s pieces from the lowliest pawns to the loftiest queens. It’s fitting, then, that the first World Expo, the site of so many groundbreaking events, was also the launchpad for one of the greatest contests in the history of chess. Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, two European math teachers, played an unforgettably wild match whose astonishing attacks and shocking sacrifices might best be compared to a shootout in America’s Wild West. Dubbed the “The Immortal Game” by a contemporary, the revered match has also been called one of the “crown jewels” of chess by grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
The contests at the Great Exhibition took place on sea as well as on land. One of the most famous events in the history of yachting debuted there when 15 boats tore through the water, racing around the Isle of Wight. The flotilla included a strange 100-foot, long ship with tall masts and a sharp bow that finished an incredible 22 minutes ahead of its nearest rival in the 85-kilometer nautical duel. That odd ship was “America,” and the race became known as the prestigious America’s Cup.
Yachting isn’t as familiar as the Olympics, but few may know that some of the first Olympic Games of the modern age took place as part of Worlds’ Fairs. Paris’ Exposition Universelle in 1900 and St. Louis’s Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 hosted the games as part of their overall program, helping to revive the ancient tournaments from their centuries-long slumber.
Years later, the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926 hosted the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Held in the expo’s 100,000–seat stadium, the boxing match was hailed as “the greatest battle since the Silurian Age.” And indeed, maybe it was: a record-breaking crowd of 130,000 mobbed the stadium, while nearly 39 million others glued themselves to their radios to witness the clash of titans.
Marvelous and memorable as these were, Serbia can outdo them all by flipping the script. Instead of the many passively watching the active few, thousands -maybe millions -could engage in the kind of sports and activities that could inspire us to live up to what the philosopher George Santayana once said: “To the art of working well a civilized race would add the art of playing well.”
Charles Pappas is senior writer at Exhibitor magazine in the US. His books include “Flying Cars, Zombie Dogs, and Robot Overlords” and “Expo 2020 Dubai: The Definitive Edition,” both of which focus on the transformative power of World’s Fairs. Beyond that, he served as a consultant to Expo 2020 and to the US’s Expo 2027 bid. Fun fact: In Expo 2020’s official list of its top 50 attractions, Charles Pappas himself, as the Expo Historian, was ranked #12.