How do you sell Coca-Cola in a country where you do not have bottling operations or even a business office?

That was the challenge The Coca-Cola Company faced on the eve of the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. The Coca-Cola Company had been present at every Olympic Games since 1928 and was determined to continue the streak in Finland.

The answer was an ingenious solution that benefited the Disabled War Veterans Association of Finland. This association served a critical need in the immediate aftermath of WWII, as approximately 95,000 permanently disabled veterans in the country needed care. Even today, the organization cares for almost 5,000 veterans and their spouses.

J.F.C Westerman ran the Holland Branch of The Coca-Cola Export Corporation in 1952 and developed the idea of the production donation. In May 1952, Westerman and two other Coca-Cola officials from Belgium and Paris flew to Finland to begin conversations with the Disabled War Veterans Association to reach an agreement to sell Coca-Cola as a fundraising initiative. The negotiations were surprisingly easy, and both sides quickly agreed to the terms.

The company agreed to donate 20,000 cases of Coca-Cola, (later expanded to 25,000) and extend a loan of 200 coolers, four delivery trucks and two vans along with a supply of advertising material. Some of the numbers of items are staggering and make me think there are some mighty interesting collectibles out there.The items included 150,000 sun visors, 500 disc signs, 1,000 bottle openers, 100 enamel disc signs and even 100 Tulip girl posters. The deal called for the empty bottles, cases, trucks and coolers to be returned at the end of the Games.

In a letter dated May 5, 1952, the Disabled Veterans Association and The Coca-Cola Company finalized the terms, and “Operation Muscle” began. First, the Amsterdam office had to come up with all the material. Those efforts were truly pan-European, as the coolers were from Germany and Holland, the trucks from the French fleet, and the advertising material was produced in Oslo and Amsterdam. A lithography specialist was on site to assist with the local production. A total of 30,000 cases of Coca-Cola were produced and placed in the typical yellow wooden Coca-Cola crate. A second crate was placed over the top, creating a box which was then bound by metal straps. Eventually more than 42 miles of steel strapping were used to create the “boxes.”

The next step was transportation. The Dutch Company chartered the 750-ton transport ship MARVIC to transport the materials and remain in Helsinki harbor as a floating stockroom. The MARVIC had its own connection to WWI; the vessel was originally a landing craft used in the Normandy invasion. After that, she was rebuilt as a transport ship and, on July 1, 1952, pulled into Helsinki harbor, a few weeks before Opening Ceremonies on July 19. 

At this point, the company began to assist the War Association as it began to apply its own “muscle.” The association constructed 36 portable sales kiosks, hired a local sales and stock force and began to prepare for the arrival of the athletes and visitors. A sales school was set up in Helsinki, and the newly hired sales force was trained by Leonce Pacheny of the Paris office and H.F. Gangsted of the Norway office. Many of the advertising signs were given a special message noting “Coca-Cola – For the Benefit of the Finnish War Disabled.” Approximately 5,000 of the 30,000 cases were reserved for the Athletes Village and the Press Center. Those cases were also donated, raising money for scholarships for journalism students in Finland and the IOC.

Everything was set. All that was missing were the crowds, but as Opening Ceremonies approached, Finland beamed with pride as Paavo Nurmi, nine-time Gold medalwinner and one of the country's greatest athletes lit the Olympic Flame. With that, the Games were on.

The Veterans Association did a tremendous job with the venues, staffing refreshment pavilions at venues and setting up kiosks along traveled routes and in remote arenas. Every night, the coolers were restocked with ice and bottles of Coca-Cola preparing for the next day. The sales force collected 20FIN per bottle for the benefit of the association.

As the Games ended on Aug. 3, both sides considered the partnership a success. The Finnish Disabled War Veterans Association used the money raised to buy a building in downtown Helsinki, consolidating five offices spread across the country. Coca-Cola continued its long partnership with the Olympic Games.

The story would have ended there, but the association has continued to keep it alive in Finland with special plaques and storytelling. In 2013, a group from the Finnish Disabled War Veterans Association, the Consul General of Finland and several Finnish businessmen visited Coca-Cola headquarters for a lunch to share stories, photographs and documents from their Archives (see photo above). I was thrilled to attend the lunch and excited to capture oral histories. The group presented me with a specially bound commemorative book, which gives a complete account of the story. I was happy to add it to our collection in the Coca-Cola Archives to document the time two different organizations agreed to work as one benefitting all involved.

Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company