The Birth of Modern Olympic Rowing

Greg Denieffe writes:

In July 2012, in a post called 1948 Olympics And The Thin Green Line, Part 2, I identified Terence Sanders as first man born in Ireland to win an Olympic rowing medal for Great Britain; he was the stroke of the British coxless four that won the gold medal at the 1924 Paris Games. It was also in Paris that the first Olympic rowing regatta was held in 1900, and it was at those Games that the first Olympic rowing medal was won by an Irishman. His name was William Carr and I will return to him later.

Had things gone to plan, the inaugural Games of the modern era, held in 1896, would have seen the first Olympic rowing champions crowned in Athens, but the weather intervened and the rowing events were cancelled. Peter Mallory touches on the subject in The Sport of Rowing (2011):

The rowers assembled, but rough water in Piraeus Harbor forced the postponement and eventual cancellation of the regatta. Therefore, rowing competition was not actually included until the second modern Games in Paris in 1900, and as a consequence, French became the language of international rowing from that time forward until quite recently.

Promotional Poster for the 1900 Paris Olympic Games – Genuine Antique or Fake?

In the poster/programme (above) the rowing events are listed under the heading Sports nautique and are shown as follows:

Un rameur: 2000 metres sans virage (Skiffs).
Deux rameurs de pointe: 2400 metres san virage (Outriggers).
Quatre rameurs de pointe: 2400 metres san virage (Outriggers).
Huit rameurs de pointe: 2400 metres san virage (Outriggers).

The regatta took place on the River Seine between Courbevoie and Asnières on 25 and 26 August 1900 and all the events were over a shortened course, believed to be 1,750 metres, and not as suggested in the Poster above. Throughout the regatta there was wrangling, protests, crew changes and the farce of two finals in the coxed fours event, both of which count in the official International Olympic Council (IOC) medal table.

Whilst the results of the regatta are readily available, books on rowing history only briefly mention the event and therefore this article is an attempt to put faces to the first Olympic rowing champions and gather the story of those two days in August 1900 into one place.

Un rameur (Skiffs)/Single Sculls
Twelve scullers entered, nine from France and one each from Great Britain, Italy and Spain. The four heat winners; Saint George Ashe (GBR), Hermann Barrelet (FRA), Louis Prével (FRA) and Georges Delaporte (FRA) were joined by the four runners-up in two semi-finals, with the first two in each semi advancing to the final. Barrelet won the first semi by ten seconds with André Gaudin (FRA) taking the second qualification spot. In the second semi, Prével had nearly as much to spare over Robert d’Heilly (FRA).

Ashe who had finished third in the first semi-final was eliminated but protested the result; Barrelet and Gaudin objected and refused to race if Ashe was allowed to take part in the final but they eventually relented and took their places in a five boat final. Read more about Ashe in Göran Buckhorn’s post from November 2012, The First Englishman….

Barrelet won the final beating Gaudin for the third time in two days. Ashe finished third, 40 seconds behind the winner! Prével failed to finish after falling in the water and of course protested but this time the protest was rejected. Perhaps good Anglo-French relations were the reason; the Entente Cordiale would be signed within four years.

Hermann Barrelet – Swiss born and 1900 Olympic Champion for France.

St. George Ash (sic) as portrayed by Ogden’s Cigarettes 1902. Ashe was born in Malta, which along with England has Saint George as their national saint.

Louis Prével European Champion in 1899 and 1900 but out of luck at the Olympics.

Deux rameurs de pointe/Senior Coxed Pairs
Only three countries entered for the coxed pairs event; France had five crews; Belgium and the Netherlands had one each, giving seven crews split into two semi-finals. Even today, not only rowing historians but sports historians and especially Olympic historians discuss the possibility that the youngest ever Olympic medallist took part in this event.

The French crew from Société Nautique de la Marne won the first semi-final beating the Dutch crew from Minerva Amsterdam who also qualified for the final. In the second semi-final Rowing Club Castillion (FRA) had an ‘easily’ verdict, beating Cercle Nautique de Reims (FRA) by 27 seconds!

The Dutch crew had been coxed by Hermanus Brockmann (60 kg) in their semi-final and had nine seconds to make up on their French conquerors in that race. They decided to copy their rivals and use a much lighter coxswain in the final and recruited a young French boy whom some believe to be that youngest ever Olympic medallist. The final was a very close affair but the change of coxswain made the difference with the Dutch crew (now with a French coxswain) reversing the result of the semi-final and winning by 0.2 seconds.

The finish of the pairs final next to Asnières Bridge. François Brandt and Roelof Klein (NED) just ahead of their French rivals Lucien Martinet and Waleff – both coxswains unknown.
The same scene through the eyes of Vincent van Gogh in 1877.

Anthony Th. Bijkerk has written two interesting articles about the Dutch pair, their substitute coxswain and the wonderful trophy, called ‘La Chanson’ that they received for their victory. The first in the Journal of Olympic History (Spring 1997) and the second in the Journal of Olympic History (Winter 2001).

This quote is from the latter:

Although the identity of the young French coxswain has never been detected, there does exist a photograph of him and it was published in a Memorial Book from the Dutch Student Rowing Club LAGA, in which François Antoine Brandt, in 1926, published his own story on the events in Paris.

The 1997 article contains an English translation by Bijkerk of Brant’s account of what actually happened in the coxed pairs event. The 2001 article has photographs of the Dutch pair with their French coxswain and another of the pair at Henley Royal Regatta in 1899. There are also two photographs of the trophy presented to them and bearing the inscription:

1er PRIX

François Brandt and Roelof Klein with the mystery coxswain, but how old was he?

Gold medals were not given at the 1900 Games; a silver medal was given for a first place and a bronze medal was given for second. The International Olympic Committee has retroactively assigned gold, silver, and bronze medals to competitors who earned first, second, and third place finishes respectively, bringing early Olympics in line with current awards.

Quatre rameurs de pointe/Senior Coxed Fours
French crews made up half the 10 entries with Germany providing three and both the Netherlands and Spain one each. The regatta jury ‘tore up’ their rule book following protests that crews eliminated in heats two and three had posted better times than the winner of heat one. They announced a further qualifying round but failed to notify all the crews. Despite the course having only four lanes they then announced that there would be a six-boat final. More protests followed and eventually two finals were raced; one for the winners of the three heats and one for the three crews involved in the original protest.

The winners of the three heats were as follows:

Ludwigshafener Ruder Verein (GER), time 6:14.0; Minerva Amsterdam (NED), time 6:02.0 and Germania Ruder Club, Hamburg (GER), time 5:56.2. These three crews should have been joined in the final by the runners-up to ‘Germania’ as this was a four-boat heat. 

The runners-up in the first heat, Réal Club Barcelona (SPA) posted a very slow time of 6:38.4 and therefore there had been no reason for ‘Ludwigshafener’ to push themselves to race any quicker. The runner-up in the second heat, Club Nautique de Lyon (FRA), time 6:06.2 and the third crew from the final heat, Favorite Hammonia (GER), time 6:03.0 did not see it that way and so the protests began.

Eventually the jury went with the option of two finals, perhaps the least satisfactory of all the options available to them.

The final for the losers with the three quickest times from the heats, took place on Sunday 26 August and was won by Cercle de l’Aviron Roubaix (FRA), time 7:11.0. They had finished second in the four-boat heat and were automatic qualifiers for the final by right if the original programme had been followed. ‘Lyon’ finished second and ‘Hammonia’ last.

Winning crew: Gustav Gobler, Oskar Gobler, Walter Katzenstein, Waldemar Tiegens & Carl Gobler (Cox).

The second final in this event was held over until the following day, Monday 27 August. The form of the crews in the heats was upheld with ‘Germania’ winning in a time of 5:59.0, ‘Minerva’ were four seconds behind and Ludwigshafener a close third in 6:05.0.

Bijkerk in his 1997 article includes a report by Dr. Meurer, the coach of the Dutch crews (participating under the patronage of Minerva Amsterdam). It was published in August 1900 in a Dutch sports magazine and it provides us with much valuable information about the organisation of the ‘Minerva’ crews, about the coxed fours event(s) and a reason why the ‘A’ final was held over until the following day: the original three prizes had been given to the crews in the first final and new prizes had to be supplied before the race could take place. Dr. Mauer did not mince his words when he expressed his opinion on the organisation of the regatta:

It is completely clear for me that the Netherlands should not any longer compete in rowing races in France; the conception of sport and the organization of races are more than 25 years outdated here!

There is a short slide show on the film website that shows the coxed-pairs and coxed-fours as they line up to race on the River Seine. View the 44 second clip here. Included is a picture of a coxswain with his arm raised. He certainly looks younger than the boy recruited by Brandt and Klein.

Huit rameurs de pointe/Senior Eights
Five crews from five countries raced two heats. The first two crews in each heat were to advance to a four boat final. Minerva Amsterdam (NED) won the first heat in 4:59.2; Club Nautique de Gand (BEL) were second, time 5:00.2 and Germania Ruder Club, Hamburg (GER), time 5:04.8, finished third of the three. In the second heat which was effectively a row-over Vesper Boat Club (USA) finished alone in a time of 5:15.4, Société Nautique de la Marne (FRA) failing to finish. ‘Germania’ was thus allowed to take the fourth place in the final. The times quoted (Wikipedia) are fast, even for a course of 1,750m.

The American Eight on the River Seine, Paris, 1900.

The final was won by the American crew in a time of 6:07.8. The Belgians finished second, time 6:13.8 beating the Dutch (6:23.0) and the Germans (6:33.0). Alfred van Landeghem (Cox) and Oscar de Somville were members the Belgian crew and you can read more about their exploits at Henley Royal Regatta (1906-09) and the 1908 Olympics in The Mysterious Affair of ‘Les Braves Belges’.

The Dutch crew, Minerva Amsterdam, contained the winning coxed pair of Brandt and Klein. They were coxed by Hermanus Brockmann who lost his seat in the final of the coxed-pairs but was the coxswain of four that finished runner-up to ‘Germania’. As the IOC recognizes him as a winner in the pairs, as a runner-up in the fours and a bronze medallist in the eights, he is, without ever knowing it, the first multi-medallist in Olympic rowing.

Olympic Champions – Vesper Boat Club representing the USA. Missing from the photo is the coxswain, Louis Abell. Is that their trophy in the foreground?

The First Irishman …
In the four-seat of the victorious American crew was 24-yearold William John ‘Bill’ Carr. He was born on 17 June 1876 in Gortnagrace, near Castlefin, County Donegal, Ireland. He went to the United States in the 1890s where he worked initially as a carpenter, and later as a building inspector in Philadelphia. His parents were Robert Edmund McIlcar of Gortnagrace, Castlefin and Jane Doran of Alt, also near Castlefin; they were married when they were 20 and 21 years-old respectively at Melmount Catholic Church, Strabane, County Tyrone on 11 February 1873. It wasn’t unusual for immigrants to simplify or change their name on entering the United States.

In November 2000, Vesper Boat Club honoured this crew by hosting a celebration of their achievement a century before. Bill Lyon wrote a preview of the event in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 2 November 2000:

So there they sat, the nine of them in a wooden boat, bobbing about in the choppy waters of the River Seine, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, waiting for the start. Eight sturdy Philadelphians and a coxswain, come to Paris to represent America and the Vesper Boat Club, in the 1900 Olympics.

A fierce head wind raged at them, but they dug grimly in and after a dozen strokes opened a lead they would never yield. They covered 1 mile and 153 yards (1,750 meters) in 6 minutes, 7 4/5 seconds, six full seconds ahead of runner-up Belgium.

The crew of eight: John Exley, Henry de Baecke, James Juvenal, John Geiger, William Carr, Ed Hedley, Edward Marsh and Roscoe Lockwood. The cox: Louis Abell. The coach: Pat Dempsey, who took no salary. Rowing, in the minds of its devotees, is its own reward.

A full century later, descendants of the Vesper Olympic champions are gathering tonight, 72 of them, at the newly restored club on gleaming Boathouse Row. Great-grandchildren and great-nephews are coming, bringing with them mementos – a medal, statuary, even one of the original oars.

It is being billed as a history flashback. Not many reunions link 100 years.

Although Olympic rowing did not have the most auspicious start, the fact remains that it has been on the Olympic programme since Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympics, and rowing is the only Olympic team sport to be included in every modern summer Games.

Some historians and websites suggest that there were six events for rowing at the 1900 Olympics. This is not the accepted position by the IOC who recognize four events, albeit with two sets of prizes awarded in the coxed-fours category. The event that causes confusion is a coxless-pairs event won by Belgium. The eminent Olympic historian, Bill Mallon in his work The 1900 Olympic Games (1998) lists four criteria that should be considered in determining whether an event held during the Exposition Universelle of 1900 was an ‘Olympic’ event or one held in conjunction with the Exposition. The four criteria are: Amateur or Professional, International or National, Handicapped or not and Open or Restricted. He concluded that the single sculls, coxed-pairs, coxed-fours and coxed-eights were all Olympic events because the competitors were amateurs, the events were international, the races were not handicapped and these events were open to all. Four other events were raced at the regatta – three events for juniors; coxless-pairs, coxless-fours and coxed-eights and a coxless-fours event for novices. These four events failed the ‘openness’ criterion and therefore are not judged to be Olympic events by the IOC.

The coxless pairs event was won by Belgium; another Belgian crew was second with France in third place. The winners are given as Van Crombuge and De Sonville. Could they actually be Marcel Van Crombrugge and Oscar De Somville who raced in the Belgian eight that took the silver medal? Now there’s something for Poirot to ponder!

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