Athens 1896: The First Olympic Rowing Medallists?

Olympic Champions 1896? Berthold Küttner (left), born in Stettin and who later worked as engineer in Berlin, with his double sculls partner Adolf Jäger. Photo: Journal of Olympic History.
Olympic Champions 1896? Berthold Küttner (left), born in Stettin and who later worked as engineer in Berlin, with his double sculls partner Adolf Jäger. Photo: Journal of Olympic History.

13 April 2016

Greg Denieffe writes:

The first Olympic Games of the modern era began on 6 April 1896. Rowing was on the programme but owing to bad weather no racing took place. According to the Official Report of the Games, two crews of four-oars did take to the water but their race was postponed and eventually cancelled.

During the time of the Games, Greece recognized the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world. In 1896 Greek terms, the Games were held from 25 March to 3 April 1896. In today’s terms, the Olympic Games lasted from 6 April to 15 April; a 12-day difference. The rowing events were scheduled for exactly 120 years ago today.

From part two of the Official Report of the Games:

Eighth Day, April 1st. (Gregorian calendar 13 April 1896).
Unfortunately the promises for fine weather on the day before did not come to anything. A cold, dry wind began to blow with such violence, that Athens was enveloped in clouds of dust. For that reason some of the festivities had to be curtailed and some contests had to be given up altogether. For instance the Programme mentioned a bicycle race of 12 hours durance and a race with rowing boats, belonging to the Royal Navy, and in the evening illumination of the Acropolis.

Boat Race
The regatta was to take place at 10 o’clock in the morning in Phaleron Bay. The umpires were: Prince George, Captain Boudhouris R. R. Captain Duboury, commanding a man-of-war in the French Navy, Mr D. Kyriakos. Mr I. Ipitis acted as secretary. They all assembled in a light boat lying at anchor near the shore. Crowds of people arrived at Phaleron by train, by the steam tramway or by carriages, but the wind continued blowing with such energy that no competitors for the race presented themselves. At last it was decided that a race should be held only by boats of four oars. A steam launch transported the competitors to Old Phaleron, where the boats of the Panhellenic Club of Athens and that of the Nautical Club of Syra chose the place for starting; but unluckily the bad weather changed into a real storm, which made any attempt to a race impossible. The regatta was therefore postponed to three o’clock in the afternoon. In the afternoon however the storm was still on the increase, some of the lighter embarkations were thrown on the shore by the violence of the waves, and the elements continued to rage with such fury that every idea of a boat race had to be given up.

The German double scull with Berthold Küttner and Adolf Jäger. The photographer Albert Meyer from Berlin shot this picture in Neo-Phaleron, where the rowing events should have taken place. On this particular day the sea was calm. Photo: Journal of Olympic History.
The German double scull with Berthold Küttner and Adolf Jäger. The photographer Albert Meyer from Berlin shot this picture in Neo-Phaleron, where the rowing events should have taken place. On this particular day the sea was calm. Photo: Journal of Olympic History.

In 1936, 40 years after he had travelled from his home in Berlin to Athens to compete in the Olympic Regatta, Berthold Küttner wrote several articles about the 1896 Games that were published in Berlin in his rowing club’s magazine, one of which was republished in The Journal of Olympic History in 2012. In the article, which is roughly translated and called “Where [sic] there still Olympic Champions in Rowing in 1896?”, it is claimed that he and his double-sculls partner Adolf Jäger, rowed over the course after none of their opponents appeared on the start line. They were awarded bronze medals and thus have a claim to be recognised as the first Olympic rowing champions.

Küttner, a member of Academic Rowing Club, Berlin, received an invitation to participate in the single sculls event in Athens and succeeded in getting permission to have his ‘Brundesbruder’ (brother-in-sport) Adolf Jäger, for the double sculls. They started training in January 1896 and though the weather was very cold they managed to go out sculling every day until the end of February. Thereafter, they had to stay off the water as large ice floes drifted all over the Spree. To remain in condition they began running, cycling and horse riding. Desperate to get back in their boat, they managed to get permission to leave for Athens two weeks earlier than the rest of the German team.

At the beginning of March, they boarded the night train from Anhalter train station in Berlin and set off on the first leg of their journey, to Munich. Their journey continued via Verona, Venice, Bari and Brindisi where they sailed to Corfu. This was followed by another boat trip, to Patras and finally a train down to Athens. They began their training in the port of Piraeus, hoping to meet some of their likely opponents. Instead, Küttner encountered a shark when out in his single and thereafter all training was done in the inner harbour of Phaleron. Eventually race day came and Küttner, writing 40 years later, explains what happened (my emphasis):

Finally our day had come! A glorious sun was shining from heaven and a light breeze blew through the country. The regatta started in the morning and was attended by the Royal Court, the Greek Olympic Committee, headed by Prince George who had been charged by the King to lead the regatta. The complete Royal Family was there. The double scull would be the first to start because the wind had become much stronger. On a fishing boat we took our double scull to the starting line. We already had problems getting into the double scull because of the swells. From our opponents no one had appeared – although both Greeks and Italians had applied. Because a longer wait for them seemed pointless, the starter told us to sail without competition.

The second race should be a single-scull run, for which my boat was already in place. But to enter it from the lighter proved to be impossible. The wind velocity had increased even more and another possibility to enter the boat was not available. For this reason it was decided to have the single-scull race at the end of the regatta. The organization hoped that the waves, as that was what the swells had become, would then have been reduced.

My opponents should have consisted of Greeks, Italians and Frenchmen. But again nobody appeared. I received the request to come over to the Royal Loge for advice. In the meantime, the third race for sailors in the rowing boats from their naval ships had been frustrated by the whims of Neptune because all boats had been stranded. I had problems getting a jacket because people of my size were an exception in Greece. After a long search I found something that looked like a jacket. I then went to His Majesty.

“Bundesbruder” Jäger, in the meantime, had to take care of the return of the boats to the boathouse. After the official salutation and presentation in the Court Loge, where many of the attendees could not hide a laugh about my clothing, Prince George, President of the Committee, praised me for our appearance at the racing track and presented me with the winners medal in bronze. At the same time he also gave me one for “Bundesbruder” Jäger. The commemorative medal, which each of the participants received, had already been presented to us earlier. It was then decided in the high court to delay the regatta because the weather showed no intention of changing.

The next day the wind was even stronger and with that situation the regatta, or its further organization, was definitely cancelled. The irony of destiny! Three weeks we were in Athens and every day we had had the possibility to do our trainings races in the finest weather and calm waters, but now with one stroke everything hopeless.

Winners of events in Athens received silver medals (above) with runners-up receiving a bronze version of the same medal. The medal was designed by Jules Chaplin; the obverse is a portrait of Zeus with the globe in his right hand, upon which stands the goddess of victory, Nike, holding an olive branch, to the left in Greek the script reads OLYMPIA. The reverse features the Acropolis and Parthenon; the inscription translated from the Greek reads INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC GAMES, ATHENS 1896. All participants received a commemorative medal (below).

All participants received a commemorative medal (below)

last medal

As Küttner and Jäger had been declared the winners by the Organizing Committee, they should have received silver medals. Perhaps the bronze medals like the one above were presented as some sort of consolation prize for only having to row over.

Four years later the first official Olympic champions in rowing were crowned in Paris and French became the language of international rowing. Read The Birth of Modern Olympic Rowing for more on the 1900 Olympic rowing events.

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