6 August 2016
On the first day of the 2016 Olympic Rowing Regatta, Tim Koch looks at how things were done a century ago.
The 2016 Olympic Regatta starts today. However, like a rower, ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ likes to face backwards, looking at what has passed, so it would have been nice to investigate the rowing at the Berlin Olympics of 1916, exactly 100 years earlier. Sadly, the world was engaged in a less sporting contest between 1914 and 1918 and these particular Games did not take place. Nevertheless, this is a good excuse to look at what is generally regarded as the first truly ‘modern’ Olympics, that of Stockholm in 1912. First though, it is interesting to take a look at rowing’s influence on the man who founded the present-day Olympic movement, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. I am indebted to Martin Polley’s The British Olympics, Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612 – 2012 (2011) for much of my information on this.
Pierre de Coubertin was an admirer of many things British from a young age and Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with its stress on manly sporting competition, was an early and lifelong influence. On his first visit to England in 1883, he actually made a pilgrimage to Rugby School, as well as Eton, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge. He came to the conclusion that the importance that British schools, universities and clubs gave to sport and to ‘playing the game’ in the approved manner had physical, moral and social benefits and was one of the major reasons that the products of these institutions could build and maintain a great empire. According to Polley:
He was also full of admiration for the way that, even after they left school and university, young Englishmen continued to enjoy sport…. and to use their leadership skills to help administer and improve those sports.
I suspect that, were de Coubertin not French and a committed internationalist, he would have made a very good Little Englander.
de Coubertin, a keen sculler, had a particular affection for rowing. He thought that it was the ideal sport because it was so hard for people to watch, thus making it worth doing purely for its own sake. According to olympic-legacy.com:
For a first project (in 1887) he attempted to bring British oarsmen to France or send French oarsmen to compete at Henley. This experience taught him that the ‘British and French conceptions of amateurism were not the same.’ This gave him the idea of bringing together educators, diplomats, and sports leader for the purpose of developing a universal understanding of amateurism so that the athletes of all nations might meet on an equal basis.
While de Coubertin was dedicated to amateurism, Henley’s definition of the concept excluded an entire social class, the ‘mechanics, artisans and labourers’. While this was not acceptable even to the French aristocrat, he admired the way that British rowing organised itself and was particularly keen to learn from the unashamedly undemocratic Henley Royal Regatta, notably its committee structure of ‘three concentric circles’. The 2012 Henley Regatta programme stated:
In 1894 Baron Pierre de Coubertin established the International Olympic Committee and….. decided that the best model for the IOC to follow would be the organisational structure of Henley Royal Regatta…… de Coubertin created ‘three concentric circles’ of management. In the first circle he placed the President of the IOC – the equivalent of the Regatta’s Chairman of the Committee of Management. In the second circle, he placed the IOC Executive Committee – the equivalent of the Regatta’s twelve Stewards who form the Committee of Management. The third circle was comprised of the IOC Members – the equivalent of the Stewards of the Regatta. In both organisations it is only the IOC Members or the Stewards who have the right to elect new persons to their body and election is for life.
As to the last point, Polley states:
(de Coubertin) dislike what he described…. as the ‘electoral chaos’ of democratically chosen committees. ‘Noblesse oblige’ and the expectation that a gentleman would do his duty…… constituted, in his view…… the best way to get things done.
It is a system that has worked well for Henley but, sadly, over the years certain members of the International Olympic Committee have proved not to be gentlemen, and the IOC can be spineless when faced with a clear duty.
Baron de Coubertin thought the first Olympics in Athens in 1896 were a great success, despite many obstacles and setbacks. Certainly, with 241 competitors from 14 nations, it had the largest international participation of any sporting event to that date. Sadly, the rowing was cancelled due to rough conditions in the Port of Piraeus [however, see here]. As to future Games, the Baron held that each should be held in a different city, all the better for nations to come together and overcome national disputes in the name of sport. In fact, subsequent Olympics were often used as war by other means, but the idea that they should be nomadic events remained.
After its encouraging start, the Olympic Movement struggled. The Games in Paris in 1900 and St. Louis, USA, in 1904 were overshadowed by the international trade exhibitions in which they were included. Later, de Coubertin remarked that it was ‘a miracle’ that the Olympic Movement survived after 1900. St. Louis turned into a farce as the difficulty of getting to the US kept many of the world’s top athletes away and the Americans produced 80% of the competitors and won 90% of the medals. The 1908 London Games, also held as part of a trade fair, had many positive aspects – though the fact that it went on for six months was not one of them. de Coubertin was determined that the 1912 Olympics could and should be better. After London he held that:
It will be necessary to avoid attempting to copy the Olympic Games of London. The next Olympiads must not have such a character; they must not be so comprehensive. There was altogether too much in London. The Games must be kept more purely athletic; they must be more dignified, more discreet; more in accordance with classic and artistic requirements; more intimate, and, above all, less expensive….. Of all countries in the world, Sweden, at the present moment, possesses the best conditions necessary for organising the Olympic Games in a way that will perfectly satisfy all the claims that athletics and our expectations can demand.
The Official Report that followed the Stockholm Games – later also known as Solskensolympiaden [‘The Sunshine Olympics’] – concluded that de Coubertin’s high expectations of the Swedes were fulfilled:
The aftermath….has been rich beyond expectation. It would require volumes to give anything like a complete summary of what has been said of the Olympic Games in Stockholm and their organisation.
Most contemporary accounts agree that Stockholm was the best Games thus far and the general feeling was that it was a major step forward for the Olympic Movement. They were a harmonious and innovative Games which produced no significant protests or disruptions and had only one major controversy in the later disgraceful treatment by the IOC of athlete Jim Thorpe*, not something that the Swedish organisers can be blamed for. The host nation benefited from having the full four years to prepare for the Games and they learned from the mistakes of previous Olympics. They ensured that the Stockholm Games were a stand-alone event and the schedule was shortened to two months. Some innovations in 1912 included the first Olympic use of automatic timing devices for the track events, the photo finish and a public address system. For the first time competitors in the Games came from all five continents with 27 nations in total taking part. Further, 280 international journalists had been present to cover the event. British athlete Philip Noel-Baker said:
We went to Stockholm as British athletes; we came home Olympians, disciples of the leader, de Coubertin, with a new vision which I never lost.
We do not have to rely solely on written accounts as proof of the success of 1912 as there is much amateur and professional photography to illustrate this as well. In particular, a wonderful photo archive of high-resolution pictures is on the Stockholm City website.
The most commonly seen images of the 1912 Olympics are from the Official Report which followed the Games and this can be downloaded (slowly) here. The rowing is covered on pages 656 to 676. Many of the pictures in the report also appear in the souvenir booklets for each of the participant sports published later – including ‘Rodd’ (Rowing).
Turning briefly from still to moving pictures, YouTube has many films of various sports in action at the 1912 Games – click here for a list. There is no film of rowing and I previously assumed that none existed as the sport would be difficult to cover satisfactorily with the primitive movie cameras of the time. However, I then found this compilation film recently put together by the International Olympic Committee and, from 1 minute 38 seconds, it shows some unidentifiable eights followed by a shot of the Thames RC coxed four that won silver. What other unseen treasures lurk in the IOC film vaults?
The rowing course was chosen for spectator convenience, its calm water and for its nearness to other Olympic venues and to the Stockholms Roddförening (Stockholm’s Rowing Association) boathouse. It could not, however, offer a straight course or more than two racing lanes and, after 1,200 metres, it ‘dog-legged’ before passing under the Djurgården Bridge.
Some 4,218 tickets were sold for the 5,500 person capacity rowing stand for the three days of the regatta – though the pictures indicate that smaller numbers actually turned out to watch the racing. Page 676 of the Official Report states:
Unfortunately, little attention was paid by the public to the Olympic Rowing competitions, which, however, were the best of their kind hitherto seen. The reason of this is probably to be found in the fact that the many preceding days of the Olympic Games, crowded as they were with exciting events, had fatigued the public, which, at the period when the rowing competitions began, had been filled to repletion with first-class sporting events.
A short aside about the interesting picture above: There were 26 in the Australasian team, only three of which were New Zealanders. The blazers with the Australian crest are obvious but there are apparently no New Zealand symbols on display even though the iconic silver fern was first used by NZ rugby internationals in 1888. The two women on the left (famous swimmers, Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie – plus coach or chaperone?) are wearing what could be female versions of a sporting blazer – or perhaps they are just fancy swimmers’ gowns? Australasia entered an eight and a single in the rowing. The sculler was Cecil McVilly (standing on the far left, I think) who was disqualified for interference after winning his first heat. He went on to win the Diamonds at Henley the next year so it was a great shame that such an obviously talented sculler did not go further in the competition. Louis Petrin has previously written for HTBS about the Australian entries at Stockholm. Of McVilly, he wrote: ‘(His) steering problems had plagued him since leaving Australia and he lost the race of his life’. The eight beat one Swedish eight in the first heat but lost to the British Leander crew in the quarterfinal.
Despite a special interest in the sport from the founding father of the Olympic movement, the 1912 Olympic Regatta had only four boat classes. The decision to include eights and single sculls was as expected, but, more controversially, the other two rowing events offered were for coxed inrigged fours and coxed outrigged fours.
Part II, which will be posted tomorrow, will have the story of the four rowing events at Stockholm.
*Jim Thorpe, a Native American, was the star of the Games, easily winning the pentathlon and the decathlon. The Swedish King, Gustaf V, told him ‘You sir are the greatest athlete in the world’ to which Thorpe replied ‘Thanks King’. Sadly, in 1913 Thorpe’s amateur status was challenged retrospectively for minor infringements of the amateur code and he was stripped of his title. In 1982, the International Olympic Committee reinstated his win.