The First Cup for Olympic Rowing?

The holy grail of Olympic rowing?
The holy grail of Olympic rowing?

12 December 2016 

Louis Petrin of Drummoyne Rowing Club, Australia, writes:

There was an auction held in Melbourne on Thursday 8 December, The Martin Sheppard Collection of Olympic Memorabilia. The first item sold for AUD$3,000 to someone who must have been the only bidder. The item? A trophy meant to be awarded at the 1 April 1896 Olympics – and for rowing no less.

What is fascinating is the trophy was not presented to anyone, as the event was cancelled. The story goes that this trophy cup was kept by a British Olympic Official and his family for more than 100 years.

It is a traditional cup held up by three oars, with star markings, see on top.

So is this the holy grail of Olympic rowing, or an April fools prank?

A little background: HTBS’s Greg Denieffe wrote in April about Berthold Küttner claiming he and his Bundesbruder, Adolf Jäger, were winners in rowing at the first Olympic Games held at the Port of Piraeus in Greece – see here. Were they the winners of this cup?

The weather that day was horrid, with high wind, almost freezing rain, and very rough seas. Sailing was cancelled but it was thought that maybe racing four-oared boats could continue. Whilst the two crews were on their way to the start, the weather worsened. The rowing events were rescheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The weather by then had gotten worse, and so all rowing events were cancelled.

Bill Mallon and Ture Widlung in their book The 1896 Olympic Games, Results for All Competitors in All Events, with Commentary, listed the following events to be rowed, along with the participants:

  • Single sculls over 2,000 meters – one known entrant, Berthold Küttner, Germany
  • Double sculls over 2,000 meters – one known boat entered, Berthold Küttner and Adolf Jäger, Germany
  • Coxed pairs over 2,000 meters – one known boat entered, Piraeus Rowing Club, Greece
  • Coxed fours – two known boats entered, Hermopolis Rowing Club, Greece, and Panhellenic Club of Athens, Greece.

Aside: Mallon & Widlund listed the clubs with German names – Ruderklub Piraeus, Ruderverein Hermopolis and Panhellenischer Turnverein, who knows why? Also, The Official 1896 Report lists the Nautical Club of Syra rather than the Hermopolis Rowing Club.

It is interesting that in Denieffe’s story, Küttner’s writing 40 years later seems to suggest the Germans were the only ones who turned up.

Mallon is a leading authority on the history of the Olympic Games, and so it is interesting that he lists so few entrants, taken from the written records by officials. Why was this? Rowing in this period was not some obscure activity but rather had many participants and followers. This was of course the first time the Olympics were held and so many of the top rowers from around the world probably did not deem it worth the effort and expense to race at some unknown event all the way in Greece.

It should be remembered that at that time, 14 nations attended, with 241 athletes participating in 43 events in nine sports, so it was not large but it was a beginning. In 2016, the numbers were 205 nations, with 11,544 athletes participating in 306 across 28 sports. So even though Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin modelled the International Olympic Committee on the Henley Royal Stewards, and was known to go out for a paddle in a scull himself, rowing was not top of the list.

So Küttner may have been able to lay claim to being the first winner because he turned up, ready to race. The rules for the rowing at the 1896 Olympics were to be those of the Rowing Club ltaliano. Although I do not have a copy of their rules, typically even if there is only one boat in a race, it must cross the finish line to be declared a winner, a row over. So Küttner can tell the same story many have, “I could have won if only … ”. Sounds like many a Masters Rowing Regatta. So I would say there were no winners for rowing at this Olympics.

Now, back to the Cup just sold at auction. There seems to be no provenance for this item, only the fact it was held by a family of a British Olympic Official all this time. It would be helpful to know who the British Official was that took this home. Maybe someone out there knows?

How did this official come by the cup? Participants for the rowing event were meant to be from France, Germany, Greece and Italy, no one from England.

The officials for the rowing event are listed in the Official Olympic Report, the umpires were: Prince George; Captain Boudhouris; Captain Duboury, commanding a man-of-war in the French Navy; Mr D. Kyriakos; and Mr I. Ipitis, acted as secretary – once again, no Englishman.

The official awards of the 1896 Olympics were a silver medal, crown of olive branches, and certificate for first place; a bronze medal, crown of laurel, and certificate for second place; and a commemorative medal for each athlete who competed. So this cup would have had to be donated by someone other than the Olympic Committee. But who?

Silver trophy cups are normally hallmarked. The only marking on this trophy is an etching of a single sculler. No maker marks, no event, no date, no distinguishing marks. So we cannot verify where it came from.

the-first-cup-pic-2 the-first-cup-pic-3


the-first-cup-pic-4So what do we make of this? More clear as mud history.


  1. It was not uncommon for there to be “supplemental” prizes (i.e. beyond a medal and a certificate) for various sports in Olympic Games through at least the 1920s, so it would not surprise me, especially given the claimed provenance (“the fact it was held by a family of a British Olympic Official all this time” does, indeed, constitute provenance), that this might be a genuine survivor.

    The cup follows a not uncommon style of rowing award dating from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century, that of a goblet in which the bowl is supported by three crossed oars resting on a base, which is sometimes shaped as a boater.

    As with other prizes of this nature, the object may be made of anything from a base metal composite to gold. There is no doubt in my mind that this item lies in the base metal category. While such pieces of lesser value often bear maker – or vendor/distributor – marks (the pewter pots made by Dixon and marketed by Rowell are classic examples), they often don’t, so that should come as no surprise.

  2. To keep the trophy in the rowing community, I was the purchaser. (I am a local Australian rowing historian who runs an Australian rowing history website.) Whilst we try and ascertain whether not it is authentic, you know where the trophy resides. Andrew Guerin

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