1896 Olympic Rowing – More Questions than Answers

Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, at the oars on Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, at the oars on Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

8 February 2017

Greg Denieffe writes:

Back in November 2016, in a Crewcial Collectables column called A Little Greek Now and Then is Cherished by the Wisest Men, I brought HTBS readers news of a 120-old piece of rowing ephemera (from the Greek ephemeros, meaning lasting only one day) that failed to find a buyer at a Graham Budd Auctions sale earlier that the month.

The original picture used to illustrate the unsold lot, a rare 1896 Olympic Games four-page programme for Nautical Sports, was not very clear and although legible revealed very little about the scheduled Olympic rowing regatta.

In hope more than expectation, I fired off an email to the auctioneers asking if I could have copies of all four pages for research to be published on HTBS. They kindly replied that they had returned the programme to its overseas owner but that they would pass on my request.

Shortly before Christmas, I received an email from the Stockholm-based Ulf Ström, asking what he could do for me. After a few emails, punctuated by festive cheer, Ulf kindly sent me the four pages to share on HTBS for which I am very grateful.

Before we look at what the programme tells us about the (proposed) 1896 Olympic Regatta, we should consider how rowing came to be one of the founding sports of what is now the world’s greatest international multi-sport competition.

Pierre, Baron de Coubertin, the person mostly responsible for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, was a rower himself. He spent several years finalising his ideas for a revival of the ancient Olympic Games, studying sport in England and travelling to the United States and Canada visiting several universities and colleges, examining their structure, their educational systems and sporting organizations.

In November 1892, Coubertin organized a conference at the Sorbonne, Paris, in which he discussed the history of sports and the possibility of renewing the Olympic Games. At this conference, he made his now famous proposal, ‘Let us export rowers, runners, and fencers; there is the free trade of the future, and on the day when it is introduced within the walls of old Europe the cause of peace will have received a new mighty stay.’

During a congress organised by de Coubertin in Paris in June 1894, Athens was chosen to stage the inaugural Games. It was also at this meeting that the IOC was created and a large roster of sports including rowing was suggested for inclusion in the Games.

In due course the following invitation was sent out to various rowing federations:

the International Athletics Congress, meeting in the Palais de la Sorbonne, Paris, on June 16th 1894, under the chairmanship of M. le baron de Courcel, a senator of the French Republic, has decided to re-establish the Olympic Games and to celebrate them for the first time in 1896 in Athens.

Following this decision, which was eagerly accepted by Greece, the Hellenic Committee, based in Athens, under the presidency of HRH Monseigneur the Royal Prince of Greece, has the honour of inviting you to take part in the Olympic Games of 1896, which will be celebrated in Athens from 5th -15th. The programme and regulations concerning these are enclosed.

We would appreciate a reply to this invitation, issued in agreement with the International Olympic Games Committee, based in Paris.

Yours faithfully, etc.
Athens, October 14th/24th 1895
Secretary General of the Hellenic Committee of the Olympic Games
Timoleon, J. Philemon

 The above invitation was reproduced in the 1992 publication FISA 1892-1992: The FISA Centenary Book, under the heading The birth of Olympic rowing. Thanks to Christopher Anton for supplying me with a copy of the relevant page. As FISA celebrates their sesquicentenary this year, he has started to tweet snippets of their history under the hashtag #FISA125.

 In 1889, de Coubertin included an entire chapter in his book, L’Education Anglais en France, to the history of rowing and its place in English school life. He continued to enjoy rowing and writing about it throughout his life and in 1928, at the age of 65 de Coubertin published a 15-page brochure entitled La cure d’aviron (Health through Rowing), and at 72 was still an active oarsman. I feel that FISA (World Rowing) and the rowing community at large should make more of de Coubertin’s rowing background and how it influenced him in his Olympic ideals. Read more about de Coubertin’s rowing influences in Tim Koch’s HTBS article ‘Thanks King’: Sweden’s Modern Olympics, Part I.

Programme of International Olympic Water Sports 1896. Photo: © Ulf Ström.

The programme is in both Greek and French. The first page confirms that His Royal Highness, Prince George of Greece, will preside over the event and lists the members of the jury.

Rowing Events – first two races. Photo: © Ulf Ström.

On the second page we learn that the regatta was to be conducted under the regulations of the ‘ROWING CLUB ITALIANO’, over a straight course from Old Phalere to New Phalere on the 1 April 1896 (Julian/Greek calendar) or 13 April 1896 (Gregorian calendar used by most of the rest of the world).

Racing was to begin at 10.00 a.m. with the first race over 2,000 metres for ‘Boats with two oars (skiffs), one rower without helmsman’. In modern parlance – ‘single sculls over 2K’. Berthold Küttner, ARV Berlin, was the only entrant. The following (translated) from their website:

The Academic Ruderclub zu Berlin eV is a merger of the Academic Ruderverein zu Berlin (ARV) founded in Grünau in 1891 and the Akademischer Ruderclub Berlin, founded in Spandau in 1895. A highlight of early times is the participation of Berthold Küttner and Alfred Jäger at the first Olympiad in Athens in 1896, which still reminds us of the boat “Berthold Küttner”. 

Berthold Küttner, pictured in 1895, after finishing second in the German single sculls championships. Photo: Rüsselsheimer Ruder-Klub.
Berthold Küttner, pictured in 1895, after finishing second in the German single sculls championships. Photo: Rüsselsheimer Ruder-Klub.

The second race, also over 2,000 metres, was for ‘Boats, sea yoles with four oars, two rowers and a coxswain’. This literal translation from the French description would suggest that the race was for coxed double sculls but as Louis Petrin pointed out in his recent article on HTBS The First Cup for Olympic Rowing?, Olympic historians, Bill Mallon and Ture Widlung, refer to this race in their book, The 1896 Olympic Games, Results for All Competitors in All Events, with Commentary, as coxed pairs which seems more likely. The programme confirms that only one club, Piraeus Rowing Club, Greece (1885), entered this event. Ομίλου Ερετών, Πειραιώς, to use their Greek name, is still in existence and the history page of their website refers to their participation in the first Olympic Games of 1896 by way of organizing the rowing in Phalere.

Rowing Events – 3rd and 4th races and 1st race for Naval Boats. Photo: © Ulf Ström.
Alfred Jaeger (Bow) and Berthold Küttner (Stk), Akademischen Rudervereins zu Berlin (ARV), Germany, photographed in Piraeus by fellow Berliner Albert Meyer.

The next race scheduled was for ‘Boats with four oars, outriggers without coxswain’, what we call ‘double sculls’, is the most interesting from a historical point of view. Only one entry is listed, that of Academische Ruder Verein, Berlin, crewed by Berthold Küttner and Alfred Jaeger (called Adolf Jäger by Küttner in his articles published in Berlin in 1936). Their story and their claim to have completed this race (rowed over) are told in more detail in a previous article on HTBS, Athens 1896: The First Olympic Rowing Medallists? What is interesting about this race is that as the only entry, they were scheduled to ‘row over’ and if Küttner is correct and they did so under starter’s instructions, his claim that they were the first Olympic rowing medallists is strengthened. However, he also stated that they were expecting opposition from Greece and Italy and that no other crew showed up at the start. In my limited experience of being an assistant regatta secretary back in the 1980s, no further entries are allowed once the closing date for entries had passed. This programme was printed in Athens 12 days before the scheduled racing (see page 4), presumably after the entries closed. Were the organizers ‘winging it’? Is Küttner a reliable witness? Is there a long-lost record of what took place in the ‘Court Loge’ after the regatta was postponed and at which Küttner claims that Prince George presented him with a winner’s medal in bronze?

A colourized version of a photo of Prince George of Greece. A black and white version of this photo appears in the ‘Official Report’ of the 1896 Games.
A colourized version of a photo of Prince George of Greece. A black and white version of this photo appears in the ‘Official Report’ of the 1896 Games.

The fourth and final race of the Rowing Events section was to be for coxed fours, ‘Boats, sea yoles with four rowers and a coxswain’ over 4,000m. Two Greek crews entered: Hermopolis Rowing Club, Syros, and Panhellenic Gymnastic Club, Athens.

Louis Petrin, in his article, noted that “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.”

The programme confirms that the Hermopolis Rowing Club was from Syra (French spelling). Now known (in English) as Syros Nautical Club (1893), they also mention the 1896 Olympic regatta on their website (my rough translation):

The Syros club made a dynamic contribution to the consolidation of the sport of rowing and had even prepared a boat for participation in the first Olympics of 1896 which was frustrated due to bad weather.

The Panhellenic Gymnastics Club (1891) makes no mention of rowing, either now or in 1896, on the website.

Members of German team at the Acropolis – Küttner (with someone’s arm on his shoulder) and Jaeger side by side in the centre, both wearing white caps.

The first of three naval boat races, for six-manned whalers, was due to commence at 3 p.m. This race, over two miles, attracted six entries, (Mallon & Widlund list a seventh, a Greek “panzerfregatte”) from the following ships: Dévastation (FRA), San Francisco (USA), Battleship Hydra (GRE), Battleship Spetzai [sic] (GRE), Battleship Psara (GRE) and Frigate Hellas (GRE); crews to fly their national flag.

Naval Boats – 2nd and 3rd races. Photo: © Ulf Ström.

The second naval boat race was for ship’s boats with 16-20 rowers (or oars). All three entries had crews of 16 men and were from the three Greek battleships Hydra, Spetsai and Psara.

The final race was again for ship’s boats but limited to 10-14 rowers (or oars). Five entries, all of 14 men were set to race with crews from the French ship Dévastation and the American ship San Francisco joining crews from the three Greek sister ships, Hydra, Spetsai and Psara.

The notice at the foot of the page explains that in case of bad weather, the races would take place the following day. However, as the official report of the Games confirms, the weather was so bad in the afternoon that a decision to cancel rather than postpone was made:

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 boatrace had to be given up.

Unfortunately, there is no mention of prizes, either medals or a cup that were to be presented to the winners and runners-up. There is therefore no evidence to support the claim made in the recent Leonard Joel auction that lot 1 of The Martin Sheppard Collection of Olympic Memorabilia was from the 1896 Athens Olympic Games and was:

the first modern games Rowing Team winner’s chalice, was to be presented to the winning team but the event was cancelled due to weather concerns. It was kept by British Olympic officials for over 100 years before being acquired for this collection in 2007.

Louis Petrin, in his article about the chalice, asks the question: ‘So is this the holy grail of Olympic rowing, or an April fool’s prank?’ The jury may be out on this but if there is a sacred scripture of Olympic rowing, perhaps this programme is it.

The programme did not find a buyer back in November 2016 at the estimate price range of £2,000 to £2,500. However, it is still for sale and the owner has confirmed that he is open to realistic offers.


  1. “When, 25 years ago, I was seeking something on which to base the revival of sport in schools, it seemed to me that rugby and rowing were best suited to play the most important roles. A team of rugby players or a crew of highly trained and well drilled oarsmen embody those qualities of energy, endurance, patience, unselfish effort, self-effacement and disinterest concerning the final outcome which make for all that is most admirable and profitable in sport.”

    Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic games, 1911, as quoted in the FISA centennial history, at p. 32.

  2. Nice article on a forgotten topic. Our sources (Mallon/Widlund) for 1896 entries were both this program and 1896 Greek newspapers. My associate, Ture Widlund, had all the 1896 Greek newspaper and was able to read them. Interesting about the possibility of a row-over to maybe consider that the one event should be considered an Olympic event. Not sure we will find more evidence on it, however.

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