Paul Kölliker: The Two-Metre Swiss Scribe

Paul Kölliker on the Rotsee in 1958. Picture: KEYSTONE/PHOTOPRESS-ARCHIV/St via @swissrowing.

25 January 2021

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd remembers Swiss rower Paul Kölliker, whom Chris worked with in the FISA’s Media Commission.

Paul ‘Kö’ Kölliker, who has died aged 88, a victim of coronavirus, was a Swiss champion sculler turned rowing correspondent and first chairman of World Rowing’s (FISA) Media Commission when it was set up in the early nineties. Paul was hard to miss, standing two metres tall with a voice that could carry far beyond two metres if needs must. He was an observant and cooperative colleague in the press box and an able voice in the FISA hierarchy.

I was fortunate to sit on Paul’s commission, and we were tasked with enhancing coverage of rowing in the media and selling it to Joe Public. With no budget. Paul was an excellent chairman, quickly embracing the heart of a debate and shutting off windbags in their prime, including some members of the FISA council on which he sat.

An early debate on how to explain rowing to the masses soon produced a list of proposals: abolish lightweight categories, merge rowing and sculling by requiring everyone to use two oars; drop events without coxes; abandon one sex events, making all events mixed; abolish repechages and make all races one-on-one, Henley style.

We never submitted these to the executive, somehow realising that we would be regarded as irreverent. But such blue water thinking set the tone for our own meetings, enhanced immensely by Paul’s predominant characteristics – straight talking on FISA’s council and humour wherever he found himself. The commission got off to a good start at its first meeting because I had been commissioned by my British newspaper to write a piece on whether the Swiss enjoyed a sense of humour. I addressed the question to Paul and unleashed a stream of jokes, many unprintable. Henceforth every meeting began with Swiss jokes, to the chagrin of other commissions who could hear our laughter echoing in the corridors of conference centres. Mirth continued at meetings of the informal media, medical and youth commissioners’ dining club that explored restaurants in many parts of the world.

Under Paul’s able guidance the commission also achieved some useful work, including introducing minimum standards for press facilities at regattas, reconciling the interests of television companies with regatta organisers and the creation of World Rowing magazine, then on paper, now in the sky.

Paul Kölliker with Kurt Schmid in 1961. Picture: KEYSTONE/PHOTOPRESS-ARCHIV/St via @swissrowing

Paul the junior sculler was known as the ‘Seeclub antenna’. In 1957, he won the junior sculls in a storm on the Rotsee in Lucerne. ‘The race was a pure tour de force,’ he recalled. ‘At the halfway mark, there were already countless lengths between me and the survivors, whose skiffs were full of water. Their upper bodies stuck out of the water like extended periscopes of submarines.’ Kölliker’s winning time of 12.10.9 minutes is the slowest winning time recorded on the Rotsee.

At the 1960 Swiss Championships, Kölliker won the pairs and fours titles and finished second in the eights. In the 1960 Olympics in Rome, his coxless four, with Gottfied Kottmann, Rolf Streuli and Kurt Schmid, placed sixth in the final.

Outside rowing, Paul enjoyed a varied and adventurous life. After dropping out of school, he undertook an apprenticeship in toolmaking in Kriens and then became a lumberjack in Sweden. ‘We cut down trees on a piecework basis. Everyone had a piece of forest all to themselves,’ he said in an interview with Hanns Fuch. Returning to Switzerland, he became a supply teacher and qualified for the national high jump team. But his talent with oars was spotted by the legendary Seeclub coach, Willy Dubach, and Kölliker studied for a sports teacher’s diploma.

He taught at the Musegg secondary school for five years, after which his temperament, curiosity and thirst for adventure got the better of him. In 1965, the aid organisation Helvetas asked him if he would like to set up a training workshop for 500 young Algerian war orphans in Tunisia. Paul, his wife Annelies and their two small children spent two years in North Africa. After that they moved to Nepal to run an aid project in a mountain valley at 3000 metres above sea level. The Köllikers’ third child was born in Nepal and the other children began their schooling there.

Paul Kölliker in blazerati mode. Picture: @swissrowing

After some time in Nepal, the family returned to Switzerland and settled in Lucerne, where Paul was engaged in setting up a home for young people with behavioural problems (now the Schachen-Lucerne School and Residential Centre). Once the enterprise was in operation, Paul switched to another career – journalism. After two years at the Zuger Tagblatt, he moved to Tagesschau at Swiss TV, followed by Schweiz Aktuell and Neue Zürcher Zeitung. When at Swiss TV, he introduced teletext to the service, and at Schweiz Aktuell he produced special features two or three times a year on social issues such as the condition of psychiatric wards, trekking with sled dogs or following mountain trails with mules.

After rowing, mules became Paul’s passion. He rode them up and over Switzerland’s alpine passes. We of the media commission used to rib him about finding a mule with legs long enough to save the two-metre man from dragging his feet. He was president of the Swiss mule association for several years.

On the Sunday night of Lucerne regatta, Paul used to bring himself and his sense of humour to British Association of Rowing Journalists dinners at the Rebstock hotel. We miss him, and in this time of pandemic, we mourn the dinners too.

Paul Kölliker, born 19 February 1932, died 11 January 2021. His wife Annelies died on 29 December 2020.

Thanks to Jolanda van de Graaf and Hanns Fuch for help with this article.

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