Swimming - Athens 1896

Swimming at the 1896 Winter Olympics in Athens

Competitions in swimming at the Athens Olympics were held in open water in the bay near Piraeus. In the races the swimmers were sailed off to a start line in the bay marked by two buoys, and from here they swam towards the coast to the goal line that was flagged.

There were four events in the program and they were all settled on the same day, Saturday, April 11. It was a cold and windy spring day. The water temperature was only 13 degrees C and the air temperature was only five degrees higher. Nevertheless the competitions allegedly were attended by about 20,000 spectators.

The four events were all for men and in freestyle. Athletes swam over three distances: 100 m, 500 m and 1200 m. The fourth event was also over 100 m, but with the special condition that participation was only open for sailors in the Greek fleet. In total 13 swimmers from four nations competed in the four events.

The cold weather and the rough water made great troubles for the participants, and several had to be rescued in boats during the races. The winner of the 1200 m distance, the Hungarian Alfred Hajos, later characterized the situation with the following statement: "My will to survive entirely overshadowed my desire to win."

Alfred Hajos was 18 years old and born in Budapest. Besides the victory in 1200 meters he also won the race over 100 m. Hajos wanted to win all three open events, but as the 500 m race started immediately after the 100 m, he chose only to run the 100 m and 1200 m. Alfred Hajos' real name was Arnold Guttmann, but as it was customary for most of the contemporary Eastern European Jews, he competed under a different name.

The distance of 500 m was won of Austrian Paul Neumann, who swam in a style reminiscent of today's butterfly.

The special competition for sailors was won by the Greek Ioannis Malokinis in a time that was almost one minute slower than Hajos' time on the open 100 m. The competition for sailors had a short Olympic life as it was only on the program in 1896.

Swimming has been part of the Olympic program at every Summer Games since 1896. After 1908, when the international swimming federation FINA was created, swimming evolved to become one of the most prominent sports in the Olympic Games. The competitions at the first Olympic Games from 1896 to 1908 is, however, very far from today's Olympic swimming competitions. In 1896 in Athens the competitions were as referred settled in the Mediterranean. In 1900 in Paris swimmers competed in the Seine, in 1904 in St. Louis in a small lake and in 1908 in London in a 100 meter pool on the infield of the Olympic Stadium. Also the character of the events differed significantly from today with disciplines such as underwater and obstacle swimming on the program. From 1912 at the Games in Stockholm the Olympic swimming program settled in a more systematic framework and events were introduced for women. Since 1912 the program has evolved from nine events to 32 events at the 2012 Games in London, divided equally between men and women in four different swimming styles.

This story about Swimming at the 1896 Winter Olympics in Athens is based on the official Olympic reports and the Olympian Database
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