By Chuck Kroll
Sponsored by The International Swimming Hall of Fame
SEATTLE, Wash., April 6. THE year was 1896. For ten days from April 6-15, a total of 311 athletes competed in the first modern Olympics in Athens, Greece. Fourteen countries were represented but the majority of the athletes (230), were from the host country. There were 43 events contested in nine different sports.
Emerging as the World’s first Olympic Swimming Champion was Alfred Hajos (2/1/1878-11/12/1955), an eighteen year old from Budapest, Hungary. At age 13, then known by his birth name as Arnold Guttmann, witnessed his father drown in the River Danube.
The first Olympics were to contest four swimming events. They were all held in the Bay of Zea in the Mediterranean Sea. The temperature of the water was approximately 50F degrees.
The first event the 100 meter free was swum in relatively flat, protected waters with Hajos upsetting the favorites, Chorophas from Greece and Herschmann of Austria. His time, One minute, twenty-two and two tenths of a second.
The 500 was won by Austrian Paul Neumann over two other Greeks while Hajos rested for the 1200 meter swim. The distance event needed a bit longer course and was begun by transporting the swimmers by boat directly out from shore, where they dove into the sea with waves reported to be up to 12 feet. With a time of 18:22.2, the young Hajos won. He stated his motivation at the finish by saying, “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”
While attending a dinner honoring the Olympic winners, the King of Greece asked where he had learned to swim, whereupon Hajos replied, “In the water.”
Like many Olympic swimmers since, Alfred Hajos went on to an interesting life. He became known throughout Hungary and even internationally as an architect of sporting facilities and residential and public buildings. In fact, his architectural entry won first place in the Olympic Art Competition, in Paris 1924. He was the first and perhaps only athlete to have ever accomplished this unique combination of Olympic championships.
This summer, beginning July 31st the 28th LEN European Swimming Championships will be held at the newly refurbished Alfred Hajos Aquatic Complex, a swimming pool originally designed by Hajos himself.
In the Fall of 2002 the ‘Hajos Alfred Society’ was formed in Budapest. From their website, the founders are a very ambitious and accomplished group themselves. Already nearing completion are a biographical book titled, ‘Hungarian Dolphin,’ a related temporary exhibit, an educational module a documentary and feature film.
The Society’s motto comes from Hajos diary “…harmony between body and spirit…” Their website is www.hajosalfred.hu With his biography due by this summer’s meet in Budapest it should be a proud time for not only all of Hungarian water sports but even for all Hungarians and others who believe in the positive values of sport.
What was the fourth ‘swimming’ event at the 1896 Olympics and what made it unique? Email answers to Chuck Kroll