Antwerp 1920 Olympics Centenary: The Games Of Kahanamoku, Bleibtrey & Warren Paoa Kealoha’s 1st Gold

Warren Paoa Keoloha and the pools at Antwerp 1920 - Photo Courtesy: ISHOF, Keoloha images, and L’EQUIPE; Les Jeux Olympiques – d’Athènes 1896 a Athènes 2004

Today marks the start of the swimming competition at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp 100 years ago, Hawaiian Warren Paoa Kealoha the first gold medalist in the pool when he claimed the first of his career 100m backstroke titles.

Swimmers from twenty one nations raced at the Bassin du Natation between August 23 and 29. The World-record count was 9, five set by women at the second Games they were allowed to enter, four set by men racing at the seventh Games.

The top nation in the pool at the previous Games, Stockholm 1912 (1916 having been cancelled because of the First World War) was barred from 1920: Germany topped the medals  in 1912 but was excluded from the first Games to witness the flying of the Olympic Flag and the releasing of doves as a symbol of peace after the horrors of the Great War.

With a disgraced Germany, as well as Austro-Hungarians barred from international sport, the United States emerged as the dominant force in swimming, with eight victories and a perfect result among women: all six individual medals and the relay gold.

Ethelda Bleibtrey took gold in all the women’s races: 100m and 300m (not 400m but registered as such in many historic accounts) freestyle and with teammates Margaret Woodbridge, Frances Schroth and Irene Guest in the 4x100m freestyle.

It was a special moment in swimming history, one that made swimming synonymous with health, outstanding fitness, beauty and the aesthetic side of sport: some of the stars of the show helped to pave the way to a golden era of swimming on the silver screen and at the Aquacades and similar festivals that joined the mainstream-entertainment offer of the day for a while.

Of the 21 nations who sent swimmers, 17 sent men and eight sent women to race in Antwerp. The Games marked the first appearance of swimmers from Brazil, Spain, Japan, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia, while the programme matched that of Stockholm 1912, with one addition, a 300m freestyle race for women.

Antwerp featured an innovation in swimming that was lost in time but made a comeback in European championship waters in the first decade of this century after lobbying from Australian Bill Sweetenham (four enter, two per nation eligible for the final) during his time at the helm of performance in Britain: four entries were allowed per nation in each individual event.

The Bassin du Natation was a trench divided into three pools by boardwalks and wooden staves that had once formed part of Antwerp’s fortifications. It was 100m long and 18m wide. Races started from wooden decking built in front of a double-gabled bathhouse. The water lacked filtration and was, therefore, murky, though the bigger problem for the swimmer was was the temperature: the water, fed from the adjoining Scheldt Stream, was just 16C. Today’s pool-water temperature must be between 25 and 28C and must not alter within that range during competition.

One hundred years ago at Antwerp 1920, the stars of the show were Duke Kahanamoku And Bleibtrey. Kahanamoku retained the 100m freestyle crown twice: a protest over teammate Norman Ross in the first final sparked a re-match. Ross opted not to race the second final in favour of other events. A day later, he clocked a 22:23.2 victory over the 1,500m and three days later still he took the 400m crown in 5:26.8.

A fellow Hawaiian of the Kahanamoku’s, 17-year-old Warren Paoa Kealoh

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Ethelda Bleibtrey with the other hero of Antwerp 1920, USA teammate Duke Kahanamoku – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

he first of his two Olympic backstroke titles (1920-1924) in 1.15.2, through that wasn’t the best of his dominant speed.  In the heats, Keoloha establushed a world record of 1.14.8, the first of the four global marks he established in a career that it included retaining the Olympic crown at Paris 1924.

Often written up as Warren’s brother (but today denied after research failed to confirm a family tie), Pua Kela Keoloha, was joined by Ross, Kahanamoku and Perry McGillivray for a world record of 10:04.4 in a 4x200m freestyle relay.

That relay also witnessed the end of the long career of Britain’s Henry Taylor: he claimed bronze alongside his Britain teammates to take his Olympic-medals tally to four gold, one silver and three bronzes (those including efforts at the 1906 ‘intercalated’ Games that are not recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

As one pioneer and legend waved farewell in Antwerp, another in the making made his Olympic debut: Arne Borg, 19, was last man in for the Sweden team that finished fourth. Borg, the 1928 1,500m champion, was denied the honour of becoming the first Swedish Olympic swimming gold medal winner by Haaken Malmroth, who in Antwerp claimed two golds: in the 200m breaststroke in 3.04.4 and as the last Olympic 400m breaststroke champion, in 6:31.8, and only non-American victor of that discontinued event.

Warren Paoa Kealoha‘s First Gold


Warren Keoloha

On this day 100 years ago, the 100m backstroke was the first swimming events at Antwerp 1920. It was just for men: the women were confined to three freestyle events, no backstroke nor breaststroke for them, butterfly and medley not yet a twinkle in the eye of swimming creation.

The event and the title were owned by Warren Paoa Kealoha.

Just 13 men from six nations competed in the 100m backstroke. In the first semi-final the day before the final, Ray Kegeris wiped 3sec off the 1912 Olympic record of fellow American Harry Hebner with a 1:17.8 effort.

Teammate Warren Paoa Kealoha then took a sledge hammer to it: 1:14.8.

In the final, the title went to the Hawaiian in 1:15.2, with Kegeris making big strides for silver in 1:16.2. Using an old-style double-arm technique, Belgium’s Gerard Blitz (BEL) claimed bronze in 1:19.0 a touch ahead of the two other Americans in the final, McGillivray and Harold Kruger.

During his career, Warren Paoa Kealoha set four world records, first at the 1920 Olympics and last in Honolulu in 1926, which was beaten the next day by Walter Laufer. After retiring from swimming, Kealoha became a successful rancher. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) in 1968, four years before he passed away.

Warren Kealoha was also an American freestyle champion. At his induction, he said:

“It wasn’t easy for Hawaiians to get to the Olympics back in those days, or I might have had a chance at my third Olympics in 1928. We had to break a world record before they could afford to send us to the Mainland, then when we arrived by boat and out of shape, we had to beat all comers on the West coast, again in Chicago, and again in New York before we finally made the Olympic team.”

Warren is one of several Hawaiians in the Hall of Fame, with Duke Kahanamoku, Bill Smith, Buster Crabbe and coach Soichi Sakamoto.