This Day in Swimming: The 1st Modern Olympics (1896)

When we think of swimming as an Olympic sport, we picture an Olympic-size pool, diving blocks, decent water temperatures, both male and female athletes, as well as years of training. However, these modern Olympic swimming amenities are a far cry from what Olympic swimmers had 120 years ago.

A Disorganized Affair

The modern Olympic Games date back to April of 1896. Internationally, word of the Games was not spread very well, and the competing athletes traveled to Greece and entered the Olympics on their own dime. They were not nationally chosen as they are today.

In fact, there were even some tourists turned 11th-hour contestants. A total of 245 athletes representing over a dozen countries competed in these first Games.

Swimming is among only five sports that have been part of every summer Olympic Games since 1896; the others are gymnastics, athletics, cycling, and fencing.

In the 1896 Olympics, there were 13 total swimming participants. All were men, as was true of all Olympic events that year. Women did not swim in the Olympics until 1912.

At the first modern Olympics in 1896, Hungarian swimmer Alfréd Hajós earned gold medals in the 100-meter and the 1200-meter freestyle events. Both events were held in the chilly waters of the Bay of Zea. Hajós later went on to win an Olympic silver medal in architecture in 1924, making him one of only two Olympians to medal in artistic and athletic events.

No Olympic Pool

All swimming events were held off of the Piraeus coast at the Bay of Zea on April 11, 1896. Despite the organizers’ refusal to spend money to construct a swimming stadium, almost 20,000 spectators showed up to witness the swimming competition at the 1896 Summer Olympics. Among the witnesses was King George I.

However, the swimmers faced much more difficult conditions than Olympic swimmers today. The Bay of Zea was extremely cold, impacting the performance of the swimmers. It was noted that the water temperature was between 53 and 57 degrees F; the air temperature was only 64.

Hungarian swimmer Alfred Hajós reportedly said that his biggest struggle was against towering 12-foot waves; the cold water left him in fear of cramping. He famously said that his desire to live overcame his desire to win, inspiring him to two medals!

There were no diving blocks in the first Olympics. The competitors were taken into the bay by boat to leap into the frigid waters. The first swimmer to reach the shore won.

At the 1896 Olympic Games, only men were permitted to compete. For the swimming competitions, the glass ceiling wouldn't be shattered until the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, when the British 4x100 freestyle relay team, pictured here, were among the first women to compete.

Four out of Six

Originally six swimming events were planned, yet only four came to fruition. Three of the four were open events: the men’s 100-meter freestyle, the men’s 500-meter freestyle, and the men’s 1200-meter freestyle.

For the fourth, Greek Royal Navy sailors were invited to compete in a special event called the men’s sailors 100-meter freestyle. Eleven swimmers entered this special event; however, only three competitors swam. Interestingly, the winning time from Ioannis Malokinis (pictured, top left) was close to a minute behind the winning time of the open 100-meter freestyle.

In general, the Olympic Games include only events that are open to all competitors, not just those of a certain class. No existing records indicate that Olympic organizer Pierre de Coubertin, or any other organizer, objected to the consideration of the sailor-only swimming event.

The Bay of Zea, as it looks today. In 1896, this was the site of all four swimming events in the 1896 Olympics, the first of the modern era. Turnout was low, partly due to poor advance planning and partly due to chilly water temperatures.

Stiff Competition

The 100-meter freestyle was the first swimming event. Ten swimmers entered. Alfréd Hajós, the youngest Olympic swimmer at age 18, beat Austria’s Otto Herschmann by less than a body length.

There are no existing records to show the places of the remaining swimmers, seven of whom were Greek and one, Gardner Williams, was American.

The 500-meter freestyle was won by Paul Neumann of Austria with more than a 90-second margin. Neumann, just shy of his 21st birthday, was the oldest of the Olympic swimmers. Taking third place was Greek swimmer Efstathois Chorafras, who competed in all three open swimming events.

The 1200-meter freestyle event was held last, with nine swimmers. Hajós won by nearly 100 meters, despite it being his second race. Ioannis Andreou of Greece took second place. Neumann was unable to complete the full race. Williams competed, but his place is unknown.

Interestingly, Hajós later went on to win a 1924 Olympic silver medal in architecture, making him one of only two Olympians to medal in artistic and athletic events.

In all, Greece won six Olympic medals for swimming on April 11, 1896. The rest is history.
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