Swimmers swimming underwater might bring to mind names like Suzuki or Berkoff. Or if you’re thinking back to Japanese dominance in 1950’s; Masaru Furukawa who swam the first 45m of each length in the 200m breaststroke in 1956 Olympics. But there are earlier underwater champions…
In 1900, at the Paris Olympic Games, which was held as a sports event within the Exposition Universelle, there was an underwater swimming event for men. Compared to the Exposition, the Olympics was tiny. Over the entire course of the exposition 50 million people visited Paris! This swimming event was held in the Seine river in an area between bridges which had a basin area cordoned off and made out of wooden planks between which the river flowed.
Swimming straight without a black line isn’t that easy to do, especially underwater. It is even harder if you are in a river with a current and you do not have any goggles. Rivers can also be murky and this is especially true in Paris in 1900 during the Exposition. Paris had a population of 2.6 million in 1900 and the Seine River was considered filthy before millions of visitors arrived.
Each swimmer was to swim a maximum of 60m underwater of the 100m basin. In the underwater event, swimmers would score two points for each metre in a straight line from the start and also score one point for each second they were underwater. The pool (basin) was unlike anything we would see today for competition. It was somewhat shorter than 100m and the ‘racetrack’ lanes were rudimentary:
The boundaries of what was called the "racetrack" were marked by ropes stretched by poles planted at the bottom of the water. They carried small flags to make them visible as well as the numbers of the “water line” that each swimmer had to take. Each water line ended with a post, also planted at the bottom of the water and serving as a turning point; the swimmer could pass it by the right or by the left, as desired.
Danish swimmer Peter Lykkeberg was well known for his underwater swimming and should have become the Suzuki of his time but sadly was more Berkoff.
The underwater event had become popular in aquatic demonstrations and Dane Lykkeberg was internationally famous however he was not a declared professional. Professional athletes were permitted but must declare there professional status and a registration of these professionals did not include Lykkeberg.
Lykkeberg swam for a longer time than anyone else in Paris; one minute and thirty seconds. He would have been champion if the event was based on time only. However he must have become disoriented. Possibly he could not see due to water opacity and began swimming in a curve. He could have also been going in a curve to double back to extend his time. There was a maximum distance permitted and he likely knew other swimmers could attain that. So to win he’d have to complete the distance but stay under the longest. Also he could have become confused by the poles, ropes and flags plus there was a strong current in the river which has not been reported to its angle/degree/impact. When Lykkeberg came up for air he was only 28.5m from his starting point, so although he was the longest underwater he was not the furthest.
So along with Dachi Suzuki, who swam the majority of his 100m backstroke underwater in Seoul in 1988, the first underwater Olympic gold medalist was Charles DeVandeville from France who was underwater for 68.4s and went the full 60m.
View of Seine River, opposite side of the swimming basin, during a demonstration of diving by Swedish divers.