At the Paris Olympics of 1900, the future sporting extravaganza that we enjoy every four years, was just a small side-show. In these early years of the modern era of the Olympic movement, organisers began experimenting with competitions that were intent on making Olympic sports a spectator favourite. They had a circus quality to them.
The Paris Exposition of 1900 was huge. It dwarfed the sporting event. It was a showcase for hundreds of fascinating innovations and inventions that we consider normal today. The sporting event was not actually called an Olympics at the Exposition but rather International Physical Exercises and Sports (in english) and was an extra diversion competing for the attention of audiences at the Exposition.
To illustrate the size of the Exposition, imagine huge mansion-size pavilions by 40 different countries and an equal number of other separate pavilions showcasing new innovations.
Film was invented in 1895 and was shown in the Gallery of Machines on a huge 21m by 16m screen by the Lumiere brothers.
The Palace of electricity (link: short film produced by Thomas Edison from 1900) was incredibly huge which provided power for the lights for all pavilions by steam engines and generators which consumed 200,000 kilograms of oil… per hour.
The famous Art Nouveau movement reached its peak in the Exposition with large exhibitions by Lalique and Tiffany. Some remnants remain today around Paris:
Each participating country showcased their uniqueness. Huge mansions, representing their home culture, were built around the Eiffel Tower (then the largest building in the world) and along the River Seine. So impressive were the pavilions that two still exist, although built to be temporary; the Japanese and Chinese pavilions were bought by King Leopold II of Belgium and are now still tourist attractions in Brussels.
The sporting event had a total of 997 athletes with 720 representing France. The sports selected did not have much precedent since it was only the second Olympics. Baron Pierre du Coubertin, IOC President and the original promoter of the games, agreed to step down as organiser, due to political wrangling, to ensure the sporting event was a part of the Paris Exposition.
The Exposition organisers saw the sporting events as a spectacle to entertain but felt old world sporting events were of little importance compared to the new innovations. The selection of sporting events were through the rose-tinted-glasses of a circus rather than sport. Events that were included were things like croquet, pigeon shooting, automobile racing, and ballooning…
In aquatics there was a mix of races all held in the river Seine in a 100m enclosure: 200m, 1000m and 4000m frontcrawl, 200m backstroke plus a strange relay. Also to bring in spectators a ten meter tower was added for a Swedish demonstration team. There was an underwater event race and a late addition was an interesting but odd 200m obstacle race.
The Obstacle Race had three obstacles; a pole, a row of boats to climb over and and a row of boats to swim under.
The Obstacle race was won by Australian Frederic Lane (he was claimed by both Britain and Australasia because he was living in Britain at the time) who was also the 200m frontcrawl winner. Lane grew up in Sydney and was accustomed to a childhood of playing in the waters of the area. He almost drowned as a toddler and immediately was taught to swim afterwards. It was rumoured that he had an advantage because he knew climbing over the stern of the boat was more stable.
Lane had won a first place prize in the 200m, frontcrawl; a 50lb bronze statue just 45min prior to the Obstacle Race. The awards were not medals at these games as it was not run by the IOC.
Although the Obstacle Race was never repeated in subsequent Olympics, it adds colour to the interesting history of aquatics at the Olympics. Maybe Paris in 2024 will bring it back!