Rowing’s big influencer; Thomi Keller
Thomi Keller is a name well-known in the rowing world and his legacy has now been well documented in the biography, “Thomi Keller: A Life In Sport” written by acclaimed British sports writer, David Owen.
Keller served as the president of FISA, the World Rowing Federation, from 1958, until his death in 1989. But his involvement in the world of sport went beyond his duties as the president of an international sports federation. Owen, who was commissioned to write the book by Thomi Keller’s son, Dominik thinks it was perfect timing to revisit his contributions.
“The number of people who knew him are inevitably dwindling. Thomi wasn't big on diaries, or it seems record-keeping, so his story would have been lost had someone not pieced it together sooner rather than later,” says Owen.
The book begins by describing Keller’s youth and most importantly his introduction to sport. It then weaves through his rowing career, his dashed hopes for the 1956 Olympic Games due to the Swiss boycott, his ascension to the FISA presidency, his contribution to sport as television began to rise and sponsorship and advertising became prominent all the way to his handover of the FISA presidency just before his death.
Owen also discovered several nice anecdotes along the way that illustrate Keller’s true character. “Ingrid Dieterle, who was on the first FISA women's committee, told me a nice story of Thomi ransacking their hotel flower-bed for tulips on her birthday one year. Very Thomi that: impulsive and a bit, well, naughty, but fundamentally considerate and kind,” says Owen.
“I was also struck that when he suffered the disappointment of not being able to go to the 1956 Olympics (where he was expected to win a medal) because of political knock-on effects from the Hungarian Uprising, he was one of a few Swiss athletes who, rather than sit around feeling sorry for themselves, actually joined a Red Cross-backed team to help some of the refugees.”
Gathering Keller’s story took some digging, according to Owen. He visited the family home in Switzerland, but also made a trip to, “Varna in Bulgaria where, in 1973, Thomi made the key speech that took him beyond rowing and launched him as a Big Beast of international sports politics,” Owen says.
Owen interviewed about 25-30 people around the world to gather information. In his research Owen also landed on some important papers from Zurich following Keller’s death, salvaged by rowing writer Chris Dodd. All of this is used to make up the biography.
The weaving together of Keller’s life makes for an inspiring read. Not only does it portray one of the most influential people in the sport of rowing and in the world of sport, but it also paints an important picture about the changing landscape of sport throughout Keller’s lifetime.
There is no doubt about the influence Keller had that has helped shape rowing today.