To remember what would have been an Olympic July, World Rowing will spend this month doing all things Olympic and Paralympic related. Keep an eye out on your favourite rowing channel through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the World Rowing website.

This year is not the first time the Games have been disrupted.


The Forgotten Games – Six rowing facts from the 1906 “Olympics”

Holding the Olympics and Paralympics a year late may be uncharted territory for all involved, but it isn’t the first time that a Games has been held outside of the traditional four-year cycle.

The year was 1906 when 854 athletes from 20 nations made it to Athens for what turned out to be a wildly successful Olympic Games, but one ultimately relegated to footnote status in the history books.

World Rowing takes a look at six fascinating facts about these forgotten Games.


1.      A gold medal moustache

Gaston Delaplane - September 1909 © FISA

France’s Gaston Delaplane was one of the most memorable participants at the 1906 Games. Capturing gold in the singles, silver in the coxed four and bronze in the coxed pair, Delaplane also competed in sprint and 5000 metre cycling events.

In the next years, Delaplane went on to win eight European Rowing Championship titles between 1906 and 1911 – no small accomplishment in those days when the European Championships was the de facto World Championships. He also represented France in cycling once again at the London 1908 Olympics.

For all of his success, Delaplane is perhaps best remembered for his remarkable facial hair.


2.      The great coxswain mystery

1900 Dutch pair with unknown French coxswain © FISA

One mystery is the story of Theophilos Psiliakos, a teenaged Greek boy, who steered the Belgian coxed pair to a silver medal in the one mile race. There are no records of his age and World Rowing could find no picture of Psiliakos with his crew, brothers Max and Remy Orban of the Koninklijke Roeivereninging Club Gent.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time a crew opted to use a local coxswain at an Olympic Games. Just six years before, at Paris 1900, Dutch rowers Francois Brandt and Roelof Klein pulled an unnamed French boy out of the crowd to cox their pair to gold.

It isn’t clear if the Orban brothers brought their own coxswain and simply substituted in a local boy as the Dutch had done, or if they just hoped for the best when they set out for the Games.


3.      Olympic coastal rowing gold for Greece?

Vasileios Polymeros & Nikolaos Skiathitis (GRE) © FISA

Beyond Psiliakos’ silver in the coxed pair, Greek rowers won gold and silver in the sixteen-oared naval boat and silver and bronze in the six-oared naval boat.

When imagining naval boats, think of something more like coastal rowing  – bigger boats designed for open water. Cornish pilot gig racing is a good example of what these events might have been like.

These were unparalleled victories in the history of Greek Olympic rowing. In fact, it would be another century until Vasileios Polymeros and Nikolaos Skiathitis stepped onto an Olympic podium for rowing, claiming bronze in the lightweight men’s double sculls in 2004. Coincidentally, it was also the next time Athens hosted the Games. Since then Greek rowers have won silver at Beijing 2008 and bronze at London 2012.


4.      A lone British rower

In the early years of the modern Olympics, top British rowers were more likely to focus on the long-established Henley Royal Regatta than an upstart international event. This meant that just being at the Games could be more a matter of circumstance than planning.

That was certainly true of Great Britain’s lone rower at Athens 1906. Donald Whittall, whose extended family accounted for eight members of the silver medalist Smyrna football squad, raced in a coxed four with a crew of Greeks. The boat finished with an overall rank of seventh.


5.      Three golds and an unbeaten Italian record

Bucintoro Venezia rowing club © FISA

Italy was the big winner at the 1906 Games regatta, capturing gold in both pairs events (1000 metres and 1 mile), the coxed four and six oared naval boat.

Emilio Fontanella, Enrico Bruna, and coxswain Giorgio Cesana of the Bucintoro Venezia rowing club in Venice, were in three of Italy’s winning crews. This would make them some of the most decorated Olympic rowers of the era. According to the website Cesana, at 14 years old remains the youngest Italian to win an Olympic gold medal.

Fontanella had earned silver in Italy’s coxed fours at the 1905 European Championships the previous summer while Bruna would go on to finish third in the single at the 1910 European Championships behind France’s Delaplane.


6.      Officially un-official

1906 Opening Ceremony © FISA

When Athens was chosen as the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, many Greeks had hoped to play permanent host. Yet the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Barron Pierre de Coubertin, was thinking on a global scale. As a compromise, the IOC at the time overruled Coubertin and said that Athens could host their own Olympics on even years between the main Games – similar to how the Winter Games is now staged.

After challenges at the Games of Paris 1900 and St. Louis 1904 the Greeks got their chance. Even though the Games of 1906 were never repeated, these so-called “intercalated” (meaning “inserted into the calendar”) Games were a huge success and introduced lasting traditions that shaped the future of the Olympics including a separate opening ceremony with athletes marching in behind their national flags.

For all of that, the long-term impact of Coubertin’s objection was a 1949 IOC decision declaring the 1906 Games unofficial.


A lesson for the Olympians of 2021

Despite being reclassified in the official records, every one of the athletes who attended the Games of 1906 competed as Olympians; their story is important to remember.

Finally, even though Coubertin himself opposed the 1906 Games, his famous words ring as true for athletes then as they do for everyone today adjusting their plans to compete at the first Olympics held in a non-Olympic year.

“The important thing about the Olympic Games,” Coubertin said, “is not to win, but to take part”.

Holding the Tokyo Games a year late will give many the chance to take part. Coubertin stressed that the attempt is what matters regardless of what the future holds.

“The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”


* Photos thanks to Wikimedia