From Daniels to Adlington – a century of Aquatics

The past year has been replete with significant sporting anniversaries – 60 years since the last London Olympics, and the formation of the then SWA, a century since the first London Games. Gathered in London for those 1908 Games, swimming officials formed the world governing body, FINA, as CRAIG LORD recounts in his official centenary history, Aquatics

The foundation of FINA was the best accident that ever happened to global aquatic sport, according to the man who conceived the idea of forming an alliance of nations to organise and standardise through a common rulebook for swimming.

In the words of George W Hearn, President of the Amateur Swimming Association: “The formation of FINA in 1908 came about more by accident than intention … I thought that since the representatives of all Nations were in London for the Olympic Games of 1908, it would be a good opportunity to talk over the vexing question of amateurism and at the same time to compile a list of world records made under similar conditions and under proper supervision.”

The ASA gave Hearn permission to call what turned out to be an historic meeting, one that lasted four and a half hours at the Manchester Hotel in east London on July 19, 1908. “I occupied the Chair, I agreed to act in the position of Hon. Secretary, a post I retained for 20 years,” wrote Hearn in an article for a commemorative FINA Bulletin in 1938, when the federation celebrated its 30th birthday at a time when the winds of war were about to blow across the world.

The original minutes taken down and recorded by Hearn, the man at the helm of FINA from 1908 to 1924, when the first President was elected and the first Bureau formed, register the gathering in London under the title “Report of The International Swimming Conference”. The founding nations present were Britain (with no fewer than eight delegates from 23 men), Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Finland, Hungary, France and Denmark.

It was agreed that “England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales should for the purposes of future meetings be considered one country, and be entitled to two Representatives at any Meeting”, in common with all other nation members.

The minutes of the meeting register the new body as the “International Swimming Federation”, and it was not until a year later in Paris that the name “Federation Internationale [sic] De Natation Amateur” emerged, while the official list of founding member nations would not be formed until a year later, the minutes of a 1910 meeting in Brussels recording the First FINA member nations as: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Hungary, Italy, South Africa, Sweden and the United States of America.

The achievements made at the foundation in London in 1908 suggest a greater sense of purpose and deeper desire to bring order and structure to sport that lacked common direction than Hearn himself acknowledged in his memoirs. The pioneers wasted no time in establishing the cornerstones of a new FINA rule book, and one of the most important decisions of the day showed the intention of those early guardians of swimming to take charge of what had been, at the international level, a very lose affiliation of swimming activities devoid of cohesion or common standards: ” … no nation shall institute, or allow to be instituted, within their jurisdiction, any Race or Competition, which shall have the title of a World’s Championship”.

That principle was in keeping with Hearn’s priority of not only codifying swimming but diving and water polo, standardisation of the structures of those sports crucial to their longevity. The first rules were drawn up in Paris in 1909. In London, the priority was to lay down a stringent definition of “amateur status” and enforce prevailing standards of decency by ruling that “no claim for Record can be considered unless all swimmers wear recognised costume with drawers under the costume”.

The term “amateur” was not only restricted to those who had “never competed for a money prize, declared wager, or staked bet” but extended to a ban on racing against anyone who was not of equal amateur status. In London 1908, it was agreed that world records could only be set in “absolutely still water (i.e. without current or tide)” and would be recognised from a list of events that reflected the disparity of standards across a world divided by imperial and metric measures. While records in all distances from 100 yards to 500 metres could be established in “a bath not less than 25 yards long”, anything from 880 yards upwards required the pool to be at least 100 metres in length.

Other conditions to be met by record-breakers included the need to have started from a dive, except in the case of backstroke, and a minimum of two timekeepers to clock the performance. In a quirk of its time, where three timekeepers could not agree, the average of all three times was registered as the record. A surveyor was needed to measure the pool, and records had to be applied for within 14 days of a time being recorded. Charles Daniels, of the United States, was the first to break a world record after the birth of FINA, winning the 1908 Olympic 100m freestyle crown on July 20 in 1min 05.6sec.

By Paris in 1909, 20 nations registered as being eligible for affiliation of FINA, including Bohemia, Greece, Norway, Russia and Switzerland, though not all would join immediately. Delegates in Paris agreed that each FINA member nation should be represented by two people on the “Council of FINA” and that meetings of the international federation be held “at least every four years”, with travelling and hotel expenses paid for only for the Honorary Secretary. Hearn’s bill in Paris came to £3 15s 3d, while FINA’s total receipts and expenditure for 1909-1910 amounted to £12 in and £12 out.

Rules for backstroke and breaststroke were established in Paris. At the turn, backstroke swimmers were required to touch with both hands and push off the wall “as at the commencement of the Race”. Breaststroke swimmers required symmetry of movement, touching with both hands evenly, shoulders square, and the head never below the water line. The days of Trudgeon were over: “Any competitor introducing a sidestroke movement to be disqualified”, stated rule 22.d.

The shape of FINA’s future was moulded by the founding fathers in the first six years before the advent of the Great War and it is to those men who met on July 19, 1908 and laid down the cornerstones for the construction of the five modern and mature sports that we know today that the global aquatic community owes a debt of thanks. Their vision produced an edifice built to last.

The first swimming scribe
Literature is awash with swimming reference but the first substantial volume that dealt with the activity as a sport was De Arte Natandi, the Latin tome penned by Everard Digby in 1587. He claimed that swimming was an art, in the same sense that the term could be applied to war, agriculture, navigation and medicine.

Digby wrote of the natural predisposition of man in water being one in which the feet sank and the face stayed afloat. People drowned because they thrashed about and used arms and legs in a “disorderly fashion”. Basic life saving instructors and swimming teachers taught, many years later, the veracity of the message: take a person who cannot swim, ask him or her to float simply by taking a deep breath and lying on water and, in the absence of panic, inflated lungs will keep the body afloat.

Digby’s book was to swimming what the Karma Sutra was to sex: all positions were described. Man could swim straight down, pick up objects from the bottom of a lake or river, they could swim on their front, their back, their side, and perform many others things that fish could not.

He advised on the best months and most favourable prevailing winds when it came to choosing when to take a dip, and warned of dangers. Digby described sidestroke long before it became popular and one of his sketches is entitled “to swim like a dolphin”, indicating an undulating movement in the water.

His work was translated into English in 1595 and the reference to dolphin was not lost on scholastic authors who followed. In Thomas Hardy’s classic Far From the Madding Crowd, one of the heroes is said to swim “en papillon”.

SJA member Lord has been swimming correspondent of The Times since 1989.

The new book includes reviews of every Olympic Games and World Championships from 1908 to the world short-course championships held in Manchester this year, together with profiles of more than 100 of the best aquatic athletes in history. Accompanying the book is a CD containing a review of every Olympic swimming, diving, water polo and synchronised swimming final ever held, alongside the full result of each final.

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