Hajos turns tragedy into glory in the water

Hungarian architecture student Alfréd Hajos was the undisputed star of the swimming events at the 1896 Games. Born Alfréd Guttman and raised in Budapest, his prowess in the water had its roots in tragedy. He determined to become a good swimmer at the age of 13 after his father drowned in the River Danube. He later changed his surname to Hajós which means “sailor” in Hungarian.

Prior to the Olympics, Hajós had already claimed the 100 metre freestyle European swimming title in 1895 and 1896, but he still faced a struggle to persuade his university allow him time off to travel to Athens.

All of the swimming events in Athens took place in the cold open Mediterranean waters of the Bay of Zea. Battling the elements – with 4m waves crashing around him - the 18-year-old Hajós served up majestic victories in both the 100m and the 1,200m freestyle events, with winning times of of 1:22.2, and the 1,200 metre freestyle in 18:22.1 respectively – to become the youngest champion of the inaugural Olympic Games.

For the longer race, the swimmers were transported by boat out to sea and left to swim the required distance back to shore. Hajós smeared his body with a thick layer of grease, but it proved to be of little protection against the cold, and he confessed after winning the race that, “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”

Hajós’ hopes of competing in the third swimming event on the programme, the 500m freestyle, were dashed as it was sandwiched in between his other two events leaving him insufficient time to prepare.

While attending a dinner honouring the Olympic champions, the Crown Prince of Greece asked Hajós – who had been dubbed “the Hungarian Dolphin” by the Athenian press - where he had learned to swim so well. “In the water,” was his laconic response!

The swimmer received a more muted reception on his return to Budapest, where the Dean of the Polytechnical University told him: “Your medals are of no interest to me, but I am eager to hear your replies in your next examination.”

Hajós later showed him to be an extremely versatile athlete, winning Hungary's 100m sprint, 400m hurdles and discus titles. He also played as a centre forward in the Hungarian national football championship and was a member of the Hungarian team for its first ever international, against Austria on 12 October 1902. Between 1897 and 1904 he was also a football referee, while in 1906 he took on the role of coach of his country’s national football team.

By the time of the 1924 Games in Paris, Hajós was a prominent architect specialising in sport facilities, and he entered the Olympic art competitions, which were then a prominent strand of the programme. His plan for a stadium, devised together with fellow Hungarian Dezso Lauber (who himself had competed in the tennis at the 1908 Olympics), was awarded the silver medal, the highest honour available then. It made Hajós just one of two Olympians ever to have won medals in both sport and art Olympic competitions.

Indeed Hajós went on to create an enduring sporting legacy in bricks and mortar, designing many of Hungary’s venues and stadiums, the most famous of which is the swimming complex on Margaret Island in Budapest, built in 1930, and which today bears his name. It was used for the 1958, 2006 and 2010 European Aquatic Championships and the 2006 FINA Men’s Water Polo World Cup.

In 1953, he was awarded the Olympic diploma of merit by the IOC.