When Tarzan struck gold at the Games: the legend of Johnny Weissmuller

Ninety-five years ago in Paris, in the space of two days – 18 and 20 July 1924 – Johnny Weissmuller was crowned Olympic champion in the 400m freestyle, the 100m freestyle and the 4x200m freestyle relay with the USA. He also played as a centre forward in the US team that took bronze in the water polo tournament. After winning two more golds four years later in Amsterdam (100m and 4x200m), he embarked on a career change that would see him demonstrate his swimming talents in a slightly different way…

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The ululating cry invented by Johnny Weissmuller for the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man, which he used again in 12 other global box-office hits up until 1947, transcended the decades that followed, appearing in animated film versions of Tarzan and countless live-action remakes. In short, it is one of the most famous cries of the 20th century.

In 1974, the year of MGM’s 50th anniversary (and, as chance would have it, the 50th anniversary of his first three Olympic gold medals), Weissmuller said: “I made a test [to audition for the role]… They called me [back] a week later and they said: ‘You’ve got the job as Tarzan.’ I went into the office and they said: ‘What’s your name?’ I said: ‘Johnny Weissmuller.’ [The producer] said: ‘Well, we’re going to have to change that.’ I said: ‘No, you’re not going to change my name.’ Then one man next to him said: ‘You know who that guy is? He’s got all the world’s records in swimming.’ [The producer] said: ‘Well that’s wonderful; let him have his name and put some swimming in the picture!’” And that was exactly what happened when Weissmuller made his big-screen debut as Tarzan.

The star of the Tourelles swimming pool

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The legend of Johnny Weissmuller began in the Tourelles swimming pool in Paris in July 1924, before he became an actor, when he was a swimmer in the US Olympic team. An ethnic German Banat Swabian, born on 2 June 1904 in Freidorf in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – today part of TimiÈ™oara in Romania – Weissmuller moved with his parents to the USA in 1905 when he was still a baby. At the age of nine, he contracted polio, and his doctor suggested that he take up swimming as a way to battle the disease. As a teenager in Chicago, where he lived, he was spotted by the coach of the Illinois Athletic Club (AIC), Bill Bachrach, and at the age of 18 became the first person to swim 100m in under a minute, on 19 July 1922, in a world-record time of 58.6 seconds. He went on to beat his own world record on 17 February 1924, clocking a time of 57.4 seconds. On 6 March 1923, he became the first person to swim 400m in under 5 minutes, setting a new world record in a time of 4:57.0.

The first event contested by Weissmuller in one of the most popular sports at the 1924 Games in Paris was the 400m freestyle, in which he took part in the heats on 16 July and went all the way to the final two days later. “Out of all the Olympic swimming events, the 400m was probably the one with the most tightly contested final. Much was expected of the meeting of three great champions in this Olympic competition: Johnny Weissmuller, Australia’s Boy Charlie and Sweden’s Arne Borg. And indeed, from start to finish, the contest between these true mermen produced an aquatic battle the likes of which we have seldom seen and might never see again,” enthused Émile-Georges Drigny, who was responsible for the swimming events at the 1924 Games, in the Official Report.   

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Weissmuller, then aged 20, beat the Olympic record in the heats (5:22.2), then smashed it again in the semi-final (5:13.6). In the final, on Friday 18 July, Borg was in the lead after 100m, which he swam in 1:04.2. Then the duel with Weissmuller began in earnest, as the two broke away from the chasing pack. The American touched the wall first at 200m (2:23), before Borg regained the lead with 100m to go, and the Swede was still out in front at the 350m stage. Charlton came back strongly to force his way back into contention. “The final 50m saw an epic battle that encapsulated the very essence of the sport. Johnny Weissmuller, giving every last ounce of energy, managed one final push to overtake Arne Borg with 1.50 metres to go, while Charlton, who was finishing the strongest out of the three, was right on the heels of the Swedish champion,” wrote Drigny. With a time of 5:04.2, Weissmuller had once again shattered his own Olympic record.

Record of five swimming titles that would last until 1972

The final of the 100m freestyle on Sunday 20 July brought the Olympic swimming programme to a fitting end. Weissmuller’s compatriot Duke Kahanamoku, who had won the event at Stockholm 1912 and Antwerp 1920, was targeting a third title over the distance, while Duke’s brother Sam was also competing in the final. This time, however, there was simply no contest:  the future Tarzan broke clear right from the start and finished well ahead of Duke, with Sam in third. Weissmuller’s time of 59.0 seconds broke the one-minute barrier in the event at the Games, beating the Olympic record set by Duke in Antwerp. “The 100m freestyle truly confirmed the supremacy of crawl, which, for the first time at the Olympic Games, was used by all the competitors,” noted Drigny.   

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Twenty-year-old sensation Weissmuller had already tasted success that day: his American team-mates had qualified for the final of the 4x200m freestyle without him, but he returned to the team, racing as the final swimmer, to help Ralph Beyer, Harry Glancy and Wally O'Connor claim a clear victory ahead of Australia and Sweden, in a world-record time of 9:53.4. In these Games of the VIII Olympiad, Weissmuller was also part of the USA’s bronze medal-winning water polo team, in which he played as a centre forward. He left Paris with four medals round his neck, three of them gold.

Weissmuller was again crowned Olympic champion in the 100m freestyle and the 4x200m relay in Amsterdam in 1928, and remained the only five-time Olympic swimming gold medallist until the exploits of Mark Spitz in 1972. It is believed that Weissmuller did not lose a single race throughout his amateur career. He won 52 US national championship titles and set 67 world records. In 1950, he was voted the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th century by 250 sports journalists from the Associated Press. 

In the early 1930s, having found a well-paid job as a model and representative for an underwear and swimwear company and moved to Los Angeles, he was encouraged to audition for the role of Tarzan. He politely declined, but was then told that if he went to MGM he could have lunch with Clark Gable or meet Greta Garbo. And the rest is history…


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