We constantly hear cries for fishing to be included in the Olympic Games. Well, it's certainly a global sport, but does it really qualify under Baron Pierre de Coubertin's Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (swifter, higher, stronger)?
You might argue that the baron's vision has become so corrupted these days that it may be time for a new aphorism. But thinking of one that doesn't smack of cynicism is a lot harder.
Things were very different when the first modern Olympics was held in Athens in 1896, with 14 nations and 241 athletes competing in 43 events. Four years later, the second took place in Paris, attracting more than 1200 entrants (including 12 women) from 26 nations – and one of the events was angling.So why did angling lose its place in the Olympics?
Sadly, the sport's involvement in the Games provides a very small footnote. A 1998 book, The 1900 Olympic Games: Results for all Competitors in all Events, with Commentary, makes no mention at all of angling in its 335 pages. Even tug-of-war, polo, croquet, pelota, ballooning, cricket, live pigeon shooting, underwater swimming, a racket sport called longue paume, motorboating and lifesaving get a healthy mention – but not fishing.
Over the years, other sports have come and gone, like fire-fighting (GB were second), motorcycling, kite-flying, one-handed weightlifting, standing long jump, cannon shooting, and fencing with a real sabre have all paraded their talents. But more than 100 years on, angling – whether as a match, a distance or an accuracy casting tournament – has never figured in the organising committee's thoughts.
The 1900 Olympics, which took five months to complete, ran in conjunction with the Paris Universal Exposition and the 1900 World's Fair. There were no opening or closing ceremonies. A decision to hold competitions on a Sunday brought protests from many American athletes, who travelled as representatives of their colleges and were expected to withdraw rather than compete on the Sabbath. Instead of gold medals, the winners collected cups or trophies, though most were given paintings because the French believed they were more valuable.
Yet the angling event, held on the river Seine, attracted 20,000 spectators over the four days of the competition, with the first day alone drawing a crowd of 9000. A total of 600 anglers from six countries (France, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Italy and Belgium) took part, with three days of qualifying and a final on the fourth day. A total of 2051 fish were landed over the event, with 881 on the final day.
Interestingly, the competition was also open to women (remember, French women only got the right to vote in 1945!), and one entrant from the de la Ligne Picarde club in Amiens qualified for the final. Her picture is shown here, but she is only identified as Madame B and we have been unable to find any further details about her.
Angling's inclusion in the first place was apparently quite controversial. It was scorned by the Games administrators at first, according to the book Les Jeux Olympiques Oubliés (2000) but apparently won through thanks to support from the deputy for the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe, M Gerville-Reache, “a radical from the abolitionist extreme left”, and backing from surprising sources such as the magazine Le Gymnaste, which stated: “Fishing should be considered as a sport. It has the enormous advantage of being accessible to all classes of society and to all individuals.”Not considered 'mainstream'
It has been quite a challenge to piece together much about the event itself, despite its evident popularity. Nothing appeared in The Fishing Gazette, the weekly angling magazine of the day. It appears that angling was not considered mainstream (once it would have been listed as a demonstration sport, though these were dropped from the Olympic programme after the 1992 Games). That said, the International Olympic Committee then did not make any distinction between which sports had Olympic status and which did not.
Our best source for photographs about the fishing event proved to be the August 19, 1900, edition of La Vie Au Grand Air, a French illustrated weekly publication that even carried a picture of the angling competition on its front page.
Six qualifying rounds took place: the opening contest was for 'foreigners', three were for non-Parisians and two for 'local' fishermen. The first ten from each heat, which appears to have been decided on fish numbers, qualified for the final or concours d'honneur. All the fishing took place on Île aux Cygnes (Swan Island).
The book Les Jeux Olympiques Oublié, published in 2000*,* stated of the venue: 'The place had been known to be full of fish since the Seine had been rehabilitated in the crossing of Paris, but alas, a sewer had acted up a few days earlier near the Pont de Grenelle. Farewell chub or pike: we will have to be content for the most part with small fry. Competitors, especially foreigners, who had chosen the equipment suitable for big-game fishing, in the hope of winning the first prizes of an amount of 200F, will almost all be eliminated.'
I have been unable to find out who the British competitors were, how they were chosen and what they caught, if anything.The results
Still, it seems the small fish (probably bleak) fed well for the final, with the 57 anglers landing 881 fish. The winner, Élie Lesueur of Amiens, picked up 200 francs (about £4500 today) for the biggest fish too and the title of 'world champion' as well as a cup that was donated by Émile Loubet, the French President. The top ten finalists shared a total of 3800 francs.
The runner-up, M Goethiers, a grocer from Louveciennes in the eastern suburbs of Paris, was runner-up. Les Jeux Olympiques Oubliés said of him: “Goethiers is a recognised champion who usually fishes in Bougival. He recounts that in September 1899, he caught 142lb of bream in one day, a feat reported in the New York Herald.”
Amazing that a bream haul would be acclaimed in a newspaper, 3600 miles away.
Third-placed Hyacinthe Lalanne landed 47 fish, receiving a gold medal and a diploma. Like Goethiers, he was a member of the Picardy club, a society from Amiens, which 'came in large numbers to Paris where they won numerous prizes, at least 15 fishermen in khaki uniforms and canvas hats with a wide brim,' Les Jeux Olympiques Oubliés reported.
It added: 'On their return, a real triumph, the whole town will be at the station, music in the lead, speech drowned in superlatives to welcome the premier angling society in the whole world. Fishermen in 1900 could also be heroes.'
Unlike today, you might remark. There was no mention of angling in the 1904 Olympics, held in St Louis, and though there have been a few recent attempts to incorporate the sport into the Games (even as a demonstration sport), none has succeeded. So Élie Lesueur remains the one and only Olympic angling champion.