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Very few words have been written about the genesis and the development of the first ever water polo tournament at the Olympic Games. This sport was introduced in the 1900 edition in Paris, a part of the World’s Fair, and contested among seven teams from four different countries – Belgium, France as hosting nation, Germany and Great Britain.
The national teams were essentially composed by players belonging to just a single club. For instance, Belgium was entirely represented by the Brussels Swimming and Water Polo Club, established in 1897 in the homonym city, whereas the Berliner Swimming Club competed as Germany national team and the Osborne Swimming Club from Manchester corresponded to Great Britain. Originally, a “B” team of Osborne was supposed to participate, but they eventually withdrew. France took part with four different clubs – the Libellule de Paris, two teams of the Pupilles de Neptune de Lille and the Tritons Lillois.
Played in a single-elimination format, with no playoff for the third place, the tournament was held along the River Seine, in the stretch of water between the commune of Courbevoie and the bridge of Asnières-sur-Seine. It was performed in just two days – 11 and 12 August. Differently from their modern version, the matches were played in two periods of seven minutes each.
The quarter-finals were played throughout the first match day. The Osborne Swimming Club comfortably trounced the Tritons Lillois, whilst the remaining matches were more balanced. The second team of the Pupilles de Neptune de Lille beat the Berliner Swimming Club, but the first team lost to the Brussels Swimming and Water Polo Club. As the second club representing the United Kingdom was out of the competition, the Libellule de Paris directly qualified for the semi-finals, played on the following day.
Once again, the Osborne outclassed their opponents as they mastered the Pupilles de Neptune de Lille. They eventually played the final match on the same day against the Belgians, who had overcome the hosting team. Once again, the Britons disclosed their absolute superiority as they won the gold medal by beating the Brussels Swimming and Water Polo Club 7-2.
The British players were also outstanding swimmers. One of them, Peter Kemp, entered on the same day for the 200 meters obstacle course, staged in the Seine. Participants in this whimsical event had to climb over a pole and, subsequently, over and under a row of boats. Kemp eventually won the bronze medal and competed also in the 200 metres freestyle race.
Similarly, German Hans Aniol participated also in underwater swimming course, won by Tritons’ Charles de Vendeville. Indeed, team-mates Max Hainle and Gustav Lexau won the gold medal in the 200 metres race for clubs, in which they represented the Deutscher Schwimm-Verband Club from Berlin. Their chairman was Georg Hax, another member of the water polo team, who authorised the Aryan Paragraph in 1933 and did not allow any Jewish athlete in the club.
France boasted medals both in swimming and water polo, too. Pupilles’ Désiré Mérchez won the bronze in the 200 metres course for clubs, competing for the same team. Louis Martin finished in the third place in the same event as well as in the 4,000 metres freestyle.
A prominent athlete was Thomas William Burgess (pictured right). The Rotherham-born swimmer played for the Libellule as he had moved to Paris in 1889, for the Earl motor tyre company had offered him the opportunity to establish and run a branch in the French capital city. Despite a honourable bronze medal in water polo, he became particularly famous in 1911 when, after 13 failed attempts, he successfully swam the English Channel in 22 hours and 35 minutes. He was the second ever athlete to accomplish the task after Matthew Webb in August 1875. He later became the personal coach of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English channel, and was reportedly interned by the Nazis in Bascanon, France, in 1942. Nowadays, a bronze bust of him is nowadays located outside the Sheffield Road swimming pool in Rotherham.
Despite being listed among the gold medal winners, William Lister never took part in the tournament, as he died of typhoid fever in the Boer War two weeks before the Olympics. Moreover, the traditional roster – Thomas Coe, John Derbyshire, Peter Kemp, William Lister, Arthur Robertson, Eric Robinson and George Wilkinson – is believed to be untrue, as Derbyshire, Robinson and Wilkinson reportedly played elsewhere during or immediately after the tournament. In particular, in his book “The 1900 Olympic Games”, historian Bill Mallon mentions the names of five other British players and also four more competitors for the Pupille de Neptune de Lille II.
Osborne Swimming Club (GBR) 12-0 Tritons Lillois (FRA)
Pupilles de Neptune de Lille II (FRA) 3-2 Berliner Swimming Club (GER)
Brussels Swimming and Water Polo Club (BEL) 2-0 Pupilles de Neptune de Lille I (FRA)
Libellule de Paris bye
Osborne Swimming Club 10-1 Pupilles de Neptune de Lille II
Brussels Swimming and Water Polo Club 5-1 Libellule de Paris
Osborne Swimming Club 7-2 Brussels Swimming and Water Polo Club
Osborne Swimming Club (GBR): Thomas Coe, John Derbyshire, Peter Kemp, William Lister, Arthur Robertson, Eric Robinson, George Wilkinson – Henry, Crawshaw, Jarvis, Stapleton, Lindberg.
Brussels Swimming and Water Polo Club (BEL): Jean De Backer, Victor De Behr, Henri Cohen, Fernand Feyaerts, Oscar Grégoire, Albert Michant, Victor Sonnemans.
Libellule de Paris (FRA): Thomas Burgess, Jules Clévenot (Devenot), Alphonse Decuyper, Louis Laufray, Henri Peslier, Pesloy, Paul Vasseur.
Pupille de Neptune de Lille II (FRA): Eugène Coulon, Fardelle, Favier, Leriche, Louis Martin, Désiré Mérchez, Charles Treffel – Camelin, Fiolet, Gellé, Louis Marc.
Berliner Swimming Club (GER): Hans Aniol, Paul Gebauer, Max Hainle, Georg Hax, Gustav Lexau, Herbert von Petersdorff, Fritz Schneider.
Pupilles de Neptune de Lille I (FRA): Favier, P. Houben, Leriche, Jean Leuillieux, E. Martin, Tartara, Charles Treffel.
Tritons Lillois (FRA): Bertrand, Victor Cadet, Maurice Hochepied, Leclerq, Tisserand, Charles de Vendevill, Verbecke.