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“The Hungarian Dolphin” – Remembering Alfréd Hajós on the Anniversary of His 140th Birthday

“Hajós he was not. Or at least not that we know of. But úszós he definitely was! And a real champion at that!

Alfréd Hajós, original name Arnold Guttmann, (born February 1, 1878, Budapest, Hungary – died November 12, 1955), swimmer who won three Olympic medals and was the first Olympic swimming champion.

According to some accounts, Hajós began swimming at age 13 after his father drowned in the Danube River. In 1895, he won the 100-meter freestyle event at the European championships in Vienna. At the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, the swimming contests were held outdoors, in the cold Bay of Zea at Phaleron. Amazingly, Hajós won gold medals in two of the four swimming events, one in the 100-meter freestyle and one in the 1,200-meter freestyle.

At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, Hajós, an accomplished architect, also won a prize for sports facilities architecture. It is also important to note that he was an avid athlete, he was a member of the Hungarian national football (soccer) team twice.[1]

Hajós’ fame catapulted in 1896 when he won two gold medals (of four events in total) at the 1896 Olympics in Athens, Greece. His success is not mitigated by the fact that only 311 athletes competed in the first modern Olympics and only fourteen countries were represented. There were 43 medals awarded in nine different sporting events.

Alfréd Hajós

Hajós won his gold medal at the age of 18! “Nem semmi!” (“it ain’t nothing!” – in modern U.S. urban lingo) is how today’s Hungarian youngsters would likely side note his achievement. Perhaps his drive to win in swimming was indeed reiterated by the tragic event that he had to see his father drown in the Danube River when he was only 13 at the time.

There were only four swimming events held at the the Bay of Zea in the Mediterranean Sea. The temperature of the water was approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). The first event – the 100 meter free style – was completed in relatively calm, protected waters with Hajós upsetting the favorites, Chorophas from Greece and Herschmann of Austria. His time was 1 minute 22.2 seconds.[2]

The 500 meter event was won by Austrian Paul Neumann over two other Greeks, while Hajós rested for the 1,200 meter event. This long-distance event was pure hell for the swimmers as they were overwhelmed by waves reported to be up to 12 feet. With a time of 18:22.2, the young Hajós won this event as well. He stated his motivation at the finish by saying, “My will to survive (during this swimming event) completely overcame my desire to win.”

While attending a dinner honoring the Olympic winners, the King of Greece asked where he had learned to swim so fast, whereupon Hajós allegedly replied, “in the water, Sir.”[3] The next morning, the Athenian journal Acropolis depicted Alfréd with the subtitle: The Hungarian Dolphin”.

Like many Olympic swimmers since, Alfréd Hajós went on to live a productive and interesting life. He became known throughout Hungary and even internationally as an architect of sports facilities, as well as residential and public buildings. In fact, his architectural entry – a stadium design – won second place (silver medal) at the Olympic Arts Competition in Paris in 1924, which can be considered a first prize since a gold medal was never awarded. He was the first and perhaps only athlete to have ever accomplished this unique combination of Olympic championships.

His began his career as an architect at Ödön Lechner’s office. His most renowned architectural work was the Aquatic Swimming Hall at Margaret Island utilizing the patented reinforced steel technology invented by owner-president of the Pestszentlőrinc Steel Works – Pál Lipták (my great grandfather). Hajós also designed the Athetic Sports Complex and Soccer Stadium at Megyeri út, the Golden Bull Hotel (Arany Bika) in Debrecen and the Swimming Hall in Győr. After 1945, he led the restoration projects of Vajdahunyadvár, the Stock Exchange Palace and several other public buildings in Budapest.

In 2017, the FINA World Aquatic Championships were held at the newly refurbished Alfréd Hajós Aquatic Complex in Budapest (the other venue was Balatonfüred).

Alfréd Hajós Aquatic Complex

In the Fall of 2002, the Hajós Alfréd Society was formed in his honor in Budapest. The Society’s motto comes from a notation from Hajós’ diary: “harmony between body and spirit.” The website’s address is www.hajosalfred.hu.

The FINA swimming world championships last year organized in Hungary were praised by the international sports community and FINA as one of the greatest events hosted by any country. And the Alfréd Hajós Aquatic Complex at Margaret Island contributed greatly to the success of this event.

In 2010, Alfréd Hajós posthumously received the Ybl Miklós Prize, the highest honor awarded to architects in his native Hungary.

Ambition is an intrinsic human characteristic that is present in most of us (but not all of us). One of the lessons we might learn from Alfréd Hajós is the pursuit of ambition and that “we always need to be persistent, dream big and never give up!” Or to paraphrase Count István Széchenyi: “we should dare to dream big, which is not impossible, but at the same time we should be prudent in our pursuit of any ambition.”

Adam Topolansky

 

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica

[2] Today’s Olympic record in this event to overcome is 46.91 seconds.

[3] Chuck Kroll, Swimming World