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David Owen

125 Years of FISA: The original international sports federation

by David Owen

This is a big year for World Rowing and for sport: the oldest international sports federation celebrates its 125th anniversary.

June 25 brought a milestone of some significance for sport which, it has to be said, approached largely without fanfare. The date marked the 125th anniversary of the foundation in Turin in northern Italy of the first international sports federation (IF).

It might surprise you that this pioneer IF does not represent one of the sports that we would regard today as among the biggest or richest – football, say, or tennis, or golf. Nor, as far as we know, was the sport among those included in the Ancient Olympics, although the basic tool of its practitioners’ trade played a vital role in global development over many centuries. In fact, the IF concerned is the World Rowing Federation (FISA), a body whose annual income of just under CHF7.3 million (£5.9 million/$7.5 million/€6.7 million) in 2015 is about on a par with what a modest English football league club might hope to generate.

Why was FISA the first? Well, to be honest, in the late 19th century, the international sports federation was an idea whose time had come. Faster and better transport links had whetted an appetite for international competition which required standardised rules and international bodies to draft and administer them.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, one of the world’s great novels, refers to “the religion of rowing”. Stubb’s 250-word “exordium” to his crew of oarsmen is a tour de force no modern coxswain could better.

The International Skating Union was founded just a month later. A Bureau of European Gymnastics Federations had been set up as early as 1881, although this only became the International Gymnastics Federation 40 years later.

The specific circumstances leading to FISA’s foundation can probably be traced back to the industrialisation process that had evicted oarsmen from trades from which they and their forebears had earned a living for decades, even centuries.

“Steam was the enemy of the watermen,” wrote Christopher Dodd in his monumental The Story of World Rowing. “But not the only one. Every new bridge reduced their work, and the rapid spread of the railways hit the river and coastal trade at the same time as the introduction of iron in ship construction changed the skills and methods of the boat- and ship-yards.”

It was not just the coming of better and faster methods of transporting people and loads from A to B. Oarsmen had been an integral part of the great, globe-straddling whaling industry which for decades supplied artificial light to fast-growing cities. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, one of the world’s great novels, refers to “the religion of rowing”. The character Stubb’s 250-word “exordium” to his crew of oarsmen – “Bite something you dogs!…Why in the name of gudgeons and ginger-cakes don’t ye pull?” and so on – is a tour de force no modern coxswain could better.

Prize rowing would have given the best and strongest of these watermen an alternative forum for their skills at around the time the notion of leisure activities, such as watching or participating in sport, was spreading beyond the monied classes. An account written by Louis Choisy, long FISA’s chief administrator, which is included in The FISA Centenary Book by Jean-Louis Meuret, leaves a vivid impression of the situation pertaining immediately before FISA’s establishment.

“The rules of racing varied from club to club,” Choisy wrote. “At Ghent, Zurich and Como, these were all different. The race distance varied from 3,000 to 4,000 metres and included several turns about a buoy, a stake or a ball, rounding either a single point or three points which formed a triangle. The boats turned sometimes to starboard, sometimes to port.

The tradition of amateur rowing had spread from the institutions which educated the British upper classes with their cult of muscular Christianity, which so impressed Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

There were no restrictions on the design or construction of boats.

“Imagine a race involving three different types of boat! Finally, any kind of prize could be offered. “Amateurism was virtually unknown: bookmakers decided the odds; the keenest to lay bets were members of the jury and the oarsmen themselves…There was no such thing as an umpire.”

At the same time, a tradition of amateur rowing had spread from the institutions which educated the British upper classes with their cult of muscular Christianity which so impressed Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The first Oxford versus Cambridge university boat race had taken place in 1829. A Harvard four came to England to race against Oxford in 1869, in what Dodd labels a “momentous event in the development of international rowing which, some accounts say, brought three-quarters of a million people to the 4¼ mile course from Putney to Mortlake”.

In 1890, two years before the landmark international meeting at which FISA was founded, the Belgian rowing federation organised a European Championship on the Terneuzen canal. This involved a single category of boat, single sculls with outriggers, and a course of 2,840 metres. The winner, Edouard Lescrauwaet, hailed from Bruges. The exercise was repeated the following year.

On 25 June 1892, a gathering of 11 delegates from five countries – Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland and “Adriatica” – a part of Austria at the time, now Italy – created FISA in a conference room in Turin city hall. In a decision that cleared the way, in effect, for the sport’s inclusion in the first Olympic Games of the modern era, a definition of amateurism was approved. Individuals excluded from FISA competition were professional rowers, sailors, watermen, ferrymen, professional fishermen, professional boatbuilders, boatmen, rowing coaches in receipt of payment, crew members hired to race and anyone who had competed in races open to professionals.

Cash prizes could be paid only to the clubs to which the winning crews belonged. Objets d’art or items of racing equipment were an acceptable alternative. Prizes at the first FISA European Championship were to consist of trophies, badges or medals. The organising club or federation would retain all takings, but be responsible for paying travel expenses to competitors.

This Championship took place in Orta, an Italian lake north-east of Turin and north-west of Milan, in September 1893. A grand total of 10 crews lined up for the three races – eights, single sculls and coxed fours. France, Belgium and Switzerland won a race each, with host-nation Italy runner-up in every category. Belgium’s Lescrauwaet won the single sculls, as he had on the Terneuzen canal three years earlier.

In the event, one of the banes of the sport – inclement weather – meant that rowing had to await its Olympic debut until Paris 1900. Three events, single and double sculls and coxed fours, were to have been staged as part of Athens 1896.

As recorded by the Official Report of the Games for April 1, however: “A cold, dry wind began to blow with such violence that Athens was enveloped in clouds of dust.”

The regatta was to begin at 10am in Phaleron Bay, but “the wind continued blowing with such energy that no competitors for the race presented themselves”. At last, the report goes on, it was decided that only the coxed fours should take place. “A steam-launch transported the competitors to Old Phaleron…But unluckily the bad weather changed into a real storm.”

Not even postponement until 3pm was enough to save the event. As the report recounts, “The storm was still on the increase, some of the lighter embarkations were thrown onto the shore by the violence of the waves and the elements continued to rage with such fury that every idea of a boat-race had to be given up.”

There were no weather problems, but the contests in Paris four years later had their own peculiarities. For one thing, one event – the coxed fours – had two finals.

The Official Report explains that Dutch and German crews would not accept the jury’s decision that the final should comprise the six best-placed crews from the heats. So a “supplementary” race was arranged for the following day – Monday, August 27. This was won by the Germania crew from Hamburg.

The victorious Dutch boat in the coxed pairs is thought to have deployed a young boy as its cox who just might be the youngest Olympic competitor in the entire modern era.

A second point of interest from the sport’s Olympic debut is that the victorious Dutch boat in the coxed pairs is thought to have deployed a young boy as its cox who just might be the youngest Olympic competitor in the entire modern era. Since then, rowing has been part of every Summer Olympics. When women’s events were added to the sport’s Olympic schedule at Montreal in 1976, it actually became the sport in which the greatest number of medals was presented – 162, to be precise, against 147 for athletics and 114 for swimming.

Rowing is one of those sports with a tradition of producing gifted and exceptionally dedicated administrators. Thomi Keller, who was FISA President from 1958 until his sudden death in 1989, is one of the best-known and – within his sport – most fondly-remembered IF leaders in history. At the peak of his powers in the politically turbulent times of the 1970s, he was arguably a more influential figure within sport than then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Lord Killanin.

Keller, a wealthy Zuricher, had a keen appreciation of rowing history and always took mischievous pleasure in FISA being two years older than the IOC.

With the rowing body’s 25th and 50th anniversaries both falling during wartime, Keller made sure that when its 75th came along in 1967, the sport threw a suitably memorable party. The federation’s 75th anniversary was celebrated in the city where it was founded, with much joyful pomp and circumstance, including fireworks and a nautical parade on the river Po. In this, representatives of the body’s founding nations wore period costume. Keller, who loved fireworks, proclaimed the event “from every point of view a complete success”.

It was typical of his demanding, pragmatic management approach that he should take advantage of the anniversary to look forward as well as back, using it as a pretext to organise the first FISA regatta for juniors. Originally intended for Turin, this inaugural event was moved ultimately to Ratzeburg, a noted rowing centre in the then West Germany. Keller was also starting to make arrangements for the centenary he would not ultimately live to see. He had asked a senior FISA official Chris van der Ploeg to “use the time until our 100th anniversary to make a collection of historical documents and other items of rowing interest”. Dodd’s comprehensive, 450-page study was similarly commissioned with one eye on the centenary.

Denis Oswald, another distinguished sports administrator, who succeeded Keller as FISA President and remains an IOC member, remembers a centenary celebration in three parts.

The first was an exhibition of stamps, memorabilia and traditional FISA trophies from the early years; the second, a formal celebration in a Turin theatre; and the third an official banquet.

Then IOC President, Juan Antonio Samaranch, came to the theatre. Oswald remembers that the Spaniard broke with his usual habit of leaving any meeting, dinner or celebration he happened to be attending at 9pm.

“He stayed until the end which was quite late,” Oswald says. “I told him several times, ‘If you want to go, no problem, we won’t feel offended, we know your habits.’ His response was, ‘I will make an exception for you.'”

The banquet the following day was in the exhibition hall of the Fiat museum, with tables interspersed with the glistening chrome-work of vintage cars. It was here, all too typically, that the dominant sport de nos jours – football – crashed the party. The event coincided with the final of the 1992 European Championship in Gothenburg, in which Denmark, improbably, beat Germany 2-0. As Oswald confirms, “all the Danes in the hall were following the game”.

For its 125th anniversary, FISA opted for a relatively low-key, but year-long celebration, culminating at the World Championships in late September in Sarasota-Bradenton in Florida.

“To be part of FISA during this significant year is an honour,” says Jean-Christophe Rolland, the current President.

As well as being the oldest IF, FISA could claim with some justification to have been among the better-run. Here’s to the next 125 years.

This article appeared in Row360 magazine Issue #18.

David Owen is a former Financial Times journalist who is now chief columnist for the independent Olympic news website, insidethegames. This story was first published by insidethegames.biz.

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