Hungary’s first golden swimmers: Alfréd Hajós

The architect, who swam for his life: Arnold Guttmann, the Hungarian dolphin, the sportsman, the journalist, the architect – he was the pioneer who was remembered of the name of Alfréd Hajós.

“ I did not even notice that the anchored rope bruised my chest, and that the ever increasing noise of the spectators was a sign that we swam across the finish line. From the cacophony i could hear only a few words: Zito i Ungheria! And on the top of the tallest mast of the judges boat our flag proudly flew. The band started the Austrian anthem, but the music died down after the first verse. From the following silence emerged the Hungarian anthem form only a few lips. Victory! Victory! I was the first in the first ever swimming competition in Olympic history”

This is how Alfréd Hajós recalls his 1896 victory in his memoir published in 1956 one year after his death. At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens the Greek Crown Prince himself raised the Hungarian flag on the main mast of the judges’ boat, the flag that Hajós personally brought from Budapest.

Hajós was born in a poor Jewish family, and did not want a sport career. After his fathers tragic drowning, Hajós at the age of 13 started to dedicate more and more time to swimming next to gymnastics and running. He did not abandon the sport even in his collage years, he trained very early in the morning before classes in Rudas spa’s warm waters because the lack of suitable pools at that time. Later, to test himself he participated in various international competitions with considerable accomplishments. When a committee was formed in preparation for the 1896 Olympics Alfréd Hajós’s performance was outstanding at the try-outs.

In Athens at the first modern Olympics there were three swimming event: 100, 500 and 1200 meters with no restrictions regarding style. The 18-year-old Hajós was victorious in both 100 and 1200 meters. He could not win in 500 meters because -according to anecdote- he was so thrilled that he won on 100 meters he missed the start. The young student of architecture was yet again in the water covered from head to toe in tallow for the 1200 meter race, but in the freezing cold 12 degree waters of the Piraeus Gulf he could not concentrate on the Olympic medals -he was trying to get a grip on his fear of death. “I was rather swimming for my life than for victory” – he remembers in his memoirs. Nonetheless the Hungarian dolphin -as the Greek emperor named him- won this event as well.

Following his historic victory in 1897 at the age of 19 Alfréd Hajós finished his swimming career, however never giving up sports. He tried himself in gymnastics, running, hurdling, discus throwing and football with remarkable achievements. In 1901 and 1902 he was part of the Hungarian champion football team, and the first Hungarian national football team. Although in 1904 he retired form professional sport, in 1906 he was the coach of the national football team. Later he excelled in sport journalism, moreover he was the chief editor of Sportvilág and later he lead the sport section on Pesti Napló a prestigious newspaper at the time.

He is remembered as the first Hungarian Olympic champion, “Architect, Hungary’s first Olympic champion” is engraved on his tombstone in the Kozma street cemetery.

Hajós was not only an brilliant sportsman, but he excelled in the field of architecture both in Hungary and abroad. Very few know that Hajós earned an Olympic medal in architecture as well. In 1924 he coproduced a plan with Lauber Dezső, of an “ideal stadium” which won them a silver medal in the Paris Olympic architecture competition, and this year there were no gold medallist. Unfortunately, the prize winning stadium was never built, but in 1930 to everyone’s delight the National Sport swimming complex was completed on the Margaret Island, later bearing the name of the architect. Apart form the now famous “Hajós” the former Olympic champion made plans for numerous sport facilities. Among many, the swimming complex of Győr and numerous city’s sport facilities across Hungary. The biggest of them all was in 1922, a sport complex on Megyeri street in Budapest, which were at the time considered the most modern sport facility in the world, and was the first to use ferro-concrete in Hungary.

Not only sport facilities emerged from the Hajós-Villányi design office. In Debrecen -Hungary’s second biggest city- Hajós had not only designed the theatre but the famous Golden Bull Hotel as well. Walking down the main road of Miskolc one can also discover two Hajós building: the palace of the credit institution and the art nouveau Weidlich palace. The Olympic champion started his architecture career right after school at the office of Ignác Alpár and Ödön Lechner, but he very shortly opened his own design office with one of his collage. This office did not limit itself to only Hungary and one can admire the work of Hajós-Villányi in the bank palace of Szabadka, the girl’s school of Pozsony or the high school of Lőcse.

And when we cheer for our synchronised swimmers at the lake in Városliget, let us remember the Hungarian dolphin. After the war Alfréd Hajós was charged with the renovation of the Vajdahunyad castle and many of the buildings in the capital.

Alfréd Hajós is remembered for many of his achievements in life, he is a member of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, he is part of the Hungarian Immortals Club. After his death he received the Hungarian Heritage prize and the Ybl prize and he was accepted into the Hungarian Swimming Celebrities Hall of Fame.