Faster, higher, stronger

Pearson's, April 1901, 475

It is sometimes1 claimed that ballooning was an event at the 1900 Paris Olympics. I don't think it can have been. But it's genuinely a bit murky, because this was only the second modern Olympics and the planning process evidently was not as formalised as it later became. The Olympics were held that year as a minor part of the Exposition Universelle running from April to November 1900, and a number of Exposition events were only retrospectively judged to have been Olympic events too (which is how cricket gets to be an Olympic sport).

Ballooning was certainly an Exposition event, or rather series of events, organised by the Aéro-Club de France. The official report of the sporting side of the Exposition has a detailed description, taking up 201 pages (from here to here). Above is the scene at Vincennes just before start of a distance race starting on 9 October, showing the six competitors and the specially constructed hangar.2 This is probably the best known of the Exposition ballooning events; the victor was Comte Henry de la Vaulx who set a world record by landing his balloon 1925km away, near Kiev.

But I can't find any evidence that this or the other balloon races were ever classed as Olympic. Wikipedia doesn't say so, but seems to suggest that it was unfairly excluded:

All events at the 1900 Games that satisfied all four of these retrospective selection criteria — restricted to amateurs, open to all nations, open to all competitors and without handicapping — are now regarded as Olympic events, except for those in one sport — ballooning.

However, this isn't an accurate summary of Mallon, The 1900 Olympic Games, the source cited here. Mallon is not saying that these were the criteria actually used by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to rule events in or out of the 1900 Olympics, but admits that he is himself applying present-day rules (i.e. from 1998). He lists five criteria, not four, with the extra one being that 'the IOC does not allow events based on motorized transport'. Even though he rather bizarrely suggests that balloons are 'arguably motorized' since 'it works on a heat sink as an engine', he doesn't seem to use this as a criterion for rejecting ballooning, saying that it (and motorboating) 'cannot be so easily eliminated but one cannot in good faith call them Olympic sports either'.3 (Myself, I wonder if the fact that despite the competition being open to all nationalities, not only were all the victors French, but also, as far as I can tell from the names, all the competitors, might have been a problem.) As I say, it's murky; but as ballooning is not listed under 1900 on the official IOC website, that should probably be regarded as definitive.

All of this is just the context for this part of the Exposition report:

Rapports : Concours Internationaux d'exercices physiques et de sports, 299

It's a map of the balloon flights out of Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870-1. There's a table listing all the flights, too: here, here and here. I don't think I've seen a map like this before; what is it doing here, of all places?

As near as I can tell, given my lack of French (thanks Google Translate and Bing Microsoft Translator!), the point seems to have been as a point of comparison, to try to measure progress in ballooning since 1871:

  • Balloons are a tool of war
  • There has been little material progress in ballooning since 1870, but great progress in every other way
  • The siege flights were impressive achievements, even though they were improvised; surely 'the technical training of aeronauts' could only help
  • 'The development of aeronautical sport thus offers considerable military advantages, since it ensures the provision in wartime of a large number of well-trained and experienced personnel'
  • The results from 1870-1 and 1900 are not strictly comparable: in the latter they often wanted to travel as far as possible, in the former they just wanted to get beyond enemy lines (though sometimes they went far indeed; one made a record flight to Norway)
  • In 1870-1 some thought was given to flying into Paris by balloon 'but nothing has succeeded'; although the map of the outbound flights shows that favourable winds were obtained at times (so it should have been possible)
  • 'There would, moreover, be a matter of organising a competition of a new kind: to leave the freedom of the starting point, in a certain area, of the hour, to some limit, and to give the place of arrival'

I take this last point as suggesting that it would be useful to have a competition where instead of balloons flying from a designated point, they would fly to a designated point. And by useful, I mean militarily useful, because all of this discussion is under the heading of 'military lessons'. In other words, it would be militarily useful to develop, in some sense, a steerable balloon, or in French, 'ballon dirigeable'. Presumably this would remain inarguably unmotorised, or else would end up being no different from the first Zeppelin, which as it happens had its inaugural flight on 2 July, mid-way through the Exposition. War and peace are not always easy to keep separate, even with something as seemingly innocent as recreational ballooning.

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  1. Most notably, at a trivia event at the otherwise brilliant Aviation Cultures Mk IV conference, and no, I'm definitely not bitter for being judged wrong, why would you even think that. []
  2. Alder Anderson, 'Across Europe by balloon', Pearson's Magazine, April 1901, 475. []
  3. Bill Mallon, The 1900 Olympic Games: Results for All Competitors in All Events, with Commentary (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1998), 13. []

2 thoughts on “Faster, higher, stronger

  1. There's an interesting kind of mathematical probability thing in the latter discussion; much easier to fly a balloon reliably, regularly, *out* of a ring, than *into* one, even when the ring's interior diameter is the size of besieged Paris.

    On the Olympic question, in 1936 there was an aeronautical jamboree alongside the actual Olympics, including gliding and various heavier than air, powered aerobatic 'demonstration' displays, including Ernest Udet's Curtiss Hawk biplane adorned with the Olympic Rings. The status of the flying in the 1936 Berlin Olympics seems as unclear as this balloon question, and is on my 'list to research properly one day'.

    The next Olympics were due to have a full Olympic sport gliding competition, and a special standard glider design was developed for the competition, the DFS Olympia Meise, but in 1940 things were rather out of hand, and gliding's chance seems to have passed when the Olympics restarted. The Olympia Meise, however was a very popular glider and some Victorian friends of mine own one, so something good did come out of the Olympics muddled relationship with aviation.

  2. Post author

    Thanks, I didn't know about any of that! It doesn't seem likely that the IOC would ever authorise powered flight as an official event, though I suppose if there was any time for them to get airminded, 1936 would be as good a time as any...

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