Postponed a year due to the coronavirus, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics are finally here. Four brand new sports have been added to the schedule—surfing, sport climbing, skateboarding, and karate—and men’s baseball and women’s softball have returned. Some sports have added new events, such as 3x3 basketball. These are a far cry from the unusual events featured in the 1900 Olympic Games, held in Paris as part of the Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair), which, in addition to the standard wrestling, swimming, track and field, etc., included automobile racing, motorboating, fireman’s drills, and carrier pigeons. 1900 was also the only year in which ballooning was an official event.
Some Olympic historians argue that there could be a case made for not counting 1900 as an Olympic games at all. The first of the “modern Olympics” was held in 1896 in Athens, organized by Pierre de Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The 1900 event was officially titled “Concours Internationaux d'Exercices Physiques et de Sports” and was planned by Daniel Merillon, the president of the French Shooting Federation, not the IOC—so it could be argued that 1900 was not an IOC-sanctioned games. It has been reported that approximately 1200 athletes (notably, 11 or 12 women competed for the first time) from 22 nations participated in the games. Fifty-three athletes traveled from the United States, according to the Director of Sports.
Ballooning events were held in the eastern suburb of Vincennes throughout the exposition. One ticket issued for these events was valid for every day scheduled for the Aerostation Competition at the Paris Exhibition's Vincennes Annex from June 17 to September 30, 1900. The ticketholder gained entrance into the competition grounds and entry into the Exhibition for the days of any Contests which might be organized by the Committee. The schedule included competitions for free (gas) balloons (distance, altitude, duration, minimum distance from a point fixed in advance, longest distance traveled, and photography from a balloon), weather (sounding) balloons, and kites; an event involving "historic balloons and Montgolfières” (hot-air balloons); and an evening celebration (Fête de Nuit). (Although the French word aérostation encompasses balloons, kites, and airships, at this point in time Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont may have been the only person in Paris who had a fully functional airship.)
The ballooning events that held the most worldwide interest were the long-distance flights. The initial race (presumably the one scheduled for August) ended almost as quickly as it had begun, as wind forced competitors down. The flights on September 30 were much more successful. Competitors could use whatever advantages they may have, including determining their own ballast and selecting the type of gas they used (hydrogen, which was more expensive but lighter, was allowed). They were also permitted to carry bags of oxygen to mitigate the effects of altitude.
Jacques Faure, later known for his 1905 balloon flight across the English Channel, landed his balloon, Aero Club, 735 miles away from Vincennes in Prussia (now Mamlicz, Poland). Jacques Balsan, who would later be one of the founders of the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I, showed such confidence in his balloon, Saint Louis, that he carried two passengers 759 miles to Danzig, Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland). But the winner of this round was Comte Henri de la Vaulx, who already held the long distance record of 824 miles from Paris to Sweden. Although the Centaure’s 768 mile flight to Włocławek (just west of Warsaw, Poland, today) did not break any records, he became the first to fly from France to Russia (as Poland was part of Russia at the time). Immediately upon landing his balloon, the Comte de la Vaulx was taken into police custody—he had failed to file a passport request with Saint Petersburg! He was kept in custody for a day, where he claimed, “The Russian officers persecuted me by the opening of so many bottles of French champagne that I was in great distress.”
Only six balloons started the last distance race on October 9. As the aeronauts departed Vincennes the crowd shouted, “Vive la Russie!” The Comte de la Vaulx (with his companion, the Comte de Castillon de Saint-Victor, who had agreed to travel along after losing the first race) and his competitor Balsan travelled a similar path for some time, each keeping a visual on the other until about Breslau, then the two balloons went their separate ways. Although Balsan bested his previous flight, landing 845 miles away in Opochka, Russia (near the current border with Latvia), de la Vaulx flew to Korostychel, Little Russia (just west of Kyiv, Ukraine)—a distance of 1,194 miles. According to de la Vaulx’s stories, yet again there apparently was passport trouble, but he eventually made his way to Kyiv with much fanfare and then returned to Paris a success.[i] (After the race, Balsan did note that de la Vaulx was the only competitor using the advantageous hydrogen gas, but de la Vaulx stated that he could not fill the Centaure entirely with hydrogen, forcing him use another lifting gas and to lighten his ballast.)
The ultimate ballooning prize was the Grand Prix de l’Aéronautique (long duration, altitude, and short duration flights were all credited with points). His successes in the long distance flights provided de la Vaulx with 5080 points over Balsan’s 4360, winning the gold plate and a bonus of 1000 francs (approximately $11,000 USD in modern currency).
Although ballooning would continue to be a festive prize-winning and crowd-pleasing event for many years to come, 1900 was the first and only year it was contested at an Olympic games. Aeronautics would actually be a one-time Olympic event in 1936, where Switzerland’s Hermann Schreiber was awarded an Olympic gold medal for merit in Aeronautics for a 1935 glider flight over the Alps.
[i] While it would seem odd that Comte de la Vaulx would be held up twice with Russian passport problems, it is possible that he chose twice not to go through the bureaucratic hassles. Or it happened just once and the story was just too good not to tell again. The story of passport troubles and champagne celebrations in Włocławek were recounted by Jacques Boyer in a February 1901 article in The Strand magazine. Alder Anderson told the Korostychel story in an April 1901 article in Pearson’s Magazine. An article in French by the Comte de la Vaulx himself tells the story of arriving outside Kyiv, where the Chief of Police treated them to tea, while his wife rolled them cigarettes to pass the time in “captivity.” All documents can be found in the “Events, 1900, Exposition Universelle, Paris” file in the National Air and Space Museum Archives’ Technical Reference Files Collection.