Top: Hungarian athletes at the 1896 Olympics: Kellner Gyula, Kakas Gyula, Szokoly Alajos, Dáni Nándor;sitting: Hajós Alfred, Wein Dezső. Hajós at the Olympics
Center: Hajós Alfréd, the architect in 1955, The Blockner family tombstone with Hajós on top.
Bottom: Hajós Alfred National Swimming Stadium in Budapest.
Hajós Alfréd - The First Hungarian Olympic Champion
Olga Vállay Szokolay
Gutmann Arnold was born in Budapest, on February 1, 1878, first of the six children of Guttmann Jakab, a poor Jewish workman and Lőwy Rozália. After Jakab, working at the Csepel docks, drowned in the Danube, his widow struggled to raise the six children as a single parent. Arnold was only 13 when his father died. The tragedy made him decide he wanted to learn to swim.
He was a youngster of slight build. During his first physical education class at the Markó utca high school he could not climb the pole. But the failure did not discourage him. As a result of practicing in secret, he could climb to the ceiling in a few weeks. Then he actively pursued gymnastics, running and swimming. Since his high school did not allow its students to compete publicly, Arnold changed his name to the Hungarian-sounding Hajós Alfréd. He continued sports through his years at the Architectural School of the Royal József Nádor Technical University in Budapest.
For lack of a professional swimming facility, he trained at the Rudas Baths. He had to get into the pool every morning at five, to get to his classes on time. By his own account, he had no ambition to become an Olympic champion, since he did not even know about the Games. He was only 18 years old in 1896, the year when the modern age Olympics started and nobody guessed the enormous future of the concept yet. The very organization’s primitive character was reflected in the fact that the Greek military band could not play the Hungarian National Anthem and the Magyar delegation did not even take any Red-White-Green flags with them, expecting no need for any. Fortunately, a journalist had stolen one from the train’s window, just in case…
Hajós’s potential was discovered after winning the European championship in 100-meter freestyle swimming in 1895 and 1896, thus the Hungarian Gymnastics Club sponsored his trip to Athens, Greece, where the re-born Games were held. He was an architecture student at the time, and was allowed to compete, but permission from the university to miss classes was difficult to obtain.
The swimming events took place on April 11th , 1896 in extremely cold weather. The racers had to swim from ship to shore, in the bay off the Mediterranean Sea of about 12 degrees C (54-degree F) and amid huge waves. Alfréd entered and won the 100-meter freestyle race, with a time of 1:22.2. Skipping the 500-meter event, before the 1,200-meter freestyle race, he smeared his body with 1-centimeter (3/8 inch) thick grease, but that proved to be of little protection against the cold. After winning that race with a time of 18:22.1, he confessed: “My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.” He won by about 60 meters (almost 200 feet), while some of his rivals gave up, “frozen out” from the water.
At the celebratory dinner honoring the Olympic winners, the Crown Prince of Greece asked Hajós where he had learned to swim so well. To the roaring cheer of the participants, Alfréd replied: “In the water.” The next morning, the Athenian journal Acropolis depicted him with the subtitle: “Hungarian Dolphin”, which remained his nickname ever after. He was the youngest winner in Athens. With four other Magyars finishing as medalists in different events, Hungary finished sixth in the overall results.
Upon his return home, hundreds of cheering fans greeted Hajós at the train terminal. Yet the Dean of the University did not congratulate our hero on his Olympic success but said: “Your medals are of no interest to me, but I am eager to hear your answers in your next examination.”
He ended his swimming career at age 19, in 1897. As a multi-tasker before the phrase was coined, he switched to gymnastics, then to soccer. In 1901 and 1902, he was a member of the Hungarian national soccer team and served as referee for years to come.
Alfréd, indeed, obtained his degree from the Polytechnic and worked at the office of the well-known architect Alpár Ignác and later, with Lechner Ödön. In 1907, he opened his own architectural practice with Villányi János. They won their first design competition in 1909. Influenced by his previous mentors as well as by the accepted styles of the time, he designed in the Secessionist, eclectic, and later in the functional, modern manner. In 1908, he married Blockner Vilma, with whom he had one son, Endre in 1910.
His architectural repertoire included dozens of residential, educational, public and religious buildings of various denominations all over pre-Trianon Hungary. Understandably, however, his main interest focused on sports establishments. In 1913, he designed a stadium for 50,000, whose realization was prevented by World War I. Yet, in the 1920s, establishment of sporting facilities became widespread all over Europe.
In September 1922, the UTE soccer stadium for more than 20,000 fans, designed by Hajós, opened. It was the first such structure employing reinforced concrete. That project earned him a silver medal in the Architectural category at the 1924 Mental Olympics in Paris, proving he was equally equipped to win intellectual challenges as well, in keeping with the original spirit of the ancient Games. Since Intellectual competitions are no longer part of the Olympics, he remained the only Hungarian winning in both sports and arts categories.
He utilized reinforced concrete technology in the design of the sports swimming complex at Margitsziget (Margaret Island) in Budapest, which was completed in 1930 and named after Hajós Alfréd. The covered swimming pool was an enormous international success that was enlarged, modernized and upgraded several times over the decades. To the present day, it has been providing training facilities for hundreds of Hungarian swimmers and served as the venue of several international competitions. He designed many other swimming complexes across the country over the years.
Hajós survived the anti-Semitic times and persecution of Jews in mid- 20th century Hungary due to his international popularity and widespread fame. He was equally spared during the years of Communism and could work as an architect in Budapest till the end of his life, although not in his own office.
The 77-year-old Hajós Alfréd swam into eternity on November 12, 1955. His grave is at the Kozma utca cemetery in Budapest.
In 2010, he was posthumously awarded the Ybl–Prize. Many schools bear his name and his faithful fans formed the Hajós Alfréd Society to foster the memory of the Champion.
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.