The year the hot air balloon was an Olympic event

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Postponed for a year because of the coronavirus, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics are finally here. Four new sports have been added to the program – surfing, sport climbing, skateboarding and karate – and men’s baseball and women’s softball are back. Some sports have added new events, such as 3×3 basketball. We are far from the unusual events of the 1900 Olympic Games, organized in Paris as part of the Universal Exhibition, which, in addition to the classics of wrestling, swimming, athletics, etc., included automobile races. , power boating, firefighter exercises and carrier pigeons. 1900 was also the only year that the hot air balloon was an official event.

Bird’s eye view taken from a balloon in the annex of Vincennes, also showing the cycle path and the buildings of the Expo, Exposition Universelle de Paris, August 19, 1900. NASM-9A10563

Some Olympic historians argue that it might be justified not to count 1900 as the Olympics at all. The first of the “Modern Olympic Games” took place in 1896 in Athens, organized by Pierre de Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The 1900 event was officially titled “International Physical Exercises and Sports Competitions” and was planned by Daniel Merillon, the President of the French Shooting Federation, and not by the IOC. We could therefore say that 1900 was not a game sanctioned by the IOC. . It has been reported that around 1,200 athletes (notably 11 or 12 women competing for the first time) from 22 nations took part in the games. Fifty-three athletes came from the United States, according to the athletic director.

Ticket n ° 162 (in white) issued by the Organizing Committee, Sports, Section X, Aerostation, Universal Exhibition of 1900. NASM-9A18413

Hot air balloon events took place in the eastern suburbs of Vincennes throughout the exhibition. A ticket issued for these events was valid for each day scheduled for the Aerostation Competition at the Vincennes Annex to the Paris Exhibition from June 17 to September 30, 1900. The ticket holder obtained entry to the grounds of the competition and entry into the Exhibition for the days of any Competition. which could be organized by the Committee. The program included free (gas) balloon competitions (distance, altitude, duration, minimum distance from a point fixed in advance, longest distance traveled and photography from a balloon), weather balloons (probe) and deer- ruffles; an event involving “historical balloons and Montgolfières” (hot air balloons); and a celebration evening (Night Party). (Although the French word aerostation encompasses balloons, kites and airships, at that time Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont was perhaps the only person in Paris to own a fully functional airship.)

“A ‘Kodaker’ in action shot in the back.” A photographer takes a photo of three men in a balloon at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition. NASM-9A10571

The hot air balloon events that generated the most global interest were long-distance flights. The initial race (presumably the one scheduled for August) ended almost as quickly as it started, with the wind forcing the competitors to descend. The September 30 flights were much more successful. Competitors could use all the advantages they had, including determining their own ballast and selecting the type of gas they used (hydrogen, more expensive but lighter, was allowed). They were also allowed to carry oxygen bags to alleviate the effects of altitude.

The judges discuss the afternoon contests at the hot air balloon site in Vincennes, Paris Exposition Universelle de 1900, August 26, 1900. NASM-9A10537

Jacques Faure, later known for his hot-air balloon flight in 1905 across the English Channel, put down his balloon, Flying club, 735 miles from Vincennes in Prussia (now Mamlicz, Poland). Jacques Balsan, who would later be one of the founders of the Escadrille Lafayette during World War I, showed such confidence in his ball, Saint Louis, that it carried two passengers 759 miles to Danzig, Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland). But the winner of this round was Count Henri de la Vaulx, who already held the long distance record of 824 miles from Paris to Sweden. Although the CentaurThe 768-mile flight from Włocławek (just west of Warsaw, Poland, today) broke no records, it became the first to fly from France to Russia (Poland being part of the Russia at the time). As soon as his balloon landed, Count de la Vaulx was taken into custody: he did not apply for a passport with Saint Petersburg! He was held in detention for a day, where he claimed: “Russian officers persecuted me by opening so many bottles of French champagne that I was in great distress.

An elegant couple is just one of the many participants in the hot air balloon events in Vincennes, as part of the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris. NASM-9A10553

Only six balls took the start of the last distance race on October 9. As the aeronauts departed from Vincennes, the crowd shouted: “Long live Russia! The Comte de la Vaulx (with his companion, the Comte de Castillon de Saint-Victor, who had agreed to travel with him after losing the first race) and his competitor Balsan traveled a similar path for some time, each keeping a visual on the other until about Breslau, then the two balloons separated. Although Balsan fled its previous flight, landing 845 miles in Opochka, Russia (near the present-day border with Latvia), de la Vaulx flew to Korostychel, Little Russia (just west of Kiev, Ukraine) – a distance of 1,194 miles. According to de la Vaulx’s stories, again, apparently there were passport issues, but he eventually made his way to Kiev with great fanfare, then successfully returned to Paris.[i] (After the race, Balsan noted that de la Vaulx was the only competitor to use the advantageous hydrogen gas, but de la Vaulx said he could not fill the Centaur entirely on hydrogen, forcing it to use another lift gas and lighten its ballast.)

Map of Europe, showing long-distance hot air balloon flights of October 9, 1900. Count Henri de la Vaulx flew the furthest, landing at Korostychel, now in Ukraine. Credit: Ministry of Commerce, Post and Telegraph Industry, Government of France – Exposition Universelle Internationale de 1900 in Paris. International Physical Exercises and Sports Competitions. Reports Published Under the Direction of MD Merillon, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The ultimate prize for the hot air balloon was the Grand Prix de l’Aéronautique (long duration, altitude and short duration flights were all credited with points). His long-haul successes provided de la Vaulx with 5,080 points out of Balsan’s 4,360, winning the gold plate and a bonus of 1,000 francs (approximately USD 11,000 in modern currency).

Count Henri de la Vaulx, winner of the Grand Prix de l’Aéronautique, Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1900. NASM-9A10538

Although the hot air balloon continues to be an award-winning, crowd-pleasing festive event for many years to come, 1900 was the first and only year it was contested in the Olympics. Aeronautics would actually be a one-time Olympic event in 1936, where the Swiss Hermann Schreiber received an Olympic gold medal for aeronautical merit for a 1935 glider flight over the Alps.


Digital images of hot air balloon events at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition can be found in the William J. Hammer Collection of the National Air and Space Museum Archives:

[i] While it seems odd that Count de la Vaulx is being held up twice over Russian passport issues, it is possible that he chose twice not to go through the bureaucratic hassle. Or it happened just once and the story was too good not to tell it again. The story of the passport troubles and champagne celebrations in Włocławek was told by Jacques Boyer in a February 1901 article in The strand magazine. Alder Anderson recounted Korostychel’s story in an April 1901 article in Pearson magazine. An article in French by Count de la Vaulx himself tells the story of an arrival outside Kiev, where the police chief offered them tea, while his wife rolled them cigarettes to pass the time in “captivity”. All the documents are in the “Events, 1900, Exposition Universelle, Paris” file in the Technical Files of the Archives of the National Air and Space Museum.


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