Jean Boiteux, France’s Olympic swimming pioneer
When Jean Boiteux won the 400m freestyle at Helsinki 1952, he became the first French swimmer in history to claim an Olympic gold medal, and the enduring image of his father Gaston jumping fully dressed into the pool to embrace him has become part of sporting history.
An Olympic family
Born in La Ciotat, near Marseille, Jean Boiteux was the son of Gaston Boiteux, a swimmer who competed at national level, and Bibienne Péllégry, who swam for France at Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928, finishing fifth on both occasions in the 4x100m freestyle relay. The family swimming tradition extended to Jean’s uncle, Salvator Péllégry, who also took part in the Paris Games, in the 400m and 1,500m freestyle.
Keen to pass on their love for the sport, Gaston and Bibienne converted a 25m-long water tank into a makeshift pool on the family farm for their four children, who would all go on to swim competitively.
Surge to the top
In 1947, then aged 14, Jean Boiteux joined the Toulouse-based Dauphins du TOEC swimming club, where renowned coach Alban Minville took him under his wing. Two years later, he clinched his first national title in the 3x100m medley.
When he injured his legs in a skiing accident, he was temporarily forced to swim using only his arms, a handicap that led to an increase in his muscular strength in his upper body.
In July 1951, Boiteux broke the European 400m freestyle record with a time of 4:33.30, and a month later, swimming alongside Joseph Bernardo, Willy Blioch and Alex Jany, he helped set a new world best of 8:33 in the 4x200m relay – seven seconds faster than the previous record held by Japan.
Later the same year, Boiteux also exhibited strong form at the inaugural Mediterranean Games in Alexandria (EGY), prevailing in the 400m and 1,500m freestyle.
Crest of a wave in Helsinki
During the 1952 Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki, Boiteux got off to a solid start in the 4x200m relay. Swimming the anchor leg, he succeeded in catching and then overtaking Swedish rival Olle Johansson to snatch third place and give the French quartet the bronze medal.
In the final of the 400m freestyle on 30 July, he stunned the large crowd at Helsinki’s outdoor pool by leading the race from start to finish, comfortably holding off the challenge of Ford Konno (USA) and setting a new Olympic record of 4:30.70. At just 19 years of age, the freestyle specialist thereby became the first French swimmer to capture an Olympic gold medal.
No sooner had he touched the wall than his father Gaston, complete with shirt, tie and beret, leapt into the water to joyously congratulate his son, producing an iconic image that was captured by photographers and circulated around the world.
A 52-year wait
Boasting a total of 44 French titles (individual and team events combined), six gold medals at the Mediterranean Games (in 1951 and 1955) and four European silver medals, Boiteux participated in his second OIympic Games in 1956 in Melbourne, where he recorded a sixth-place finish in the 1,500m. He announced his retirement from the pool in 1961, prior to fulfilling the role of technical advisor for the French Swimming Federation in Bordeaux.
French swimming fans would have to wait another 52 years for another gold medal in the Olympic pool, when Laure Manaudou won the women’s 400m freestyle at Athens 2004.
On 11 April 2010, following a fall from a ladder in his garden, Boiteux passed away at the age of 76. His death prompted numerous public tributes from all over France.