Bathe in glory
Few Olympians have been as appropriately named as Walter Bathe. Born in what is now Poland, the German began swimming at the age of eight to build up his constitution. He became a member of the ASV Wroclaw club and, by 1912, was performing at a high enough standard to represent Germany at the Olympic Games.
Bathe was a breaststroke specialist, who had twice broken the world record over 100m in 1910. But in Stockholm he was entered into the 200m and 400m events.
The swimming stadium had been specially constructed at Djurgardsbrunnsviken, just outside the Swedish capital. Bathe’s first taste of the Olympic pool came on 7 July, when he competed in the fourth heat of the 200m breaststroke. He wasted no time in making an impact, setting an Olympic record with a time of 3:03.4 and qualifying for the final in formidable style. In the semi-finals, on the evening of 9 July, he repeated the feat, lowering the record to 3:02.02, as he swept the opposition aside coming in a full 2.2 seconds ahead of compatriot Wilhelm Lutzow.
The five-man final took place on 10 July, and Bathe again led from the very start. According to the Official Report, the German “won safely in the spurt after an excellent piece of work”, setting yet another Olympic record of 3:01.08.
In the meantime, he was also making waves in the 400m breaststroke, which took place concurrently. The German’s performance in the fifth heat was astonishing: racing against just one other swimmer, the Russian Georgy Baimakov, he finished in a time of 6:34.06 – beating by 9.2 seconds the Olympic record that Briton Percy Courtman had set minutes earlier. Baimakov came in way back in 7:28.06.
There was little stopping Bathe now. In his semi-final, he set an Olympic record of 6:32.0 – but this time shared it with the Swede Thor Henning, with the pair virtually impossible to separate in the days before photo-finishes. Eventually, Bathe was judged to have won. Henning had in fact set a new record in the first heat of the semi-finals with a time that was a full 20 seconds slower.
As expected, the final finished in a one-two between Bathe and Henning, but the margin was wider this time. After 100m, the German was already four metres ahead of his rivals, and after 250m he was 10 metres ahead of Henning, who had become his closest pursuer. He pulled ahead to win without being seriously threatened, and finished with his sixth Olympic record of the Games – in a time of 6:29.06.
Bathe continued competing until 1930, although he never again appeared on the Olympic stage. He won six national breaststroke championships in Germany, and in the course of his career amassed around 600 trophies. Later on, he worked as a pharmacist, and passed away in 1959 after a thrombosis developed during a swim in the Adriatic Sea.