Boiteux earns gold and a watery embrace from his father
One of the most memorable moments of Helsinki 1952 was France’s Jean Boiteux winning gold in the men’s 400m freestyle. No sooner had the race ended when a man wearing a beret jumped into the water to embrace the champion. Nobody knew who this jubilant intruder was. The beret suggested they must have been French, but was he a fan, a member of the team, or maybe a relative?
It was only when the mystery man climbed out of the pool that he was identified as Boiteux's father. “Papa!” he shouted, pointing to himself. His joy owed to more than just parental pride. The Boiteux family knew exactly how much effort it took to get to the top of world-class sport, though none of its members had never known what it felt like to reach the absolute pinnacle.
Jean’s mother, Bienna Pellegry, had herself been a top swimmer. She was a member of the French freestyle relay team that competed at both the 1924 and 1928 Games, and on each occasion Pellegry had missed out on a medal, as the French finished fifth. A fine achievement, but no glory.
Jean's uncle, Salvator Pellegry, also competed as a freestyle swimmer at the 1924 Games, and he had finished on the podium in each of his two events. But gold eluded him. In fact, by the time Jean arrived in Helsinki, no Frenchman had ever won a gold medal in the Olympic pool.
If the weight of history was a burden, it didn’t show. Boiteux's main event was the 400m freestyle. He was part of a strong field that also included the USA’s Ford Konno, Sweden's Per-Olof Östrand and the young South African Peter Duncan. Boiteux won his first round race and then his semi-final as well, establishing himself as one of the men to watch. Most observers saw Konno as the favourite.
In the final, Boiteux went out strongly, maintaining a lead over Östrand in second place. But mindful of Konno's famously strong finish, he put on a burst of speed at the halfway mark to open up a one-second advantage.
Sure enough the American produced a late sprint to close the gap, but Boiteux had by this stage done enough to hold on for victory, half a second ahead of Konno, and set a new Olympic record. Östrand touched the wall in third.