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Manx olympic gold - a century before Mark Cavendish

VICTORS: The Leander rowing club. Sydney Swann is second from the right. PHOTO: Gordon Buckthorn

VICTORS: The Leander rowing club. Sydney Swann is second from the right. PHOTO: Gordon Buckthorn

  • by Alan Vincent
 

With so much attention on Mark Cavendish’s dashed hopes of striking gold in the Olympics, many people would be forgiven for thinking that a Manxman had never won a gold medal.

However, 100 years ago another Manx-born athlete was making Olympic history.

Sidney Ernest Swann, born in 1890 in Sulby, became the island’s first and only gold medalist to date, when he rowed to glory as part of the Great Britain men’s eights team in Stockholm’s 1912 Olympics.

Swann’s Leander Club won the gold ahead of the second-placed New College, Oxford, also representing Britain, with Germany in third.

After safely negotiating three qualifying rounds to make the final, Leander won the gold, beating the New College team by a length.

Britain would not win gold again in the men’s eights event until the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the era of Sir Steve Redgrave, making the achievement of Swann and his team-mates all the more impressive.

There were more heroics from Swann in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, where he won a silver medal as part of the Great Britain men’s eights team once again, only just losing out to the Americans in the final.

Swann left the Isle of Man at a young age, when his clergyman father, Sydney, relocated the family to Japan after he took up work as a missionary.

Sidney’s father was also an outstanding athlete, competing in the Boat Race three times, and, aged 50, rowing the Channel single-handedly.

He was also a keen inventor, pioneering a small pump for emptying water out of a boat on rough days and even building an aeroplane in the early days of aviation.

After leaving the island, Swann junior, nicknamed Cygnet, was educated at Rugby School and Trinity Hall in Cambridge.

While at Rugby, he captained both the running and tennis teams.

While attending Cambridge, Sidney won the coveted Colquhoun Sculls in 1910, having scullied only 29 times before the event and having not even touched an oar before arriving at the college.

He rowed in the Boat Race in 1911 and 1912, and was Cambridge University Boat Club president in the winning crew in the 1914 race.

Vanity Fair described Swann as ‘optimistic, sunny-tempered and possessing that valuable trait of never knowing when he is beaten.’

Of the 18 men competing in the 1912 Olympic final, Swann was the only man who had not attended Oxford University.

Stockolm’s Olympics are notable for being the last to issue solid gold medals and the first to use electric timing devices for the athletics.

After his rowing exploits, Swann followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a clergyman and was chaplain to the forces during the First World War.

He moved to Nairobi as Archdeacon in 1926-27, and then to Egypt in 1928 in the same role.

Returning to England in 1933, he became vicar of Leighton Buzzard and also St Mary’s Redcliffe church in Bristol, and in 1941 he was appointed chaplain to King George VI.

Following his father’s death, Swann became president of the National Amateur Rowing Association in 1942, a post he held until 1956.

Reverend Swann died in Minehead, Somerset, at the age of 86.

Check back tomorrow to find out about the very first Manx medal winner who gained a silver in a very unlikely event.

 

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