Frederick Claude Vivian Lane was born in Manly on February 2 1880. He nearly drowned in Sydney Harbour when he was four years old, after falling off a punt. His older brother saved him, but Fred thought it might be wise to learn to swim (or perhaps it was his parents who thought that). Anyway, he turned out to be pretty good as a schoolboy, and just kept getting better.
In fact, as a young man he won everything going, setting an Australasian record for the 100 yards and winning the mile race in the Murrumbidgee river at Wagga Wagga. He was unusually small for an athlete; just 5′ 4″ and weighing in at a shade under 8 stone.
By the time he was twenty, Fred was competing in championships in England, and was therefore able to pop across the Channel to compete in the 1900 Paris Olympics. It was a relatively low key event in those days, with only two Australians taking part. And so it was that Frederick Lane became Australia’s first Olympic swimmer.
WERE THEY MAD? NO, JUST IN-SEINE.
The swimming events were held in the river, with strong currents and murky water to contend with.
Dressed in a rather fine costume of silk, Fred won the 220 yard race (200 metres) from Hungarian Zoltán Holnay. After a break of only 45 minutes he then competed in one of the most bizarre events imaginable….an obstacle race over the same distance. At the outset, competitors had to climb a pole, then clamber over a boat and finally under a punt. Judging from the photo below, those manning the boat got almost as wet as the swimmers.
Fred won this race too. That early experience with a punt back in Sydney must have given him the edge. Oddly enough, negotiating the obstacles only added 13 seconds to his time. The obstacle race was never held again. What a surprise!
FRED WAS THE BEST, BUT ONLY WON BRONZE!
The tradition of awarding Olympic medals did not exist in 1900. Instead, Fred received two bronze sculptures; one of a horse and one of a young woman called , ‘Farm Girl With a Rake’. Another athlete at the Games received an umbrella, so our Fred did pretty well. However, he was eventually presented with honorary gold medals.
A MAN OF MANY PARTS
Fred Lane was interested in far more than just swimming. He was an excellent sailor, pioneer surfer and boxer, and later took up golf. He had a remarkable collection of autographs, which he kept at the bank in a safety deposit box. The signatures included those of Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the cricketer Jack Hobbs. And perhaps there was the odd fellow Olympian in the mix as well. He also collected stamps (swapping duplicates with King Farauk of Egypt), coins, models, and cigarette cards. He was a friend of the artist Norman Lindsay, and even wrote a book about him. When he returned to Sydney he opened a stationery shop in Bridge Street.
Just before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Fred presented all the Australian swimmers with a replica of his own gold medal.
I wonder if Dawn Fraser still has hers?
There was a very sad end to Fred’s life. In 1968 his house in Sydney caught fire. All his collections, and hundreds of his swimming medals and trophies were destroyed. He died a year later, aged 89. However, his long life had been rich and full. He put his sporting success down to avoiding alcohol and ‘Lady Nicotine’. Oh yes….and eating brown bread and chicken.
FOOTNOTE – Long before Fred was born, another Sydney based athlete captured the imagination of the public. It was said that The Flying Pieman could have been a very successful Olympian.
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