Diving as a sport in the modern era had its origins in Germany and Scandinavia in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but the thrill of hurling yourself from a height head-first into water is age-old. Even if Noah never hazarded a plunge into the Flood from the Biblical Ark, the joy of diving can be traced back to Antiquity. The “Tomba del Tuffatore” – “Tomb of the Diver” – dating back to 480 BC was discovered in Paestum in southern Italy and shows a young man plunging in graceful flight after taking off from a high platform. The image is thought to symbolise the passage of life to death.
Diving as a competitive sport developed after gymnasts in Germany and Sweden began to practise their routines over water from the 18th Century. Diving and swimming had been traditional activities of a guild of salt boilers in the German town of Halle known as “Halloren”. They practised their diving feats from a bridge over the River Saale and showed off their skills at festivals. One of their foremost divers, named Tichy, was instrumental in forming the first diving association in 1840 with links to the German gymnastics movement. They were known as “Tichy’sche Froesche” (Tichy’s Frogs), and most members were gymnasts.
In Sweden, wooden scaffolding was built around lakes and on beaches for the public to try out their acrobatic routines in the summer months. The challenge was there for anyone brave enough to perform diving feats. In 1898, The Encyclopaedia of Sport reported: “One has to go to Sweden to see this beautiful branch of the art displayed to perfection. There, somersaulting from great heights and swallow-like flights of a whole team are common.”
The first known book on diving was published in Germany in 1843. The oldest German club, Der Berliner Schwimmverein von 1878, was known as Neptun and started international diving contests in 1882. The first diving rules were adopted in 1891. The International Olympic Committee traces the start of competitive diving to Britain at much the same time as in Germany. Swedish divers gave exhibitions there, stimulating the formation of the Amateur Diving Association of England in 1901. At around the turn of the 20th Century, enthusiasts were leaping into the water from bridges in the United States, though the activity was discouraged because of bad accidents.
Supported by Germany, diving made a controversial plunge into the Olympic arena in 1904 at the third Games of the modern era in St. Louis. Local eye doctor George Sheldon (p68) brought the United States the sport’s first Olympic gold medal with a disputed victory over the German favourites in the “fancy diving” event involving two Americans and three Germans. Sheldon, 30, displayed a simple technique but hit the water with a neat, straight entry, an aspect neglected by the Germans who uncorked a spectacular array of acrobatic, somersaulting dives but did not worry how they concluded them.
The judges put the scoring emphasis on the total dive rather than purely on dazzling stunts in the air. They declared Sheldon the winner with 12.66 points and Hoffmann (GER) second on 11.66. Braunschweiger (GER) tied for third place with Frank Kehoe (USA) on 11.33 but the German declined to contest a dive-off, leaving Kehoe with the bronze. The competition is recorded as a ‘platform’ event but it was not the 10m tower we know today. It was contested on a rigid board about 3m above water level mounted on a floating platform.
Gottlob Walz (GER) won the diving at the 1906 Intercalated Games that were never recognised as official, in Athens. The event was held in the Bay of Zea at Phaleron from boards set up on a Greek naval vessel. Walz, leaving nothing to chance, brought his own 6m long springboard on the train. Divers had three dives from each of three boards at 4m, 8m and 12m. Walz won with 156.0 points from 1904 silver medallist Hoffmann (150.2), with Otto Satzinger (AUT) third (147.8).