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Olympic Champion Jean Boiteux, 76, Passes Away

Gaul is in mourning this morning for one of her most celebrated of sporting sons. Jean Boiteux, 400m freestyle Olympic champion in 1952, died at home in Bordeaux Sunday when he fell from a tree that he was pruning. Born on June 20th, 1933 in Bouches-du-Rhône, France's last Olympic champion in the race pool before Laure Manaudou (2004, 400m free) was 76. 

Boiteux had been due to attend the French national championships, which get underway in Saint Raphaël tomorrow. His passing will be marked by the community gathered for the first morning of action at trials for the European Championships in Budapest this August.

Boiteux was not only famous for defeating American Ford Konno in that 1952 400m free final: the events and photos that followed the race made headlines and front pages across the world. 

In a nutshell, here is the swimming tale of Jean Boiteaux:

Bibienne Pellegry, raced in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic 4x100m freestyle finals for French teams that finished fifth. Five years later she gave birth to a son, Jean, who would become an Olympic champion in the pool at Helsinki, 1952. 

When Jean held off a late challenge from Konno to become the surprise winner of the 400m freestyle in an Olympic record of 4:30.7, a man wearing a beret rushed forward and, fully-clothed, plunged into the water to embrace the champion. Reporters gathered to find out the identity of the man. Was it a French official? Team manager? Perhaps it was his beret-wearing coach Alban Minville? 

Jean beamed back: “Papa!” As interested as the reporters was the chief judge, who considered disqualification but opted not to punch the son for the father’s sin against the rulebook. 

Boiteux junior, 19, was less happy three days later, when he watched from the stands as Konno won a 1,500m final that went without him: the French champion had won his heat but miscalculated on the clock. 

Not that that mattered in France, where L’Equipe relived the drama of the 400m across its entire front page under the vast headline: “Minutes d’emotion intense … Jean Boiteux, incomparable, TRIOMPHE … après une formidable bataille …  pulverise le record Olympique”. 

If Boiteux became a national hero, so too did Minville: his Toulouse Olympique Employee Club Dauphins included Alex Jany, the 400m world record holder in 1947 who with clubmates set two European records over 4x200m freestyle. Before Minville retired in 1960, his swimmers won 73 national titles and set 66 French records. He died in 1970. 

Forty-four times champion of France (among whom 13 individual titles), Boiteux raced at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, finishing 6th in the 1500m won by  Australian Murray Rose. The Frenchman finally retired from the race pool in 1962 but he did not leave the deck, serving for many years as coach and, in latter years, president, to the club of Girondins, Bordeaux.

 

Greg LouganisEraldo

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