It is an exciting, if busy, time for Hilary Evans. Thanks to some unusually ideal weather, the corn harvest arrived earlier than usual on his farm in Aberystwyth, Wales, where the 51-year-old oversees 150 acres of crops, 300 sheep, and 60 heads of cattle. This coincided with the start of another eagerly awaited event some 6,000 miles away, one whose personal import Evans describes like this: “It’s a really interesting hobby. Well, I suppose it’s almost a job now.”
As a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH), a contributor to the research database Olympedia.org, and a tweeter under the handle @OlympicStatman, Evans belongs to a subculture of archivists obsessed with chronicling every corner of the Olympic universe. He stumbled into the side project by accident, back around the 2008 Beijing Games, when he emailed then-ISOH president David Wallechinsky about an obscure factoid he had unearthed while conducting some amateur stat-keeping for kicks. Now he cannot get enough.
“One piece of trivia leads to another,” Evans says. “You have to work to pull the threads.”
Like many of his peers, Evans has endeavored—and so far failed—to unravel perhaps the most intriguing mystery their field has to offer. The subject is a baby-faced coxswain who steered the gold medal-winning two-man boat for the Netherlands at the 1900 Paris Olympics. The boy’s exact name, age and background all remain unknown to this day. But experts posit that he could very well be the youngest champion in modern Olympic history, if not its youngest competitor period.
Evans recalls first learning about the coxswain in the Guinness Book of Records in the ’80s, having received a copy from his parents as a Christmas gift. Since then he has mined newspaper records, magazine clippings and numerous other documents for any morsel of biographical detail, all to no avail. A few years ago, aided by the research efforts of an Estonian colleague, Evans theorized that the boy could possibly be Alfred Van Landeghem, an 8-year-old who also coxed the Belgian rowing eight in Paris. But even Evans admits that the evidence was circumstantial at best, hinged on little more than a passing resemblance in a few fuzzy pictures.
Dead ends have hardly dampened the enthusiasm of Evans and his peers. “Like detectives, we are inspired and challenged by difficult cases,” Wallechinsky once wrote, and of those there are plenty.
Some have been solved; last year, Evans finally tracked down, in the yellowed pages of a French sports journal, the long-missing results of the 1908 individual men’s gymnastics competition. "Just checking it out but I think I've found something very important...." he had emailed fellow historian Bill Mallon. Others have yet to be cracked: Was the 18-foot yacht race of 1920 ever actually staged? Where did Muhammad Ali’s gold medal from 1960 go?
Still the case of the 1900 coxswain—commonly referred to as the “unknown French boy,” even though his nationality isn’t certain either—continues to tantalize for obvious reasons. “This isn’t quite the same as somebody being an Olympic champion in another sport, because it’s basically holding a string to keep the boat straight,” Evans says. “But it’s incredibly rare. I know I wasn’t doing anything that spectacular when I was 8, 9, 10 years old.”
As they currently stand, official Olympic records peg the youngest known competitor as Dimitrios Loundras, a 10-year-old gymnast who participated in the parallel bars for host Greece in 1896. (The youngest at this year’s Tokyo Games are a pair of pre-teens in Syrian table tennis player Hend Zaza and Japanese skateboarder Kokona Hiraki, both 12.) But that won’t stop Evans and others from trying their damndest to figure out if another athlete deserves the honor instead. “Let’s be honest, nobody beyond a few of us would care all that much,” Evans says. “But it’s like what some people say about mountain climbing: If it’s there, you’ve got to climb it.”
The 1900 Paris Olympics, the second installment of the modern Olympiad, had neither an opening nor a closing ceremony. Held over five months from May to October, the games were but a sideshow amid the Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair, which featured such novel attractions as a moving sidewalk with three speeds and diesel engines running on peanut oil. So under-hyped were the sporting events that many of the 1,200-plus athletes, hailing from 26 countries, supposedly weren’t even aware they were taking part in the actual Olympics.
Late that August, five rowing events, all for men, were staged along a section of the Seine River, between a pair of bridges named for the towns of Courbevoie and Asnières. On Aug. 25, in the qualifying heat of the coxed pairs, Dutch rowers François Brandt and Roelof Klein, alongside coxswain Dr. Hermanus Brockmann, suffered a surprising defeat, by several lengths, against a boat from France’s Société Nautique de la Marne. Fortunately for the duo from the Netherlands, though, their time was strong enough to book a spot in the next day’s final.
Before that race, Brandt and Klein schemed a way to pull even with their hosts. Upon noticing that the French boats had been stashing children in their cox seats to reduce their overall weight loads, the Dutch rowers ditched the 60-kilogram Brockmann in favor of a 33-kilogram boy whom, as Brandt later described in writing, they simply “found” on site.
So light was the boy that Brandt and Klein had to attach an extra 5-kilogram lead weight to their rudder just so it would sink below the water surface. But the last-second personnel swap proved critical, as the Dutch boat surged to an early lead from the starting line and held off France’s Lucien Martinet and René Waleff, winning by two-tenths of a second. Afterwards Brandt and Klein posed with the boy for a photo, placing their hands on his shoulders in muted celebration.
To this day, the picture is the only known written or visual record of the boy. Everything else has either been long since lost to history, or was never documented in the first place.
Six decades later, a Dutch historian named Anthony “Tony” Bijkerk found a copy of this picture in an anniversary memorial book for Brandt’s rowing club, the same book where Brandt had published his version of the events that took place that summer day on the Seine. Eventually Bijkerk, who died in Dec. 2017, summarized his findings in a pair of articles for the Journal of Olympic History, writing that he had even contacted Brandt’s son several times to hopefully confirm the boy’s identity. But Brandt’s son was just as in the dark as everyone else.
“This is a mystery and it remains a mystery,” Bijkerk told the Wall Street Journal in 2016.
Bijkerk—who made a minor breakthrough nonetheless when he helped track down a bronze statue, titled “La Chanson,” that the Dutch had received in lieu of a gold medal—was far from the only historian on the hunt. Wallechinsky, now an ISOH executive committee member, recalls becoming enthralled with the case while writing the first edition of The Complete Book of the Olympics, in 1983. “It struck me immediately,” Wallechinsky says.
A decade earlier, when Austrian journalist Erich Kamper came out with the Encyclopedia of the Olympic Games, the first book to provide comprehensive results of most competitions, a passing mention of the coxswain was buried in a footnote. There it caught the eye of Mallon, a former cyclist and professional golfer who had grown interested in Olympic literature while perusing used book stores on PGA Tour stops.
After leaving the Tour to attend medical school at Duke University, where he studied to become an orthopedic surgeon, Mallon dove headfirst into Olympic research—including, of course, the hobby’s ultimate enigma. Piggybacking on his wife’s work as an international flight attendant in the ’80s, Mallon paid a visit to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, scouring every available French and English newspaper and sporting magazine from 1900. He also located Katharina Muelling, the daughter of Roelof Klein, then living in New Jersey, thinking that perhaps Klein had mentioned something—anything—about the boy.
“Nothing,” says Mallon, a founding member of the ISOH and its first secretary-general. “It’s not like there’s a set of results. It was an unknown boy they plucked out of the crowd. There really haven’t been many times we’ve thought we’ve even had a candidate.”
In fact, Mallon continues, “the first strong candidate” that he’d ever seen didn’t surface until around the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was then that Georgian journalist Paata Natsvlishvili submitted a 26-page, full-color booklet to the ISOH for review, claiming to have made a massive discovery. As Natsvlishvili declared on an introductory page:
“THE OLDEST MYSTERY OF THE OLYMPIC HISTORY IS SOLVED!
“‘UNKNOWN FRENCH BOY’ IS NO MORE UNKNOWN!
“‘UNKNOWN FRENCH BOY’ IS NOT FRENCH AT ALL!
“The name of ‘Unknown French Boy’ is Giorgi Nikoladze!”
A founding vice president of the Georgian National Olympic Committee who first took up sportswriting in the 1980s as “a kind of oasis where one could somehow break free from the shackles of Soviet propaganda journalism,” Natsvlishvili came to learn about the mystery of the unknown coxswain through a side door. He had grown fascinated with the life of Niko Nikoladze, a famous Georgian thinker and public figure and, upon learning that Nikoladze had traveled to Paris along with his wife and children during the 1900 world’s fair, began researching an article proposing that the Nikoladze family were perhaps the first Georgian Olympic spectators ever.
As Natsvlishvili was writing, two threads intertwined his mind. One was a small item about the unknown coxswain from Wallechinsky’s tome, The Complete Book of the Olympic Games, which Natsvlishvili had bought while participating in a Soviet-American peace walk in San Francisco. The other was a passing comment made in an interview to Natsvlishvili by one of Niko’s children, Rusudan, regarding her brother, Giorgi, a versatile athlete who had climbed mountains, cycled throughout Europe and, crucially, won a boat race in France as a young boy.
“An idea suddenly arose: Maybe Giorgi Nikoladze was not only a spectator but also a participant in the Olympics by chance?” Natsvlishvili, an ISOH member and author of a five-volume series on Georgian Olympic history, writes in an email. “After all, his then age coincides with the age of an unknown French boy. … Maybe that's why nobody could identify the ‘unknown French boy,’ that they were sure that he was indeed French, and did not look for him outside of France?”
Needing further evidence to bolster his theory, Natsvlishvili poured himself into the pursuit. He recalls reading “everything that exists about the 1900 Olympic Games” in English and Russian, as well as part of an official Olympic race report translated from French. He compared photos of young Giorgi with the one of the coxswain that Bijkerk had found. Rusudan Nikoladze had passed away by then, so Natsvilishvili contacted several of the accomplished scientist’s former students at the Polytechnic Institute of Georgia, who recounted Rusudan telling them that Giorgi had won a monetary prize for his boat victory and used it to buy his family souvenirs.
“What did that feel like?” Natsvlishvili emails. “That I was able to solve the most ancient and mysterious Olympic puzzle!”
The supposed revelation, however, was met with skepticism. A version of Natsvlishvili’s booklet was published in the Journal of Olympic History—headline: “Was the ‘Unknown French Boy’ in 1900 actually from Georgia?”—along with an afterword from editor Volker Kluge that ruled, “unfortunately there is no ‘smoking gun.’ ” To Klugeand others, the evidence was too circumstantial to definitively confirm that Giorgi Nikoladze and the Dutch boat’s coxswain were one and the same—even if Nikoladze and his family were indeed in France during the 1900 games, and even if Nikoladze indeed won a boat race as a boy. “We looked at it, and said it’s a theory, but we don’t think there’s enough evidence to support it,” Mallon says.
In an email, Natsvlishvili concedes that “additional, more direct arguments are needed” by his ISOH peers “to accept my version without a doubt.” But, he notes, the mystery of the young coxswain never had any “smoking gun” from the moment that the boy disappeared from the banks of the Seine with nothing more than a single photo to show for his presence.
“Thus,” writes Natsvlishvili, “I can say that until a more convincing version than mine appears somewhere in the world, or until I find another coherent interpretation of the words, heard by me from Rusudan Nikoladze, as well as the memories conveyed by her students, the unknown French boy, for me, is going to remain Giorgi Nikoladze.”
For his part, Evans agrees with Mallon that the case cannot simply be closed due to Natsvlishvili’s findings. “It’s possible, but it’s very vague, making a leap between somebody who’s said to [have] won a big race in France and actually proving it.,” the farmer says. To that end, Evans casts doubt on hopes that the coxswain’s identity will ever be found. “It might be possible,” he says, “but it’s been 121 years now. It’s getting less and less likely every year.”
Yet he does not rule it out altogether. The mountain still looms large, after all. Might as well keep trying to climb it.
More Olympics Coverage:
• I’ve Covered Nine Olympics. Nothing Prepared Me for Seeing My Daughter Win a Medal
• How Simone Biles Came Back to Win the Bronze of Her Life
• Teens Show Unique Culture of Park Skateboarding at Olympics
• Bright Future Ahead for U.S. Swimming After Tokyo Olympics