An ace rower who never made it to the Olympics and instead steered world rowing into modernity

Göran R. Buckhorn[1]
Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic CT


David Owen
Thomi Keller: A Life In Sport
245 pages, hardcover, ill.
London: Independent Publishing Network 2018
ISBN 978-1-78808-468-0

In September, the International Rowing Federation, FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés), which is the governing body for international rowing, announced to the world rowing community that nominations for the organisation’s ‘Best Awards’ were open for 2018: Women’s Crew of the Year, Men’s Crew of the Year, Para Crew/Rower of the Year, etc. FISA also welcomed nominations for the 2019 Thomas Keller Medal, which is the highest distinction in the sport of rowing. This medal is awarded to recognise an exceptional international rowing career as well as exemplary sportsmanship and legendary aspect. To read the list of recipients throughout the years, from the first awardee, the Norwegian oarsman Alf Hansen in 1990, to the most recent ones, the Kiwi pair Eric Murray and Hamish Bond in 2018, is to see a catalogue of the very best of the best of female and male rowers during the last 30 years.

But who, then, was Thomas Keller, who has given name to the highest excellence award in the sport of rowing? Nowadays, many rowers, over a certain age at least, would know the name Keller from being the president of FISA from 1958 to his early death in 1989, at the age of 66. The Keller era can be said to have been glory days for this small sport on the big arena of world sports, but in many aspects its leader was larger that the sport he was the head of and his legacy persists to this day.

The latter is brought up in a biography that was published earlier this year about Thomas Keller, Thomi Keller: A Life in Sport by former sports editor of the Financial Times, David Owen. The author, a leading authority on the Olympic Movement, contributes on a regular basis to the insidethegames.biz website. Owen, a non-rower, confesses in the foreword that he had never heard of Keller when his name came up in a discussion Owen had with two veterans of the international sports conference circuit. Later, however, Keller’s son, Dominik, commissioned Owen to pen a biography on his father. One could, of course, argue that it might be better to choose a rowing journalist or writer, but these days they are few and far between. (I know personally that some of them are busy working on other rowing books.) Nonetheless, looking at the result, Dominik Keller made a good choice. Despite rowing being a small sport, there are quite a few rowing books published every year, biographies and autobiographies on and by successful rowers and coaches (and “how to row” books). Owen’s book – though more on Keller, the sport administrator, than Keller, the rower – will have its natural place among the literature about rowing.

Thomi Keller has 26 fairly short chapters with end notes. Owen’s background as a journalist makes the text clear, fluent and easy to read, also when the author presents facts he has dug out from dull-written minutes from FISA, IOC and other sport organisations’ meetings. Owen has also interviewed several persons who worked and/or were close to Keller. Written so the events in Thomi Keller’s life are in a chronological order makes it easy to follow him from his days as an athlete to the dynamic sport leader he became. The book has interesting pictures, showing everything from the young Thomi to photographs from the height of his career, to the older, ill-stricken Keller at his last world championships in 1989 at one of his favourite rowing venues, Bled in Yugoslavia.

In the Philippines, he trained hard, but he missed the opportunity to represent his country at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.

It is worth stressing that the sub-title of Owen’s book is not ‘a life in rowing’, but ‘a life in sport’. It will probably come as a surprise to many reading rowers, who knew Keller as a powerful, energetic and driving force within the tight-knit rowing community, that he also was deeply involved in the Olympic programme – after all, he was the head of FISA for eight Olympic Games – and could have risen within that movement had it not been that he cared more about the athletes then sports politics. More than once did his outspokenness put IOC delegates, including the person of the highest position of that organisation, to shame.

Thomas ‘Thomi’ Keller was born in Zurich in 1924. He lost his father at an early age, when he was attacked by a lion at a hunting expedition in what was then Tanganyika in 1931, a traumatic event for the 7-year-old Thomi. He was interested in sports, maybe because his mother took him to the Nazi Olympics in 1936; it is not known if they made it to the rowing regatta at Grünau, outside Berlin. Rowing was otherwise running in the family, as Thomi’s mother’s brother had competed for Switzerland at the 1920 Olympic rowing in Antwerp. After trying skiing, which he was good at, Thomi joined the famous rowing club Grasshopper Club in Zurich in 1940. He married Dorry Bodmer in 1947, and took a diploma in chemical engineering the year after, before doing his military service. In 1950, a married, working man with a year-old son, Thomi took up sculling. ‘I have the privilege to be a part-owner of a company which can afford that one of its owners works very little in the company and spends most of his time on rowing,’ Thomi said. But he was successful. Several times during the 1950s, he became national champion in the single sculls and the double sculls. He even took a bronze medal in the single at the European Championships in 1950. The company Thomi part-owned (it was founded by his grandfather) soon sent him and his family to the Far East, but a three-year stint there only meant that Thomi joined a rowing club in Hong Kong and later Manila Rowing Club. In the Philippines, he trained hard, but he missed the opportunity to represent his country at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. Nevertheless, he was still young enough to try for the next games on the other side of the world, in Melbourne.

Thomi returned to Switzerland in 1955, started to row in a double scull with Hansruedi Vollmer – they became national champions that year. Then, the Swiss scullers decided to try their luck at the most prestigious rowing regatta in the world, Henley Royal Regatta in the town of Henley-on-Thames, England. Thomi and Hansruedi made the final in the Double Sculls Challenge Cup, but there they were beaten by a Soviet duo from Leningrad. Throughout the years, despite many other responsibilities and duties, Thomi would come back to Henley to watch the races. In 1976, he was honoured to be made a Steward, a member of the body which organises the regatta, which was founded in 1839.

The Olympic year 1956 started well for Thomi. He became Swiss champion in both the single and in the double. For the European Championships, a sick Thomi, and Erich Shriever, only mustered a fourth place in the double sculls, which still rendered them a ticket to the Olympics. Unfortunately, unforeseen political events would stop many of the world best athletes from travelling to Australia, including the Swiss double. The Suez Crisis kept a few Arabic nations from going to the Olympics. ‘But it was the Hungarian Uprising – and more particularly the brutal Soviet response to it – that cost Thomi his only chance of writing his name as an athlete on the Olympic honours board,’ Owen writes. Thomi was against the boycott and would continue to fight against politicising sporting events, including the famous boycotts of the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, which almost became the nail in the coffin for the Olympic Movement, Owen writes.

Samaranch once said: ‘This Thomi Keller, the number of strokes in rowing is more important to him than international politics’

In the summer of 1958, FISA president Gaston Müllegg of Switzerland died when the small airplane he was piloting crashed. Suddenly one of the oldest governing sport bodies stood without a leader. Ever since FISA was founded in 1892, it had been run as a European old boys’ club. It might therefore seem strange that the name that came up as Müllegg’s successor was his countryman, the 33-year-old Thomi Keller, still an active oarsman. At an extraordinary FISA congress in November, Thomi was elected president of FISA. There must have been some hesitation among the delegates to put a young man in charge, as Thomi lacked both political and administrative experience, but he soon won them over with his hands-on management style, which would become his trademark. Owen quotes rowing historian Christopher Dodd: ‘Keller found support among rowers and his member federations because his principles were clear from the moment he took office. He separated politics from sport events, and he developed facilities for sportsmen by always asking, “What is the best for the athlete?” He learned the business from the bottom up.’ Thomi later said: ‘We have a tradition in rowing. We want the athletes to become leaders.’ His successor and countryman Denis Oswald, who would become FISA president in 1989, was hand-picked by Thomi already in 1976.

Throughout the chapters, Owen makes fine accounts of Thomi’s successes and struggles as the head of FISA: the financial pressures to raise more funds for the organisation; raise the quality of umpiring and the infrastructure of courses; maneuvering the ‘East Bloc problems’, the Cold War, Olympic boycotts and apartheid in South Africa; the constant meddling in the sport of rowing by the IOC (Thomi managed to stay on the right keel with both Brundage and Killanin, but he lost the fight against Samaranch, who once said: ‘This Thomi Keller, the number of strokes in rowing is more important to him than international politics’); introduction of lightweight rowing and world championships that included women; doping; the creation and his presidency of the General Assembly of International Sports Federations (GAIF), the body of international sports federation that IOC saw as a major threat; initiative to make rowing accessible to more people around the world, not only as a sport but for recreational purpose, and to make the rowing equipment cheaper; transform youth and junior rowing: commercialism and sponsorships; the list goes on and on.

Worth mentioning separately are Thomi’s TV negotiations for the world rowing championships, especially those in the mid-1980s. Money did come FISA’s way, but at the price of unfair weather conditions for the rowers. At the 1987 world championships on Lake Bagsvaerd, outside Copenhagen, there were, as Mike Sweeney, FISA council member, called them ‘evil crosswinds’. Lanes five and six had a clear advantage to row in, while lanes one and two were almost unrowable. As a spectator on that day of the finals, I witnessed the farce on the lake myself; it was a hurtful spectacle to watch. What we on-lookers and rowers did not know was that the Danish organisers and FISA could not postpone or delay the races because of the TV contracts! At this year’s world championships in Plovdid, Bulgaria, FISA’s fairness commission stopped some races as there were some ‘unfair winds’. Although FISA’s executive committee supported the commission’s analysis of unfairness, the committee turned down an appeal for a re-row. I could not help playing with the thought, what would Thomi had made of this – what he disliked most, we learn from Owen, was ‘unfairness’. Problems with a TV contract? No, today, FISA streams their many regattas on their own website, www.worldrowing.com.

For a long time, Thomi Keller has been worthy of a biography. We will soon enter into the anniversary year of the third decade since his passing. It feels like a relief that David Owen’s entertaining, well-written and wise book on ‘the outstanding figure in the history of international rowing,’ to borrow what rowing journalist Hugh Matheson wrote in his obituary on Thomi, is available for rowing and sports fans alike.

Copyright © Göran R. Buckhorn 2018


[1] Göran R Buckhorn is the editor of Mystic Seaport Museum Magazine. He is a former president of Malmö Roddklubb, Sweden, and the founder and editor of the award-winning rowing history website Hear The Boat Sing (HTBS).

 

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