Jean Bouin, a dream cut short
September 1914. An icon of the Belle Epoque, Jean Bouin joined the front in Lorraine. The Olympic medallist and member of the Societe Generale Athletics Club (CASG) had a date with destiny. Here's a look back at an athlete who left his mark on French sport.
Tuesday, 29 September 1914. Clouds gathered over the fields of Xivray in the Meuse department. In the early morning, gunfire broke out across the lines even more fiercely than before. Each side readied for more bloodshed in the push to capture the Butte de Montsec, not far from Saint-Mihiel. In the French outposts, soldiers in the 163rd infantry regiment dug in as best they could behind their makeshift shelters. Following a gross error in judgement, the troops found themselves targeted by their own artillery. Suddenly, an outcry rose up from the ranks. Between two clouds of smoke, one of their own had dumped his gear, gone over the embankment and ran boldly onto the open field. At the sight of his tremendous stride and speed, everyone guessed the infantryman's identity and the perilous mission with which he had been tasked. It was Jean Bouin, one of the most popular athletes of his generation. He had proudly borne the colours of the Societe Generale Athletics Club (CASG) at the Olympic Games. Acting on his officers' orders, he dashed across to the French artillery command post to inform them of the tragic error. With a deafening roar, shells rained down around him continuously, tearing deep gashes into the plains. The messenger was also targeted by German machine guns as he took long strides across the barren fields. And then the inevitable occurred. Struck in the chest by shrapnel, he was thrown to the ground to breathe his last. He was only 25.
He had led an exemplary life. Jean Bouin was born in 1888 to a family of brokers in Marseille. He spent his childhood in the Saint Victor area, south of the Old Port. As soon as he graduated from primary school, he found work in various transportation and trading businesses in the Mediterranean city. But the quick-witted, strong-willed young clerk soon had new ambitions. He had developed a real passion for sport. In top condition, he had both strength and endurance, demonstrating considerable physical ability at footraces organised by amateur athletics championships. As a member of the Phocée Club in Marseille, he won several competitions in France and Italy. In 1907, he sealed his fame by taking the Nice-Monaco race and finishing third in the national cross-country race in Meudon. Two years later, he became French national cross-country champion after a perfectly executed race in the Amiens area. This was the turning point in his athletic career. Bouin became a fan favourite and stuck to an intensive training programme to advance to the international level. Driven by unwavering self-confidence, he knew that it was his turn in the spotlight.
Jean Bouin would defend his reputation of invincibility while wearing the sky blue-and-white Societe Generale uniform. Under the rules of amateur sport, which did not recognise professional athletes, he was barred from living exclusively on his athletic earnings. In mid-May 1908, he was hired to work in one of Societe Generale's branches in Marseille. Assigned to the portfolio department, he rose to the occasion. His file shows the esteem in which he was held by his superiors: "We appreciate his diligence and zealous work ethic. He carries out his tasks very well. […] Despite his athletic accomplishments, he remains very modest and is very friendly with everyone." Serious and committed, Bouin kept up with his athletic training as well. He joined the Societe Generale Athletics Club, which was founded in 1903 and would later become one of the leading athletic clubs in Europe. Success was certain. On the track, he was iron-willed. It seemed that nothing could halt his incredible pace, as evidenced by his list of accomplishments: Nice-Monaco (1907, 1909, 1910, 1911), French military cross-country champion (1910, 1911), French national cross-country champion (1909, 1910, 1911, 1912), winner of the five-nations cross-country race (1911, 1912, 1913), etc. In all, he smashed seven world and 30 French athletic records.
Bouin was extremely ambitious and before long he was looking for new challenges. At his request, he was transferred to Paris, where he mingled with high society. Well aware of his popularity as an athlete, Societe Generale's management provided him with excellent training facilities. He had the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in his sights. At the time, the 5,000-metre race was the main event. On 10 July 1912, with King Gustav V looking on, Bouin was ready to claim victory. On the last lap, Finnish runner Hannes Kolehmainen caught up to him within a few metres of the finish line and beat him by a tenth of a second. The silver medallist was disappointed despite beating his own French national record of 14 minutes 36.8 seconds, but he received a hero's welcome on his return to France. His moment of glory came on 6 July 1913, once again in the Swedish capital. Following a memorable race, he beat his rival and shattered the world record for the one hour run, covering an astounding 19.0219 km. Tears came to his eyes as the spectators chanted his name and sang La Marseillaise. His future looked bright.
Bouin was in active training for the 1916 Olympics planned for Berlin. The CASG athlete dreamed of winning four gold medals, a first in the history of the Olympics. But the outbreak of war dashed his plans. He enlisted in August 1914, joining the 163rd infantry regiment and, after a short training period, his unit was deployed to the front in Lorraine. His enthusiasm shone through in his final letter: "The German Empire will soon see the French flag flying in Berlin. […] Confidence is ours! […] We cannot wait to get this over with." After falling on the battlefield on the following 29 September, he was buried at the Château de Bouconville-sur-Madt in Meuse before being reinterred in Marseille's Saint-Pierre cemetery. With his death, his legend began. Countless sports facilities have been named after him, starting with Jean Bouin Stadium, whose construction was financed by Societe Generale in 1925. This stadium now plays host to the Stade Français team. In April 1964, a monument was erected in his name in Bouconville. Since then, Bouin has been named a Gloire du Sport, the French equivalent of entering the Sport Hall of Fame. He has left an indelible footprint on our history.
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