Augustin in his field in Brive-la-Gaillarde, with dog and terrified flock, 1913
Gold Medal, Shepherdage
“A man is only as good as the sheep he herds,” wrote Charles Darwin, in one of his books that wasn’t about evolution. It was a commonly held belief from the middle ages right up through World War I that shepherding was the most noble profession, and that only by testing one’s self against a flock of itinerant sheep could a man truly look upon his own inner soul. If that’s true, Artur Augustin was a man who beheld himself, in all his darkness and terror, without flinching.
The son of a Romanian cobbler, Augustin adopted that country’s famously unsympathetic attitude toward animals as a youth in France. Growing up in a small town called Issoire, 50 miles north of the Spanish border, he quickly showed an intuitive understanding of how to maximize an animal’s output by heaping pain and indignity on the creature. In 1874, he became the youngest ever champion of the famous Issoire frog races when his entrants demolished the competition after Augustin invented ‘fire hopping,’ a tactic that saw him place a long match in the frog’s rectum and light the other end just before the race began. It was both incredibly effective and deeply disturbing, and was made illegal immediately after the event concluded.
The next year, Augustin won the event again by making the frog look at still images of the snapping turtle, its natural predator, for an hour before the race. Right before the starter’s gun, he showed the frog a real live snapping turtle, and the resulting speed was tremendous. But again, the natives objected to the psychological trauma, and the tactic was made illegal. Finally, in the third year, Augustin just chased his own frogs, screaming and shouting as they hopped along the course to become the only three-time winner of the event. That summer, the frog committee convened and realized that instead of making all these tactic illegal, they should just ban Augustin from the event for life.
Scorned, Augustin turned to shepherding. By his 25th birthday, he had the most successful and well-behaved sheep population in southern France. With over 1,000 head, it was a marvel to other shepherds that Augustin would never have even a speck of trouble with an difficult animal. He held annual exhibitions where his sheep, behaving like an army, would march in lockstep in perfect 10 x 10 formation as Augustin looked on sternly from the rear with his vicious dog ‘Mad Tooth.’ But despite his growing fame and wealth, rumor circulated that Augustin’s ‘behavioral strategies’ verged on the extreme, and critics urged authorities to investigate.
These critics would grow louder by the 1908 Olympics, when Augustin, now 41, brought his skills to competitive shepherdage at the London Games. There were no codified rules for animal treatment at the time, and each athlete was given 100 unruly sheep to organize and transport on a 50-mile walking journey across the English countryside from Dover to Manchester.
When he first encountered his flock, Augustin knew they were a particularly arrogant and disrespectful bunch. He quickly found their leader, a bleating animal who kept walking around in lazy circles, and murdered it with a scythe in front of the other sheep. Onlookers were horrified, but Augustin knew that it would gain him respect and fear among the rest of the herd. He lost points for the dead animal (which he carried around his neck like a scarf as a reminder) but the rest quickly fell in line. Over the next 10 hours, he abused the animals both verbally and physically, whipping them, playing loud noises, and teasing them with the promise of food, as they made their way toward Manchester. When one sheep stopped to graze, nearly exhausted, Augustin hit it with a hooked implement he called a “wool-gatherer.” The sheep leaped to its feet and continued to move.
As the journey continued and news of Augustin’s tactics spread, crowds gathered to protest the shepherd and decry his immoral behavior. The numbers swelled into the thousands, and soon another group emerged, mostly immigrant Romanians, urging Augustin on to the finish with chants of “sheep aren’t men!”
In the tenth hour, Augustin crossed the finish line in Manchester at least a day ahead of his nearest opponent. In a rare display of emotion, he collapsed in tears and tackled several of his exhausted sheep in celebration. By now his whippings and beatings were famous around the nation, and British Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith promptly banished him from UK soil.
The IOC mailed Augustin his gold medal, and, under extreme public pressure, were forced to cancel shepherdage as an Olympic sport. Augustin lived out his days in Southern France, still immune from all authorities, and his sheep population grew to six figures. He became something of a local legend, and as an old man in 1940, he even gave Hitler some advice about how to manage large groups of people. He died in 1964 at the age of 97, happy and rich and with a beautiful young wife to whom he left absolutely nothing.