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Gordon Bennett! Balloon race over Bern

The 62nd edition of the Gordon Bennett gas balloon competition is taking place in the Swiss capital Bern for the first time. 

With the first balloons taking off on Friday morning, this oldest and most well-known of gas balloon events runs until October 6. Twenty-one teams from 12 countries are taking part, organisers said on Thursday. 

The initiator of this competitionexternal link was the American newspaper publisher and sports enthusiast James Gordon Bennett Junior (1841-1918), who donated to numerous competitions, including polo and sailing. 

The first edition took place in Paris in 1906, in front of 200,000 spectators gathered in the Tuileries gardens. 

Today the competition brings together the best gas balloon pilots in the world. There is no time limit, but the principle is simple: Each team starts from the same point with the same quantity of gas, lifting off to the sound of their national anthem, and the one that flies the longest distance (generally after three or four days non-stop flying) wins the race. 

Each country is allowed up to three teams. In the Gordon Bennett Cup of today, the position, altitude and speed of each balloon can be checked online in real time. This has brought an explosion in the numbers of people following it. In 2016, some 152,000 people followed it on the internet. 

Swiss prowess

Switzerland has been one of the most successful participating countries since the beginning, winning seven times. As early as 1908, a Swiss team won the race after 73 hours of flying - a record that lasted until 1995. The Swiss celebrated further victories in Brussels in 1921 and in Zurich in 1984. Since then, Swiss balloonists have won the competition four more times -- in 1995, 2010, 2015 and 2016. 

The competition has also been held several times in Switzerland, including Geneva and Basel. 

As part of our #swisshistorypics series, we travel back in time with black-and-white pictures of the early days.

(Photos: Keystone, dukas, aka-images)