With the Rio Olympics well under way, we can expect to see further stunning athletic achievement in terms of Citius – Altius – Fortius (Faster – Higher – Stronger) after the excitement of London 2012. Some Olympic champions become millionaires following their successes whilst most retire to relative obscurity. Some become household names for a generation or more whilst others enjoy fame for a few days and then, outside their own specialist sporting bubble, once again become anonymous. More than that, every generation seems to indulge in the arrogance of the present, proclaiming that their sporting heroes or heroines are the greatest ever, forgetting about the amazing achievements of athletes of previous eras.
You will, of course, be familiar with the names of athlete Usain Bolt, swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnast Nadia Comaneci and rower Sir Steve Redgrave, but do the names of Jim Thorpe, Jennifer Thompson, Larisa Latynina and Elisabeta Lipa, also once stellar personalities of track and field, swimming pool, gymnastics arena and rowing lake respectively, mean anything to you? One way in which stars of past eras can still be appreciated is indeed through a thematic stamp collection, as many countries either celebrated them at the time or marked anniversaries or the passing of personalities. Certainly, in recent years, with many countries abandoning or tweaking former ‘no living person on stamps’ policies, there has been a plethora of issues publicising Olympic success, not least from the Royal Mail. In this feature, we aim to remind or inform you regarding some of the top Olympic champions of all time – or so it seemed for a while!
American Jim Thorpe (1887–1953) (Fig 1) was regarded as one of the most gifted athletes in modern sports, winning gold medals for the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 Olympics held in Stockholm. He was, therefore, outstandingly gifted in long jump, javelin, discus, 200m and 1500m and in ten other disciplines – four runs, three jumps and three throws. The King of Sweden (Gustav V) declared to Thorpe that he was the ‘world’s greatest athlete’. However, Thorpe was stripped of his Olympic titles when it became known that he had earned money from sport by playing semi-pro baseball, but they were eventually restored posthumously by the International Olympic Committee in 1983.
Paavo Nurmi (1897–1973) – AKA the Flying Finn (Fig 2) was the middle- and long-distance runner to beat during the first part of the 20th century winning three gold medals and one silver at the 1920 Games held in Antwerp, five in Paris four years later and one gold and two silvers at the Amsterdam Games of 1928. Nurmi’s running and training styles were highly influential and helped to popularise running as a pastime and turned it into a major international sport. In 1952 Nurmi was given the accolade of being the lighter of the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the Helsinki Games.
J C Owens
J C Owens (1913–80) (hence ‘Jesse’) (Fig 3) won four gold track and field medals at the 1936 Berlin Games. Already a triple world-record holder, the American triumphed in the 100m, 200m, 100m relay and in the long jump to become the most successful athlete of his era. These achievements were famously galling for Hitler and his National Socialists in terms of their declaration of the supremacy in all things of the Aryan race. Although there is evidence that Hitler shook hands with Owens and congratulated him, privately the Fuhrer went on to express the view that such ‘coloured’ athletes should be excluded from future games because their physiques gave them unfair advantages.
You can discover more in this month’s Gibbons Stamp Monthly. Buy your issue here.