Heroes of the Olympic Games


On the winner's podium

black and white photograph of female athletes finishing a race, the winner has arms raised

The histories of the Olympic and Paralympic Games are filled with winners. In this chapter, we select a number of champions who earned their places in the history books.

Swimmer Jim Anderson

Jim Anderson OBE is a Paralympic swimming champion from Scotland. Jim, who has cerebral palsy, has participated in the Paralympic Games six times.

Colour photograph of Jim Anderson who holds a medal and wears a blue t-shirt

In 1996 in Atlanta, he won two gold medals - in the 50 metre backstroke and 100 metre freestyle races. In 2004 in Athens, he doubled his gold medal tally winning the 50, 100 and 200 metre freestyle and the 50 metre backstroke events.

As part of our Europeana Sport project, Anderson - nicknamed Jim the Swim - shared his sport story with us.

Athlete Victor Boin

The son of a Walloon mother and Flemish father, Victor Boin seemed to lead several different lives. In 1920, the Belgian athlete was at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Antwerp – his home country. He was the first athlete to take the Olympic Oath, in the name of all competitors. He went on to win a silver medal in fencing at the Games.

Black and white photograph of Olympic opening ceremony where Victor Boin recites the Olympic oath

Boin was incredibly talented because he also excelled in sports such as jiu-jistu and skating. He was also the founder and president of Belgium's first ice hockey club.

Boin had also won medals at the 1908 and 1912 Olympic Games, both in water polo. He competed in fencing at the same games, but without making it to the podium. It is unique for an athlete to win a medal at three consecutive Games in two different sports.

Black and white photograph portrait of Victor Boin who wears a singlet on which is the word Belgique

Between the Olympics in 1912 and 1920, however, World War I broke out. Boin put his sporting career aside and volunteered for the army. In 1916, he became a fighter pilot. At the end of the war, he received an order to fly the King and Queen of Belgium to England, as the sea crossing was considered too dangerous.

Boin returned to professional sport in 1920. Another life he led was as a sports journalist, including as co-founder of the International Sports Journalists’ Association. During the 1936 Olympic Games, he gave the first spoken sports report on Belgian radio. If history was being made somewhere, Boin was there.

colour press card for Victor Boin which shows his photograph in black and white as well as his personal details and other text

Boin was also president of the Belgian Olympic Committee, as well as working as a coach. In Brussels, his name has been immortalised in a swimming pool and the Victor Boin Stadium. This one athlete has thus been honoured in two different sports – a true testament to his exceptional versatility.

Skiers Janica and Ivica Kostelić

In the history of Croatia at the Winter Olympics, the surname Kostelić dominates the leaderboard. Between them, skiing sister and brother Janica Kostelić and Ivica Kostelić have won ten Olympic medals - just one shy of all the medals won by Croatian athletes at the Winter Olympics.

Colour photograph of Janica Kostelić skiing, she wears a red and white ski suit and red helmet

Janica Kostelić is a four-time Olympic gold medallist, and was the first female skier to win four Olympic medals. She won three gold medals in Slalom, Giant slalom and combined skiing disciplines at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Her fourth medal came in the combined discipline four years later in the Winter Olympics held in Turin. She also won two silver medals in Super-G in 2002 and 2006.

Janica was chosen as the Croatian Sportswoman of the Year eight times between 1998 and 2006. Her six medals means she is the Croatian athlete who has won the most Olympic medals.

Colour photograph of Ivica Kostelić skiing, he wears a black, red and white ski suit

Her older brother Ivica Kostelić has won four Olympic silver medals - in the combined skiing competition in 2006, in Slalom and Combined at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and once again in the combined competition at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

The Kostelić siblings were born in Zagreb. Both their parents were elite handball players, with their father Ante later becoming a sports coach. He encouraged his children to take up skiing, with both finding early success in youth competitions. In the 1990s, Ante moved from handball coaching to winter sports and began professionally training Janica and Ivica. Janica was first selected for the Olympics in 1998, coming 8th in the combined competition. Away from the Olympics, both Janica and Ivica have won multiple medals at the skiing World Championships.

Swimmer Kay Espenhayn

Kay Espenhayn was a German Paralympic swimmer. She was the first German sportsperson to be a UNICEF ambassador for disability sports.

Kay Espenhayn was born in Leipzig in 1968. After her studies, she worked as a medical laboratory technician and later a nurse. She was a member of a local swimming club, as well as a lifeguard at a local lake.

Espenhayn first competed in the Paralympic Games in 1996, after several years of swimming while experiencing medical issues.

Black and white photograph of Kay Espenhayn

In 1989, during a routine operation, a nerve was unintentionally severed leading to restricted movement in her spine, shoulder and arm. By 1992, she had joined the Leipzig Disabled Sports Association, where she began training and swimming again. In 1993, her physically strenuous job as a nurse led to further spinal damage.

After a six-month stay in hospital, she was diagnosed with paraplegia and became a wheelchair user. Shortly after, she accompanied her swimming group to the German Championships in Bayreuth - which aroused her ambition to swim competitively.

In 1994, she entered both the Saxony and German Championships and by 1995 was entering international competitions. At the end of 1995, she was involved in a car accident and was told she would not walk again. She stayed in hospital for nearly six months, beginning to build her strength and swim again from March 1996. On leaving hospital, she took part in the German Championships and was selected for the 1996 Paralympic Games squad.

Certificate from the IPC showing that Kay Espenhayn set a world record in 200m freestyle swimming in Perpignan in September 1995

In Atlanta, Espenhayn completed an amazing recovery - winning six medals: three golds, two silvers and a bronze. She swam in all four Olympic disciplines on distances from 50 metres to 200 metres. She competed in her second Paralympic Games in 2000, winning 5 silver medals in Sydney.

However, in between these two Games, Espenhayn spent long periods in hospital for various diseases and the necessary rehabilitation. In August 2001, she set another world record at the European Championships in Sweden, and in December, competed in her last swimming competition in Germany. She was named Leipzig Sportswoman of the Year in 2000 and 2001, and became an Ambassador for UNICEF in 2002.

Kay Espenhayn died in September 2002, having been seriously ill since the January before.

Since 2005, an annual Kay Espenhayn memorial run has taken place in Leipzig, raising money for charity in memory of a determined and dedicated swimmer.

Swimmer Éva Székely

Hungarian swimmer Éva Székely was an Olympic gold medallist who survived the Holocaust and lived through the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. She competed in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, winning gold in the 200 metre breaststroke. Read more about Éva Székely's life and career in the blog below.

Figure skater Sonja Henie

Sonja Henie was a Norwegian figure skater who has more Olympic and World titles than any other figure skater.

Born in 1912 in Oslo, Henie's wealthy family encouraged her sporting career. Her father - who had once been World Cycling Champion - hired tutors and experts to ensure that Sonja would become an elite athlete.

She first competed in the Olympic Games in 1924, aged just 11, coming 8th. She would go on to win gold medals in figure skating at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Games. She was the first, and only, figure skater to win consecutive gold medals at three Olympic Games. Henie is also credited with being the first to wear a short skirt costume and white boots while figure skating.

colourised photograph of Sonja Henie who is jumping during an figure skating routine

The 1936 Winter Olympic Games - held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany - were marked by controversy, when Henie greeted Adolf Hitler with a Nazi salute and later accepted an invitation to lunch with him. She was strongly denounced in the Norwegian press for this. Later that year at the European Figure Skating Championships held in Berlin, she did not salute Hitler in this way.

After these championships, Heine turned professional and began to star in films and skating shows. She was a popular figure in Germany, particularly with Nazi leaders. In the 1940s, during World War II, she became a US citizen and supported the US war effort, as well as supporting causes in Norway (which had been occupied by Nazi Germany). However, her family home in Norway was not confiscated due to a photograph of Hitler being displayed.

Black and white photograph of Sonja Henie who does a figure skating routine

Thanks to her professional career, Henie became very famous and very wealthy. Her shows and touring earned as much as $2 million per year, and she also had endorsement deals to promote skates, clothing, jewellery, dolls and more. Despite some reservations in Norway about her previous relationship with Nazi Germany, she returned to Oslo in the 1950s with the Holiday on Ice tour, which was very popular and even attended by the Norwegian Royal Family.

Henie died in 1969 from leukaemia, with her funeral in Oslo also attended by members of the Norwegian Royal Family.

Athletes The Irish Whales

The 'Irish Whales' was a nickname given to eight Irish emigrant athletes who earned superstar status due to their great size and strength. They dominated throwing events at the Olympics between 1896 and 1924, winning many medals for the USA and Canada.

black and white photograph of three athletes

The athletes were: John Flanagan, Simon Gillis, James Mitchel, Pat McDonald, Paddy Ryan, Martin Sheridan, Matt McGrath and Con Walsh. Gillis was the only of these who was not born on the island of Ireland. The Whales were most successful in hammer throw, discus, shot put and the 56-pound weight throw competitions.

Black and white photograph of John Flanagan who stands in a sports field

John Flanagan was the most successful of these athletes. He was the first athlete in the Olympics to win three successive gold medals, doing so at the 1900, 1904 and 1908 Summer Olympics. A year after his retirement from the New York City Police Department in 1910, he returned to Ireland and began coaching a number of athletes, including Patrick O’Callaghan, who, in 1928, became the first Irish athlete to win an Olympic gold medal while competing under the flag of the newly independent Irish Free State, a feat he would repeat in 1932.

The 'Irish Whales' are unique as they managed to dominate several Olympic disciplines for over two decades while competing for their host nations and serve as a testament to the immeasurable contributions that migrants have made and continue to make to the Olympics Games.

Swimmer Nel van Vliet

Nel van Vliet was a Dutch swimmer who won a gold medal in the 200 metre breaststroke swimming competition at the 1948 Olympic Games held in London.

black and white photograph of swimmer Nel van Vliet in starting position on side of a swimming pool

Those games were known as the 'austerity games' as they were held just three years after the end of World War II, while the effects of the conflict were still being felt across Europe and the world. It was during that war - while the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany - that Nel van Vliet had learned to swim. She started swimming aged 16 in 1942 and by the following year she became the Netherlands national champion in 200 metre breaststroke.

Her swimming improved greatly after World War II and across her career, she set 15 world records. She went into the 1948 Olympics as the European Champion, having won gold in Monte Carlo in 1947.

Nel van Vliet's joy at winning an Olympic gold medal was short-lived: her medal was stolen from her home just a week later. It was not until 2004 that she received a replica, with special permission received from the IOC.

Your heroes

We curated this exhibition to showcase as many athletes as possible from across Europe. But with thousands of athletes taking part in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, there isn't space for everyone.

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