Exhibition

Heroes of the Olympic Games

Crowd pleasers

Popular national role models

black and white photograph of two men running a race in front of a large crowd

Some Olympic and Paralympic heroes are known the world over, while some are more known in their home countries. This chapter explores a mix of athletes who are respected in their home countries and some who have won international fame.

Basketball player Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol is a basketball player who has won two silver medals at the Olympics Games playing for Spain in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. But he is best known worldwide as an NBA player, a competition in which he debuted in 2008 with the Memphis Grizzlies and in which he won the 2019 championship with the Torono Raptors.

Colour photograph of Marc Gasol who holds a basketball

As a professional, he made his debut in the 1st division of Spanish basketball in 2003 with FC Barcelona, and established himself as a player with Akasvayu Girona, a team with which he played two seasons between 2006 and 2008.

Besides his success as a basketball player, he has always shown his commitment to society. In 2013, together with his brother Pau (also an NBA basketball player), he founded the Gasol Foundation for the health of children and to end childhood obesity.

Colour photograph of Marc Gasol who is jumping while playing basketball

In 2014, Marc Gasol founded the Basketball School Club in Girona, later called Basquet Girona, with the aim of training children and young people and promoting basketball in the city. After his final season in the NBA, playing for Los Angeles Lakers, Marc Gasol decided to return to Girona.

In 2021, he joined the first team of Basquet Girona which plays in the LEB Or league (2nd division of Spanish basketball), a club of which he is also the president.

Marathon runner Spyridon Louis

Greek athlete Spiridon Louis won exactly one race: the very first Olympic marathon in 1896. Born in Marousi, today a suburb of Athens, he was a water carrier and former soldier.

Black and white photograph of Spyridon Louis

The marathon was part of these first Olympic Games of the modern era. The race went from Marathon to Athens, based on the legend of the Greek courier Pheidippides who walked the same road in 490 BC to tell the home front that the Persians had been defeated at the Battle of Marathon. This story is historically incorrect, but in 1896 it was still seen as the truth.

Black and white illustration of marathon race in Athens Olympic stadium seen from the crowd who are shouting and cheering

This gave Louis's Olympic victory an extra dimension, because as a Greek he had made such a link between the era of the classical Olympic Games and modern times. The Greek public had been very enthusiastic about the Olympic Games, but were disappointed that no track and field event had yet been won by a Greek competitor. In fact, Louis's one victory was enough for him to be proclaimed a national hero on the spot. More than 125 years later, he still is in Greece.

Athlete Dorando Pietri

The marathon in the 1908 Olympic Games in London provided more drama in its final moments. Dorando Pietri - one of the strongest Italian athletes of the time - entered the Olympic stadium leading the race.

black and white photograph of Dorando Pietri running at the end of marathon, he looks very tired

However, the effort it took to get him to the lead had left him exhausted and weak - so much so that he needed to be helped to cross the finishing line. This led to him being disqualified, and losing the gold medal. Read more about Dorando Pietri's 1908 Olympics and life in the blog below.

Weightlifter Ymer Pampuri

Albania has taken part in the Olympic Games since 1972 when five participants took part in two events in Munich.

One of those was weightlifter Ymer Pampuri, who was born in Tirana in 1944. Earlier in 1972, Pampuri had won a silver medal in the European Championship in Romania.

Black and white photograph, portrait of Ymer Pampuri

At the Olympics in Munich, Pampuri became the first Albanian to break an Olympic record when he lifted 127.5kg in the military press style of weightlifting. This made him the World Champion in that discipline, but was not enough to make him the Olympic champion. He came 9th in the overall competition with Norair Nurikyan of Bulgaria winning gold.

Colour postage stamp showing Ymer Pampuri illustrations, a portrait and image of him weightlifting

To date in 2022, Albania has not yet won any medals at the Olympic Games. Pampuri broke many national records and is remembered today as one of Albania's greatest sportsmen. Ymer Pampuri died in 2017, aged 72.

Canoeist Ivan Patzaichin

Ivan Patzaichin was the greatest Romanian canoeist of all time, an iconic figure of Romanian sport, having been declared the 'Athlete of the 20th Century' by the International Kayak-Canoe Federation.

Colour postcard of Ivan Patzaichin and Toma Simionov in a canoe

Patzaichin was born in November 1949 in Mila 23, a village in the Danube Delta accessible only by water, the son of a fisherman. He started his canoeing career at an early age inspired by his grandfather and two other canoers from his native village, Vicol Calabiciov and Serghei Covaliov, who had won world title in doubles in 1966.

Leaving the harsh life in the Danube Delta, in 1967, he moved to Bucharest, where he joined the Dinamo sport club. Only one year later, he was included in the Romanian national team and, together with Serghei Covaliov, won his first Olympic gold medal, in the 1000 metre men's canoe double race at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

He became a legend of Romanian canoeing, winning eight world titles between 1970 and 1983 and four Olympic gold medals at the five Olympic Games he attended between 1968 and 1984.

colour photograph of Ivan Patzaichan in a canoe

Patzaichin made history at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, becoming a role-model for his generation and those to come. At the second stroke in the 1000 metre qualifying race, his paddle broke - but the referees didn't stop the race as the regulations required. However, Patzaichin didn’t give up, using what was left of the paddle to continue. He ended the race three minutes after the first boat. He was disqualified, but after protests he was included in the repechage.

'From that moment on, I won the repechage, semifinals and finals!' he remembered and the entire world knew him as 'the champion with the broken paddle'.

As the coach of Romania's kayak-canoe team, winning numerous medals in European, world and Olympic contests, Patzaichin inspired many Romanian sportspeople and is remembered in Romania as a role model for all. Ivan Patzaichin died in September 2021.

Pole-vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz

Polish pole-vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz won a gold medal in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow with a successful jump of 5.78m. With his last jump, Kozakiewicz broke the world record. But his win is remembered in Poland and Russia for a gesture he made after his successful jump - interpreted as a political protest against the USSR. Read more about his story in the blog below.

Swimmer Cees Vervoorn

Cees Vervoorn is a Dutch swimmer who participated in three Olympic Games: in Montreal in 1976, Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. His speciality was the butterfly, one of the most difficult swimming strokes that requires precise technique.

Colour photograph of Cees Vervoorn

The 1980s Games in Moscow were special for Cees. He won the butterfly semi-final against a Swedish peer and qualified for the finals as one of the favourites. But, in the 100m butterfly final, as everyone went off the starting blocks, he stood. He missed the bronze medal by 0.12 seconds and ended in fourth place, just a few seconds after the winner.

Later, he was approached by a student who was creating a book about Dutch sportspeople who finished fourth at the Olympics for his graduation project. The book named Cees the 'best-ever loser in the Netherlands'.

Since his sporting career, Cees has continued to work as a swimming coach and academic. At the 1996 and 2000 Paralympic Games, he was 'Chef de Mission' for the Netherlands team.

Cees Vervoorn shared his story at a Europeana Sport Collection Day in Amsterdam in September 2021.

Gymnast Leon Štukelj

Leon Štukelj was an Olympic gymnast from Slovenia. He won three gold medals, a silver and two bronze medals in the 1924, 1928 and 1936 Olympic Games, where he represented Yugoslavia.

Štukelj was born in 1898 in Novo Mesto. As a child, he took part in sports including gymnastics as part of the Slovenian Sokol athletic movement. After World War I, he began training more intensively and began entering competitions in the 1920s.

Black and white photograph of Leon Štukelj

His first Olympic Games were in 1924 in Paris. There, he won two gold medals - on the horizontal bars and the all-around competition.

At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, he won his third gold medal in the rings, and two bronze medals, in the all-around and team competitions. He did not participate in the 1932 Olympics (only one athlete representing Yugoslavia travelled to Los Angeles). His last Olympic medal was a silver medal on the rings in 1936.

In 1927, Štukelj completed his law studies. After his sporting career, he worked as a judge. However, after World War II, he was removed as a judge by Yugoslavia's Communist regime, working instead as a legal assistant.

In the 1990s, Štukelj - now in his 90s - was recognised as one of the oldest living Olympic champions and was a guest of honour at the opening of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Leon Štukelj died in Maribor in 1999, aged 100.


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.

Who would you include as your Olympic or Paralympic hero? You can tell us in a few ways.

🏟️ Explore our other Olympic and Paralympic Games articles - maybe your favourite is featured

💬 Reply to our tweet or facebook post and tell us your heroes. Use the hashtag #HeroesOfTheOlympicGames

🖼️ Search Europeana and create your own gallery of your heroes

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