Exhibition

Heroes of the Olympic Games

First timers

Making history

black and white photograph of four female swimmers standing beside a pool

Higher, faster, stronger is the motto of the Olympic Games. Athletes strive to make this motto a reality. To win is sweet, but doing so as the first winner from your country is even sweeter. This chapter looks at athletes who were the first to reach an achievement - the first medallist from their country or the first to win multiple medals.

Skier Toni Sailer

Austrian ski racer Toni Sailer was one of the greatest in the sport. Aged just 20 years old, he won three gold medals at the 1956 Winter Olympics, held in Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy.

He was then the youngest man to win gold in Olympic alpine skiing. He became the first person to win all three alpine skiing events (downhill, slalom and giant slalom) in a single Olympics, and only the fifth person to win three gold medals at one Olympic Games.

Black and white photograph of Toni Sailer who wears a skiing outfit and holds skis

Born in Kitzbühel, Tyrol in 1935, Sailer had been skiing since he was a child. He became a member of the Kitzbühel Ski Club aged 12, and began entering competitive races as a child. Sailer was a teenage skiing sensation - winning his first major skiing competitions aged just 16. He got the nickname the 'Blitz from Kitz' (blitz being the German word for a lightning bolt).

Black and white photograph of Toni Sailer who is watching a skiing race on a television

His Olympic success in 1956 also counted towards a world champion title. In total, over his sporting career, he won seven world championship titles. Due to his Olympic successes, Sailer became a national hero. He was named Austria's Sportsman of the Year for three consecutive years. This success led to acting roles in films, where he was paid to both act and ski, threatening his status as an amateur athlete.

In 1959, Sailer retired from skiing competitions, but continued to work in films and recording albums and businesses including ski resorts, clothing and equipment companies.

Figure skater Sjoukje Dijkstra

Sjoukje Dijkstra is one of the best sportspeople in Dutch history.

In the 1960s, she became the Olympic champion in figure skating, as well as a three-time world champion. Her Olympic Gold medal came at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria where she was the first athlete to win a Winter Olympics gold medal for the Netherlands. Read more about Sjoukje Dijkstra in the blog below.

First golds for Baltic nations

In 1992, the Olympic Games returned to Western Europe having not been held there for twenty years. The European teams which entered these Olympic Games were different from those in the previous decades. Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina each made their Olympic debuts, while the Soviet Union's dissolution resulted in athletes from Estonia, Lithuanian and Latvia competing under the flags of their now independent nations.

Lithuania won its first Olympic medals in Barcelona. The Lithuanian men's basketball team won a bronze medal, while Lithuanian athlete Romas Ubartas won gold in the discus event. However, the following year, Ubartas failed a doping test and was disqualified for four years.

colour photograph of Romas Ubartas who throws a discus above his head

Latvia had to wait a few more years for their first Olympic gold medal. In the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, gymnast Igors Vihrovs won gold in floor exercise.

colour photograph of Igors Vihrovs at the Olympics, he has a gold medal around his neck and holds up a bouquet of flowers

Cyclist Erika Salumäe

Estonia's first gold medal after regaining independence was won in cycling by Erika Salumäe, who had previously won a gold medal in 1988 at the Seoul Olympic Games competing for the Soviet Union.

colour photograph of Erika Salumäe at the Olympics, she rides a bicycle and has a fist raised in victory

Born in Pärnu in 1962, she took up cycling in 1981. At the 1983 World University Games, she won two gold medals - in the women's sprint and women's 500 m time trial. This began a decade of sporting success for Salumäe. She won gold at the World Championships in 1987 and 1989, and set 15 world records between 1982 and 1989. She was voted Estonian Sportswoman of the year nine times - more than any other sportsperson.

After her sporting career, Salumäe worked in sports administration and was a member of Tallinn City Council and a member of parliament in Estonia.

colour photograph of Erika Salumäe who wears a garland of leaves

Malta's 1928 Waterpolo team

Malta has never won a medal in nearly a century of taking part at the Olympic Games.

The island nation's first participation was in 1928 in the summer Olympic Games held in Amsterdam. It was represented by nine athletes, all of whom were members of a water polo team. The team won their first round match against Luxembourg, but were knocked out in the quater-finals by France who eventually finished in the bronze medal position.

black and white photograph of a waterpolo team

Diver Greta Johansson

The 1912 Olympic Games were held in Stockholm, and were the first to feature female aquatic sports athletes with diving and swimming competitions held. Only 48 female athletes took part.

Sweden's Greta Johansson was one of the first female winners of an Olympic medal, having won the competition in diving from a 10 metre platform.

Johansson was born in Stockholm in 1895, making her just 17 years old when she won her Olympic gold. She was Swedish national champion in 1910 and 1911. In 1913, she emigrated to the United States where she eventually worked as a diving coach at Stanford University until 1948.

Black and white photograph, portrait of Greta Johansson

Just like diving, in 1912, swimming competitions for women were held for the first time in Stockholm. Sarah 'Fanny' Durack was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. During her races, Irish-Australian Durack shocked crowds by wearing a sleek, close-fitting swimsuit. Read more about her life and sporting achievements in the blog below.

Artist Jean Jacoby

Jean Jacoby is the most successful Olympic artist, having won two gold medals for his artistic pursuits. He was the first person to win more than one Olympic gold medal in art.

In the early years of the Olympic Games - from 1912 to 1948 - sport-inspired art competitions were held, divided into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

dark blue illustration of an athlete who is in the starting position for a race

Jean Jacoby, who was born in Luxembourg in 1891, won two gold medals for his art - one in the 1924 Olympics for his painting Sport Study and another in 1928 for his drawing Rugby.

Jean Jacoby was a painter and illustrator, who often depicted sport themes in his art. He was Professor of Drawing at the Lewin-Funcke school in Berlin from 1912 to 1918. At the time of his Olympic success, he worked as an illustrator for two German newspapers, the Berliner Illustrierte and the Grüne Post.

illustration with yellow background, showing two cyclists on bicycles with text 'Parc des Sports' and VELODROME

Jacoby died in 1936, aged just 45, but his Olympic legacy lived on, with his artworks commemorated in Luxembourg's postage stamps for the 1952 Olympic Games.

High-jumper Tia Hellebaut

Antwerp-born Tia Hellebaut made history when she was the first ever Belgian woman to win a gold medal in athletics. This feat came as recently as 2008, at the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Hellebaut's high-jump of 2.05 metres was a new personal best for her, winning her a personal victory as well as a place in Belgian sports history. In the 2012 Olympics, she was the flag bearer for Belgium during the opening ceremony.

colour photograph of athlete Tia Hellebaut who holds up a Belgian flag

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

🔼 Have you a story about the Olympics or Paralympics to share? Upload it to Europeana using our contribute form.