Heroes of the Olympic Games

Game changers

Making a difference

black and white photograph of skier skiing through the air

The featured heroes of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in this exhibition all made a difference - through their sporting achievements or in society. In this chapter, we focus on a number of athletes and others who changed the game in their own way - through their sport or through protest and activism around societal issues.

Sport pioneer Lajoš Vermeš

Hungarian sports pioneer Lajoš Vermeš revived interest in the Olympic Games in the 19th century.

For a long time, Pierre de Coubertin has been remembered as reviving the Olympic Games alone. With the establishment of the International Olympic Committee, he did indeed make a major contribution, but there were more people who tried to do so in the 19th century. Lajoš Vermeš, born in 1860 in Szabadka, was fascinated by sport since his youth, then a whole new phenomenon. In 1880, he organised the first edition of the Olympic Palics Games, inspired by the ancient Olympic Games.

Vermeš was so interested in the human body that he photographed it, and could be called the first sports photographer in the world. He made fascinating recordings. For example, he developed the technique of instant photography, in which he could create a photo series with intervals of a few fractions of seconds using switched cameras. Even before the invention of the film, he recorded movement, such as a galloping horse. Vermeš managed to capture the movements of someone jumping around 1879.

Colour photograph of a statue of Lajoš Vermeš

His enormous pioneering work was swallowed up by history, as Szabadka's name changed to Subotica and became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after the end of World War I. He died there in 1945 as a forgotten sports pioneer. In 2000, a statue of Vermeš was placed in the city, which turned out to be the beginning of a revival of interest in his work.

Athlete Alice Milliat

Alice Milliat was a talented French athlete at the beginning of the last century.

After World War I, her events included rowing, football, basketball and swimming. In those days, women were barely allowed to participate in Olympic sports, partly due to the huge conservative influence of her fellow countryman Pierre de Coubertin. Known as 'the big man of the International Olympic Committee', he said there was no place for women at the Olympics. Milliat rebelled against this and founded the first international women's sports organisation.

Black and white photograph of Alice Milliat in a rowing boat

One hundred years ago, in 1922, Milliat made a breakthrough by holding the first ever Women's World Games. Bringing together the world’s top female athletes every four years, the event was so successful that the IOC became nervous and decided to allow women to compete in Olympic athletics. This happened for the first time in 1928, in Amsterdam.

So, something that is completely normal today started because of Milliat's resistance against the male sports establishment. Unfortunately, Milliat did not live to see women being allowed to compete in Olympic rowing, one of her favourite sports. That wasn’t until 1976, more than 20 years after her death. Milliat's battle has been key for the development of the Olympic Games. Now, almost 50% of those taking part are women. 100 years ago, that figure was less than 5%.

Politician Ernest Lee Jahncke

American Ernest Lee Jahncke became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1927. He was educated as an engineer and was the United States Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1929 to 1933.

Black and white photograph portrait of Ernest Lee Jahncke

Jahncke was the only member of the IOC to openly protest against holding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. 'Sportsmanship and Hitler do not mix,' he said, summing up his aversion to the political abuse of the sporting event by the German Nazi party. He therefore wanted these Games to be moved.

IOC president Henri de Baillet-Latour was furious at Jahncke's call. Led by Avery Brundage, its president, the American Olympic Committee also turned against its own IOC member. Behind Jahncke's back, the IOC convened a secret meeting with only fifteen other members during the 1936 Winter Games which were held in Garmisch-Partenkirchen also in Nazi Germany.

There was only one item on the agenda: the expulsion of Jahncke. The American was removed, with no right of defence. He was the first IOC member in history to be expelled. His place was eagerly taken by Brundage, who clearly benefited from dubious power politics.

It soon became clear that Jahncke was right in his prediction that Hitler would indeed abuse the Games politically. Despite this, the IOC never reversed his expulsion.

Runner Lina Radke

At the 1928 Olympic Games, women competed in athletics for the first time. Here we see the final of the 800 metres, which was won by Lina Radke from Germany. She was the first winner of that race for women, as well as one of the first women to win an Olympic gold medal for athletics.

Black and white photograph of three female athletes running in a race

According to the sports officials and journalists, this distance was much too long for women, and was therefore taken off the programme. The film footage from 1928 shows an exhausted participant stumbling across the finish line, and this was used as an argument to remove the distance. However, later research showed that the images had been manipulated because the stumbling athlete hadn’t even participated in the final!

Lina Radke ran the final in shoes made by Adi Dassler, the man who laid the foundation for the Adidas factories after World War II. She was the first athlete to win an Olympic title in a pair of Dassler’s shoes, marking the beginning of an era.

Almost 100 years later, many Olympic champions have won and lost in Adidas shoes. These include legends such as the 1936 four-time gold medallist Jesse Owens and 1952 three-time gold medallist marathon runner Emile Zatopek, as well as 1988 Grand Slam winner Steffi Graf. But this Adidas revolution in international sport began in 1928 with Lina Radke in Amsterdam.

Hurdler Nawal El Moutawakel

Nawal El Moutawakel is a hurdler from Morocco who was the first woman from an Islamic nation to win an Olympic medal. She won gold in the first-ever 400 metre hurdles race for women, which took place in 1984 in Los Angeles. She was also the first Moroccan athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.

Colour photograph of Nawal El Moutawakel who is speaking from a stage

Nawal El Moutawakel was born in 1961 in Casablanca. Her Olympic success was celebrated there and throughout Morocco, with King Hassan II of Morocco decreeing that all girls born the day of her victory should be named in her honour. In 1984, El Moutawakel was the only female athlete in the Moroccan Olympic delegation, making her a pioneer for female athletes. From then onward, many young female athletes began entering international competitions, not only from Morocco but other Arab and Muslims states.

Since retiring from athletics, El Moutawakel has been active in politics and sport administration. In 1993, she organised the first 5K race in Morocco for women. It was held in Casablanca, and aimed to inspire women through sports. She was the Moroccan Minister of Sport and Youth from 2007 to 2009. Since 2012 has been a vice-president of the IOC. In 2006, she was one of eight sportspeople who carried the Olympic flag at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony in Turin and in 2012 she carried the Olympics torch through London.

Footballer Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe was the captain of the USA women's football team at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The team won gold defeating Japan 2–1 at Wembley Stadium in front of the largest-ever crowd for a women's Olympic football match.

Colour photograph of Megan Rapinoe on pitch at London 2012 Olympics, she has a flag of USA around her shoulders

Rapinoe is a leader, both on and off the pitch. In addition to the Olympic Games, Rapinoe is a two-time world champion with the US team. She won the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards at the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, which was held in France.

She uses these sporting achievements for her work as an activist and advocate for equal rights – whether in relation to racial justice, LGBT rights or women's rights. That is why she didn't go to the White House during Donald Trump's presidency after winning the World Cup in 2019. 'I would rather talk to and have meaningful conversations that could really affect change in Washington than going to the White House,' she said.

Colour photograph of Megan Rapinoe who has her arms out-stretched in a crowded stadium

In March 2021 Rapinoe visited the president and vice president, saying: 'I'm a member of the LGBTQ community with pink hair, and where I come from, I could have only dreamed that I would be standing in the position I am today at the White House.'

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

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