Heroes of the Olympic Games


Olympic and Paralympic all stars

black and white photograph of a man carrying the Olympic flame in a crowded stadium

Over the 125 years of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, many thousands of athletes have taken part. All Olympians and Paralympians are heroes, with some achieving the status of legends. In this chapter, we look at sportspeople who are considered legends of their sports - for their successes, popularity, personalities, achievements and legacies.

Runner Paavo Nurmi

Paavo Nurmi was a Finnish athlete who dominated distance running in the early 20th century. He won nine Olympic gold medals, as well as three silver medals. He made history at the 1924 Olympics in Paris by being the first ever athlete to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Across just four days, he won the 1500m, the 5,000m, the 3,000m team event and two cross-country events.

Nurmi was born in 1897 in Turku. As a child, he was inspired by long-distance runners and took up cross-country training. As a young adult, Nurmi was in the Finnish army where he began to enter athletic competitions and developed new training methods which helped him build up his strength.

Black and white photograph of Paavo Nurmi running, he wears black shorts and a black singlet

His Olympic debut came in 1920 in Antwerp. He came second in his first race to Frenchman Joseph Guillemot in the 5000m race. This would be the only time that Nurmi lost an Olympic race to an athlete who was not from Finland.

He went on to win three gold medals in Antwerp. During the 1920s, Nurmi set many world records, sometimes with just a few hours between races.

By the 1930s, Nurmi had moved to longer distance running, and set his sights on winning a marathon gold medal. He was due to compete in the 10,000 metres and marathon at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. However, very soon before the race, the IAAF - led by Swede Sigfrid Edström - tried to have Nurmi declared as a professional athlete, and thus banned from the competition. Despite all the entrants of the marathon petitioning for Nurmi to be part of the race, he was not allowed to compete in Los Angeles.

Nurmi retired from competitive running in 1934. He turned to coaching, as well as running a haberdashery store and construction business. During World War II, Nurmi raised funds and support for Finnish causes, as well as serving in the army.

Colour photograph of Paavo Nurmi lighting the Olympic cauldron in a crowded Helsinki stadium

By 1952, Nurmi was persuaded to return to the Olympic Games when they were being held in Finland. He was chosen to carry the Olympic torch into Helsinki's Olympic stadium and light the Olympic cauldron - to huge applause and cheers of the the spectators, recognising Nurmi as one of Finland's greatest-ever Olympians.

Tennis player Esther Vergeer

Esther Vergeer is a seven-time Paralympic champion in wheelchair tennis who changed disability sports in the Netherlands forever.

Colour photograph of Esther Vergeer playing tennis

Esther Vergeer was born in 1982, and started playing wheelchair tennis in 1994. Six years later, she became the Paralympic champion in Sydney, which, at the time, was a big surprise. But in the years that followed, she proved herself even more, by winning another six Paralympic golds.

She won gold medals in the women's singles wheelchair tennis competitions four times in a row - in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. Along with partner Maaike Smit, she won golds in the women's doubles wheelchair tennis competition in the 2000 and 2004 Paralympic Games, and won doubles gold again in London 2012 with partner Marjolein Buis.

In January 2003, she lost a match for the last time in her life, going on to win the following 470 matches! She won 48 Grand Slam titles - at Wimbledon, Roland Garros, US Open, the Australian Open, as well as being ITF World Champion for 13 years in a row.

Colour photograph of Esther Vergeer playing tennis, she is serving

In 2013, she retired from competition, giving other wheelchair tennis players a chance of reaching the top. In 2021, Esther Vergeer was the Chef de Mission of the Netherlands' team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. As a result of Vergeer's successes, disabled sports are finally being taken seriously in the Netherlands. That is why in 2016, she received the Fanny Blankers-Koen Career Award, a prize given to the greatest Dutch sports heroes - the only disabled athlete to win this prize so far.

Gymnasts Nadia Comăneci and Věra Čáslavská

Gymnastics competitions have been part of the Olympic Games since the very beginning in 1896. For 32 years, only men were allowed to compete with women's competitions being introduced in 1928 in the Olympic Games in Amsterdam.

Over the years, there have been many feats of excellence in gymnastics. There have been eight female gymnasts who have won at least eight medals at the Olympic Games, two of whom we highlight here.

Black and white photograph of gymnast Nadia Comăneci

Nadia Comăneci competed for Romania in 1976 and 1980, and won nine medals overall. She was the first Olympic gymnast to score a perfect 10 and remains beloved in Romania. Read more about Nadia Comăneci in the blog below.

Czechoslovakia's Věra Čáslavská won 11 total Olympic medals, the second-most of any female gymnast. She won one in 1960, four in 1964, and six in 1968. Her wins in 1968 were overshadowed by her subtle act of protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia. Read more about this in the blog below.

Winter Paralympian Knut Lundstrøm

Knut Lundstrøm is one of the most successful Paralympians of all time, having won 21 medals across four different Paralympic Games.

Born in February 1951 in southern Norway, Lundstrøm lost both his legs in an industrial accident at Tangen shipyard in 1978.

Just a few weeks before his accident, Lundstrøm had set a new personal best record in a 100 metre race. Within a few months of his accident, he joined a disability sports team and began to train in winter sports.

Black and white photograph of Knut Lundstrøm in an ice sledge

In 1988, at the Winter Paralympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, Lundstrøm took part in cross-country skiing and ice sledge racing (a sport in which athletes use a lightweight sledge and propel themselves using two poles). Lundstrøm was a sensation, winning seven gold medals in all. He was the most successful athlete at the 1988 Paralympic Games.

Black and white photograph of a celebration for Knut Lundstrøm. He stands in a crowd under raised skis held by children.

Lundstrøm's Paralympic career continued for three further games - Albertville 1992, Lillehammer 1994 and Nagano 1998 - where he won a further 14 medals.

Athlete Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens is one of the most legendary athletes of the last century. Born in the US, he won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

black and white photograph of Jesse Owens running

It became a symbolic sporting occasion: an African-American athlete had defeated the Nazis in the ominous presence of Adolf Hitler. The land of the free had triumphed over absolute dictatorship, at least on the track and field. You can read more about Jesse Owens's life and sporting achievements at the link below.

Speed-skater Lidiya Skoblikova

Long track speed skating has been in the Winter Olympics since the first in 1924, but in the first decades only men were allowed to compete. It was not until 1960 that women were admitted for the first time.

That was the beginning of the era of Lidiya Skoblikova from the former Soviet Union, who won Olympic titles in the 1,500 and 3,000 metres. Four years later in 1964 at Innsbruck, she won the races in all distances, becoming the first Olympian to win four gold medals in one edition of the Winter Games.

Black and white photograph of Lidiya Skoblikova skating

With six gold medals, Skoblikova is still the Olympic speed skater who has won the most medals. Her dominance also extended to the World Championships with titles in 1963 and 1964. In both cases she won all distances, which has never been equalled since in a World Allround Championships for women.

Black and white photograph of Lidiya Skoblikova skating in front of a large crowd

After her skating career, Skoblikova became a professor, a member of the Olympic Committee of the Soviet Union and president of the Russian Skating Union. She carried the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

Athlete Jim Thorpe

In the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Jim Thorpe competed in fifteen different events. He won every event in the decathlon and was the best in three events in the pentathlon - a score of 13 out of 15! Needless to say, Thorpe won two gold medals – a unique feat, as no other athlete has ever won the pentathlon and decathlon. The then King of Sweden proclaimed him to be the greatest athlete in the world.

Black and white photograph of athlete Jim Thorpe who wears shorts and a t-shirt

Thorpe had been born to parents of mixed-race ancestry. He was born a member of the Sac and Fox Native American Nation, and given the name Wha-Tho-Huck. The name meant 'Bright Path' because the sun shone bright on the path to his house during his birth.

One year after the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee suddenly revoked Thorpe's medals because he had earned money as a baseball player, which was absolutely forbidden at the time. That, at least, was the official version of events. It has often been suggested that his Olympic medals were stripped because of his ethnicity. At the time Thorpe won his gold medals, not all Native Americans were recognised as US citizens.

Black and white photograph of athlete Jim Thorpe who is posing in the starting position of a race

Later, IOC President Avery Brundage refused to restore Thorpe's amateur status, despite the fact that he'd been proven innocent. The athletes that won second place in 1912 never accepted his suspension. According to them, Thorpe was the champion.

Eventually, there was an official reinstatement – but only in 1982, after Avery Brundage's death. Retroactively, Thorpe became a two-time Olympic champion again. Unfortunately, he didn't live to see this, as he had already passed away in 1953.

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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