Heroes of the Olympic Games


Breaking new ground

black and white photograph, wheelchair athletes parading in a stadium in front of large crowd

Over the 125 years of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, new sports and stars have appeared and disappeared. In all sports, there are pioneers, those competing for the first time or bringing a new outlook to a sport. In this chapter, we look at athletes who were among the first from their own countries to compete and win.

Judoka Teddy Riner

Teddy Riner has won three Olympic gold medals in judo, and is one of the most successful judo players in history.

Teddy Riner was born in 1989 in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. He was raised in France, where he took part in different sports and found a particular interest in judo. His performances meant he was quickly noticed by coaches.

Colour photograph of Teddy Riner at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro

In 2006, he won gold medals in the European and World Junior Championships aged 17, becoming the youngest heavyweight European and World champions. As he progressed, he won more and more championships and rapidly became the most awarded French judoka.

He currently holds an outstanding record of ten world championship titles. He was the Olympic champion at the Games in London in 2012, Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and won a team gold medal in Tokyo in 2020.

As his success impressed the French public and media, Teddy Riner quickly became a public figure, committed to equality and rights to access sports, especially for children. In 2018, he was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Since 2012, he has supported the Imagine Institute for Genetic Diseases, an institute that develops links between research and care to find new therapeutic solutions for genetic diseases. He is involved in raising funds and bringing additional means to research and care.

All in all, by using his public fame to serve important causes, such as research and children's rights, Teddy Riner goes from a sportsman to a hero.

Doctor Ludwig Guttmann

The Paralympic Games developed from sports competitions which were first held in the United Kingdom in 1948. Jewish-German Doctor Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital hosted a sports competition for British World War II veteran patients with spinal cord injuries. 16 athletes - 14 men and 2 women - took part.

Read more about the early Paralympic Games at the link below.

colour photograph of a medal presentation ceremony at the Paralympic Games

Paralympian Joan Horan

Joan Horan was a patient at Stoke Mandeville who went on to create Paralympic history competing for Ireland.

She was born in Dublin in 1918 and moved to London to pursue an acting career. In the late 1940s, Horan was diagnosed with a cyst on her spine and was hospitalised for many years, spending one year living at Stoke Mandeville. There she took up archery and table tennis, returning to compete at the 8th International Stoke Mandeville Games in 1959.

In 1960, she travelled to Rome, becoming the first Irish woman to compete in the Paralympic Games. She was the only woman on the team, and won two gold medals - in archery and swimming.

Sprinter Jason Smyth

One of Ireland's most successful Paralympians is sprinter Jason Smyth. Over the course of four Paralympic Games, Smyth has won six gold medals. Smyth - who is legally blind - competes in T13 100 metre and 200 metre competitions. He has broken world and Olympic records at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Games, leading to some naming him 'the world's fastest Paralympian'.

colour photograph of a race during the 2012 Paralympic Games

Smyth - who is from Eglinton in Northern Ireland - also made history as the first Paralympian to compete at the European athletics championships. In Barcelona in 2010, he qualified for the semi-finals of the 100 metres in 10.43 seconds, and finished fourth in his heat.

Skier Duarte Silva

When we think of Portugal's geography, we may think of beautiful beaches and sunny valleys, but not necessarily the right landscapes and weather for winter sports.

In 1952, Duarte Espírito Santo Silva was the first athlete from Portugal to take part in the Winter Olympics. He competed in downhill skiing, and came in 69th place - ahead of athletes from Argentina, Australia, Greece (and others who had been eliminated).

Silva had grown up enjoying skiing. Every year, his parents travelled to the Swiss Alps, bringing one of their children with them. Silva skied for the first time in 1932, aged seven and loved the sport from that day. He continued to ski when possible at Covilhã, a town in a mountainous region of Portugal, and later for seasons in Switzerland and Austria.

Colour postcard showing illustrations of sights from the skiing town Covilhã

In 1951, Silva and his friend Carlos Gonçalves were challenged by Raymond Noelke, an Austrian ski instructor, to take part in the upcoming Winter Olympics being held in Norway. Both trained as much as they could in a country without official ski slopes, but Gonçalves dropped out at the last minute. Silva paid for his own flight to Oslo, going with the goal of simply finishing the race.

Sadly, there are no photographs of Silva taking part in the race. He was not accompanied by anyone from the Portuguese Olympic committee, nor was his participation reported by Portuguese newspapers.

Silva was the only athlete representing Portugal at the 1952 Winter Olympics. Thus, in the opening ceremony parade, he was the flag-bearer. It would be another 36 years before the next Portuguese athlete took part in the Winter Olympics. In all, to date, Portugal has sent just 12 athletes to the Winter Olympics.

Boxer Cuthbert Taylor

Born in Wales in 1909, boxer Cuthbert Taylor took part in the 1928 Olympic Games competing for Britain.

However, he was banned from national championships due to racist provisions in the British Professional Boxing Association's statutes. Taylor's father was born in Liverpool, with ancestors coming from Jamaica. According to the rules of the British Boxing Board of Control, Cuthbert did not meet the requirement that a professional boxer must have both a white father and mother to compete in a national championship - a racist rule that applied from 1911 to 1948.

Taylor's Olympic participation did not count. In 1928, he had secured his place in Amsterdam in flyweight by winning the National Amateur Boxing Association title, becoming the first non-white British boxer to compete in the Olympic Games. In the quarterfinals, Taylor was eliminated by Armand Apell, after which he switched to professional boxing.

black and white photograph of a team of athletes marching, most are wearing suits with white trousers and dark jackets

In his entire career, he boxed about 200 professional fights, but was never admitted to the national championships due to the racism of the union.

Today, relatives of Taylor still demand an apology from the professional association, which still exists. It has even sparked a debate in the House of Commons. On October 30, 2021, a plaque was unveiled for Taylor, who passed away in 1977.

Boxer Nicola Adams

While Cuthbert Taylor was the first Black boxer to compete at the Olympic Games for Great Britain, nearly 100 years later, Nicola Adams set another historic milestone.

Colour photograph of Nicola Adams wearing a red singlet and red boxing gloves, she flexes her biceps

Adams - who was born in 1982 - was the first female boxer to win an Olympic gold medal. She did this in front of a home-crowd at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and repeated her gold medal success in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Skateboarder Charlotte Hym

Charlotte Hym is one of the first women in history to figure among French skateboarders.

Born in 1992 in Paris, she calls herself a 'street girl' as she started skating with her Parisian neighbours when she was just a teenager and never stopped! As her skateboarding skills improved, she went from informal training to having a coach, while concurrently obtaining a degree in Sports Science followed by a master’s degree in NeuroScience.

Mixing an academic and sporting lifestyle with an almost perfect balance, she managed to be the French Street Skate Champion in 2017, 2018 and 2019, while completing a Ph.D. in 2019. After graduating, she decided to focus more on skateboarding and was selected for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Skateboarding debuted in Tokyo with two categories: street skate and park skate. Through her participation, Charlotte Hym highlights two issues: firstly, the need to value skateboarding as a sport in its own right with formal training available for everyone, and secondly, the need to have a better representation of women in this sport.

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.

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