#5 – 1904, St. Louis: George Eyser wins six medals in one day, with a wooden leg.
On some unknown date in the late nineteenth century a train ran over the left leg of a German boy named George Eyser. He would spend the rest of his life with a wooden prosthetic.
Eyser’s family moved to the United States when he was a teen. By the end of the century, Eyser was a U.S. citizen working as a bookkeeper for a construction company in St. Louis. He got involved with a local gymnastics club and eventually qualified for the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.
The 1904 games were the first to award gold, silver, and bronze medals, and Eyser got to sample all three of the metals. On October 29, 1904 (the Olympics were spread out across several months that year), Eyser won six medals: three gold (horse vault, parallel bars, and rope climbing); two silver (all-around, 4 events and side horse); and one bronze (horizontal bars).
He won six medals, including one for rope climbing, with a wooden leg. Not bad.
The 1904 gymnastics program also required Eyser to participate in the long jump, 100-yard dash, and shot put. He finished 118th in the long jump and 100 and 76th in the shot put. His poor performance in the field events kept him from contending for a medal in the overall all-around category.
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#4 – 1948, London: The “Flying Housewife” ignores critics, wins four gold medals.
Women first competed in the Olympics in 1900, the second of the modern Olympic games. But for several decades the vast majority of Olympic athletes were men. Of the 4,104 athletes who participated in the 1948 games in London, for example, 3,714 were men.
Many sports fans during this era dismissed women’s sports and felt that women didn’t belong in world class athletic competitions. (Such sports fans still exist. They live mostly in the comment section at ESPN.com.) Some who were OK with women competing in the games nonetheless had reservations about 30-year-old mothers of two participating in the Olympics.
In 1948 sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands was a 30-year-old mother of two. (Fanny and her husband, Jan, named their first child, a son, Jan Junior. They named their second child, a daughter, Fanny Junior. So if you’ve ever wondered, “Do families ever name their daughters ‘[mother’s name], Jr.’?” there’s your answer.)
Blankers-Koen Jack Crump, the manager of the British track-and-field team, said that Blankers-Koen was “too old to make the grade.” And at home in the Netherlands Blankers-Koen had to put up with critics who said that she should stay home and take care of Fanny Junior instead of going to London to compete in the Olympics.
World War II had forced the cancellation of the Olympics in 1940 and 1944 and had denied Fanny Blakers-Koen two opportunities to run in the games when she was in the prime of her career.
She wasn’t going to pass up her shot at Olympic glory, regardless of what her critics had to say.
Blankers-Koen began her 1948 Olympic program by winning the 100 meters and becoming the first Dutch athlete to win an Olympic track-and-field event. She followed the 100 by winning the 80-meter hurdles in a photo finish over rival Maureen Gardner (who happened to be coached by Blankers-Koen’s husband, Jan Blankers). Blankers-Koen went on to win 200 and to lead the Netherlands team to victory in the 4 x 100 relay.
The press dubbed Blankers-Koen “The Flying Housewife” and she became a hero in her home country.
To this day no other woman has won four track-and-field gold medals in a single Olympics. Only four athletes, male or female, have done so: Blankers-Koen, Jesse Owens (see below), Carl Lewis, and American Alvin Kraenzlein, who won four events at the 1900 games in Paris.
#3 – 1936, Berlin: Jesse Owens dominates the “Nazi Olympics.”
Berlin, Germany won its bid to host the 1936 Summer Games in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party assumed power. Once in power the Nazis decided to use the games as a showcase for their regime and their ideology. They built the 100,000-seat Olympiastadion for track-and-field and several other new, world-class facilities.
(The Olympiastadion is still in use today, mostly for soccer. It was the site of the 2006 FIFA World Cup final between France and Italy that is best remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Italy’s Marco Materazzi during extra time.)
The Nazi leadership in Germany had embraced the idea that the so-called “Aryan race”—that is, people of Nordic or German ancestry—was superior to other races and ethnicities. Germany denied most non-Aryan athletes, most of whom were Jewish or Gypsies, the opportunity to compete on the German team or to train at the best facilities.
The ban on non-Aryans kept Jewish track-and-field star Lilli Henoch, who held world records in the discus, shot put, long jump, and 4 x 100 relay, from competing in the 1936 games. (Sadly Henoch was deported to a ghetto in Riga, Latvia during World War II, where she was gunned down and buried in a mass grave.)
African American athlete Jesse Owens, after winning an unprecedented eight individual collegiate track-and-field national championships at Ohio State, qualified to represent the United States at the “Nazi Olympics.”
Owens made the idea of Aryan superiority look foolish.
On August 3, 1936 Owens won the 100 meters. The following day he won the long jump. The day after that he won the 200. Four days after winning gold in the 200, he won a fourth gold medal as part of the 4 x 100 relay team.
As much as Americans like to lift up Jesse Owens as a national hero and tell the story of how he made the theory of Aryan superiority appear foolish at the 1936 Nazi Olympics, white America didn’t fully embrace the Olympic hero.
Sure, the sports-loving public in the U.S. appreciated the medals Owens had won for his country and celebrated his heroics on the track with a ticker-tape parade in New York shortly after the 1936 games. But Owens, like other Black Americans, was still a victim of segregation. He had to take a freight elevator to attend a reception in his honor at New York’s famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The regular elevator was for whites only.
President Roosevelt never invited Owens to the White House, and Owens didn’t attract the endorsement and sponsorship deals that came to other athletes of his caliber. He made his living running exhibition races against horses and dogs. Later on he worked as a dry cleaner and a gas station attendant.
In 1976, a few years before Owens died of lung cancer, President Ford presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After Owens’s death, several other awards and honors followed.
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All that remain are the top two – a pair of amazing performances that will be forever linked, plus a celebration of one of sports’ greatest ever mustaches.
Continue reading to learn about the most amazing individual performances in the history of the Summer Olympics.