Six Olympians From the Past

Despite the setbacks of happening in the middle of a global pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics of 2021 has already seen an impressive haul of medals for Team GB: as of current time of writing we have thirteen golds, sixteen silvers and thirteen bronze medals, placing as sixth overall out of two hundred and six nations.

As we celebrate the likes of Tom Daley fulfilling a life ambition in achieving a long-overdue gold medal in men’s synchronised 10 metre diving and Beth Shriever in Women’s BMX racing, my thoughts turned back to the Olympians of yore.

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of sport or profess to be an authority on the Olympics: so I went off to see what I could find out about the Olympians who are now no longer with us. I’ve compiled a list of six athletes from the Olympics history, as well as details as to where they ended up. This is a blog about cemeteries, after all.

1. Jesse Owens (12th September 1913 – 31st March 1980)

Jesse was a four time gold medalist in the 1936 Olympic games and was famously ‘snubbed’ by Hitler for winning. This would appear to be a myth, refuted by Owens himself. The Berlin-based games was suppsoed to showcase Nazi superiority and Aryan might to the world: only to have a black athlete dominate. The story goes that Hitler was so incensed that he snubbed a chance to congratulate Owens: this however didn’t happen and it was US President Franklin D Roosevelt who appared to ignore Owen’s feats on the field. Not that that excuses Hitler from being one of the most evil men to have ever lived.

Berlin, 1936 - Jesse Owens of the USA in action in the mens 200m at the Sumemr Olympic Games. Owens won a total of four gold medals.
Image via the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-USZ62-27663)

Owens would later work as a janitor, manager of a sry cleaning firm, sports promoter and as a petrol station operative before being prosecuted for tax evasion and being declared bankrupt. He was a US Goodwill Ambassador and succumbed to an aggressive form of untreatable lung cancer, before being buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

Owens’ grave by Dan Brekke.

2. Spiridon Belokas (1877 – ?)

Victorian traveller and filmmaker Burton Holmes (who coined the term ‘travelogue’)’s 1896 photo: Three athletes in training for the marathon at the Olympic Games in Athens‘. Belokas may be one of the men on the left or the right: center is Charilaos Vasilakos, who came second.

Annoyingly I can’t find out where he ended up, but Belokas sheer nerve at the first modern Olympic games saw him disqualified from the men’s marathon event, which saw five nations compete with seventeen competitors in an event inspired by the legend of Pheidippides. Athens-born Belokas crossed the finish line of the 40km route in third place with a time of 3:06:30. However it was eventually revealed that he had completed a part of the route in a horse and carriage. At this revelation, Hungarian entrant Gyula Kellner then took third place.

There’s not much else I can find out about him bar him participating in the 1906 Intercalated Games marathon, which was organised by Greece seperately from the Olympic Games.

He didn’t finish.

3. Patrick O’Callaghan (28th January 1906 – 1st December 1991)

‘The Doc’ in action, via Olympic.

O’Callaghan had studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin having never missed a class. he was also a keen sportsman, having fallen foul of the Gaelic Athletics Association for playing rugby, which was deemed a foreign sport. In 1926 he fashioned a 7.25kg hammer by using an old cannonball and a ball-bearing from a bicycle. He had only been competing in the hammer throw for just over a year before competing in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and was the first Irishman to win a gold medal for the newly independent Ireland.

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O’Callaghan’s grave by FindaGrave user Tim Reynolds.

He would attend every Olympics until 1988 and was laid to rest in Powerstown Cemetery, Clonmel, Ireland in 1991 and is also remembered in a monument in Banteer.

4. Alice Milliat (5th May 1884 – 19th May 1957)

Buried in obscurity in the the family grave of her mother’s family is a hugely important person in the history of the Olympics: a pioneer of women’s sports in France and the world over. Her contribution was finally recognised in March 2021 when a statue of her was erected in French National Olympic and Sports Committee in Paris and the renaming of live events venue Arena 2 to Arena Alice Milliat the year before.

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Milliat’s grave by FindAGrave user trrestraou.

Milliat’s lobbying forced the inclusion of women’s events at the Olympic Games. She was a keen rower and had requested women’s track and field events to be part of the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, but was ignored. Undeterred, she formed La Fédération Sportive Féminine Internationale (FSFI) in 1921 to oversee women’s sporting events and became a tireless activist for women’s representation and suffrage.

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Milliat’s statue, as unveiled by the Milliat Foundation.

Poor health in 1935 curbed any further work she could feasibly do and she died, largely forgotten but working as a shorthand typist in 1957 and is buried in the cimetière Saint-Jacques.

5. Dora Ratjen

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-C10378, Hermann Ratjen alias "Dora Ratjen".jpg
Ratjen in 1937 winning the 1.63 meter jump at the German Athletics Championships. Image via the German Federal Archive

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly trans woman to compete at the Olympic Games this year, however the Olympics itself has a long history of competitors whose gender and identity has overshadowed their accomplishments. One such competitor of yore was Germany’s Dora Ratjen who competed in the same Olympics as Jesse Owens.

They was placed fourth in the high jump and two years later suffered humiliation when she was returning home from the European championships from Vienna to Cologne. A conductor on the train reported there was a man dressed as a woman on the train. Police interrogation and a physical examination confirmed that they were intersex, being brought up as female on the suggestion of the midwife that delivered her after observing their ambiguous genitalia. Later going by the name Heinrich, their gold medal was returned and name was removed from the records and was buried in Bremen, Germany in 2008.

6. Sonia Henie (8th April 1912 – 12th October 1969)

Sonja Henie In The Hollywood Ice Revue Photograph by Everett
Sonja Henie In The Hollywood Ice Revue in 1947.

Not content with being a ten-time champion figure skater (in 1928, 1932 and 1936) Henie was also a film star who was one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, starring in films such as Sun Valley Serenade and Happy Landing, My Lucky Star.

Born in in 1912 in what is now Oslo, Norway, Henie was adept at most sports from a young age and followed her older brother into what she became best known for: figure skating (where she won her first competition at the age of 10).

After the 1936 Olympics she moved to California and became a naturalised U.S. citizen whilst embracing performing on the stage instead of on the ice, with her first starring role in ‘One in a Million’. She is buried with her husband underneath a large boulder overlooking the Henie Onstad Art Museum in Bærum outside Oslo, which she co-established in 1961.

Do you know of any Olympians graves? Share them with me in the comments below!


References & Source Material

16 for 16: The most important Irish athletes of the last 100 years – Pat O’Callaghan

A sculpture in tribute to Alice Milliat, pioneer of women’s sport

Dora Ratjen

One thought on “Six Olympians From the Past

  1. Interesting stuff. Are you aware of Jim Thorpe, a US olympic gold medallist? He lived an extraordinary life; he died in California, his funeral was held in Oklahoma and such was his fame that his body was allegedly sold by his wife, taken to a town in Pennsylvania that he’d never visited – which was renamed Jim Thorpe – and his grave monument was used to promote businesses and the growth of the town!!
    I visited knowing none of this back in 1995
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Thorpe

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