Earlier today King Juan Carlos I of Spain announced his intention to abdicate after 39 years as monarch. What is less known, at least outside Spain, is that Juan Carlos was once an Olympic yachtsman who sailed as part of a crew skippered by the Duke of Arión in the Dragon class at the Munich Games of 1972. Indeed there is a strong connection between Spanish royalty and the Olympic movement both as competitors and administrators that stretches back over a century.
Let’s take a look at the Spanish royals who have been linked to the Olympic Games in one form or another – using the King himself as a starting point
Juan Carlos, Crown Prince de Borbón (later King Juan Carlos I)
Whilst his Olympic sailing career was not wildly successful it did qualify him for a unique place in history as the only Olympian to officially open the Olympic Games. An achievement which came to pass at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark (later Queen Sofía of Spain)
Queen Sofía went to the Rome Olympics of 1960 at the age of just 21 as part of her brother’s crew in the Dragon class. She was an unused reserve at the Games and could not share in their gold medal triumph.
Felipe, Crown Prince de Borbón, The Prince of Asturias (soon to be King Felipe)
The flag bearer for Spain at the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics and the most successful Spanish royal in terms of his results (although there is one more obscure better performance as we’ll find later).
Cristina, Princess de Borbón (later Duchess of Palma de Mallorca)
Her appearance at the 1988 Olympics was brief and rather uninspiring. Appearing only as a substitute in the last race of a 7 race series, her boat failed to finish. She was the Spanish flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
Iñaki Urdangarín (later Duke of Palma de Mallorca)
Whilst competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he helped Spain won a bronze in the sport of handball, he met Princess Cristina. Little over a year later the two were married. In recent years he has been dogged by allegations of corruption involving his business dealings.
Crown Prince Konstantinos (later King Konstantínos II of Greece)
One of only 2 future kings to be Olympic champions (both in sailing), his reign was ended when Greece became a republic in 1973. He was an IOC member between 1963 and 1974.
Princess Pilar de Borbón, Duchess of Badajoz
Her links to the Olympic movement come as an administrator rather than a competitor.
She served as the President of the International Equestrian Federation from 1994 to 2005 and was a member of the IOC between 1996 and 2006.
Most distantly related, through Queen Sofía, are British royalty. Her cousin, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, officially opened the 1956 Olympics whilst his wife, Queen Elizabeth fulfilled the same role in 1976 and 2012. Their daughter and granddaughter, Princess Anne and Zara Phillips, are also Olympians.
There is one further member of Spanish royalty whose existence may have been ignored forever had it not been for the work of Spanish Olympic historian Fernando Arrechea. King Juan Carlos’s great-grandfather was Alfonso XII who reigned from 1874 to 1885. As well as having three children with María Cristina of Austria, Alfonso also sired two sons with his mistress, the opera singer Elena Armanda Sanz Martínez de Arizala. The youngest of these sons was Fernand Sanz, who became one the finest amateur sprint cyclists in France and, at the age of 19, was only narrowly beaten to the gold medal by Albert Taillandier at the 1900 Olympic Games. He later went to find success as an amateur boxer as well.