Africa’s Oldest Olympians

For today’s blog, we wanted to take a break from our usual coverage of Olympic Mysteries and dip our toes into a subject that has been drawing attention as of late: the oldest African Olympians. Due to the fact that most African nations (with the major exceptions of Egypt and South Africa) did not get their start at the Games until after decolonization, it is not surprising that we know of very few living African Olympians over the age of 90, and not many more who reached that milestone in the past. Even for those who competed at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, many survivors are simply too young.

Following the death of Nigeria’s Karim Olowu, previously the oldest living African Olympian, we know of six living Olympians who represented an African nation. From Egypt, there is equestrian Mohamed Selim Zaki, born July 16, 1924, footballer Abdel Aziz Kabil, born March 14, 1927, and rower Ibrahim El-Attar, born February 22, 1928. From South Africa, there is rower Don Dyke-Wells, born February 13, 1924, and track and field athletes Abram van Heerden, born September 7, 1927, and Edna Maskell, born April 13, 1928. We have already profiled Zaki, Kabil, Dyke-Wells, and Maskell on Oldest Olympians, and we hope to cover the other two very soon.

(Edna Maskell, left, pictured in the Vancouver Sun, during the 1954 British Empire Games)

Unfortunately, a greater share of African Olympians can be found on our “possibly living” list, because we have been unable to uncover information regarding whether they are alive or deceased. It is a sad fact that many of these great athletes fade into obscurity once the Games have ended and, as they are not known to be among the oldest Olympians, we generally do not profile them in depth on our site. From Egypt alone, we count 69 Olympians, including 3 medalists, potentially over the age of 90 for whom we cannot determine for certain whether they are alive or deceased, let alone when they died and what happened to them later in life (and that does even count those without a year of birth!). South Africa adds another 10 Olympians, including medalist Daphne Robb-Hasenjäger, whom we profiled recently.

(Hasenjäger, pictured far left, in the Life Photo Collection)

African nations that have participated only since World War II, however, contribute their fair share as well. Morocco, which did not compete independently until 1960, leads this list with five Olympians. Ethiopia and Kenya, which debuted in 1956, and Sudan and Tunisia, which first participated in 1960, are not far behind with three each. Ghana, meanwhile, took part in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics as Gold Coast. Two of its track and field athletes from those Games, high jumper James Owoo, born December 16, 1927, and triple jumper William Laing, born January 3, 1929, may still be alive.

(James Owoo, pictured in the July 11, 1952 edition of Daily Graphic)

Uganda entered the Olympic scene in 1956, but its two possibly living oldest Olympians are boxers from the 1960 Rome Games. Frank Kisekka, born December 22, 1926, was a flyweight, while Peter Odhiambo, born October 14, 1927, was a middleweight. Zimbabwe, meanwhile, did not participate independently until the 1980 Moscow Olympics but, competing for Rhodesia, trap shooter John Richards, born October 12, 1928, finished 42nd out of 51 competitors at the 1964 Tokyo Games. And although Côte d’Ivoire made its Olympic debut that same year, it is one of its canoeists from the 1972 Munich Games, Daniel Sedji, born April 15, 1927, who makes our possibly living list as the lone entry from his country.

(Kisekka, right, at the 1960 Rome Olympics)

It is, of course, worth noting that just because these nations lie on the same continent, there should no assumption of homogeneity between them. Olowu, Zaki, and Dyke-Wells all come from very different background and nations with significantly different histories. Nonetheless, we find it a valuable exercise to highlight their contributions in a dedicated blog post, because we feel that the one thing they all have in common is that their nations are often overlooked in terms of global sport, whereas all other inhabited continents have at least one sporting powerhouse nation that is discussed routinely.

Even More Olympic Missing Links

Since it has been a few months, today on Oldest Olympians we have decided that it is time  to review some of the Olympic Missing Links that have accumulated since our last post. Thus, today we are once again looking at cases for whom we believed to have identified their date of death but, for whatever reason, we were unable to connect the information, such as obituary or public record, conclusively to the athlete. As always, we present them here not only in the hopes of solving some of these cases, but to continue our commitment to transparency in our research.

(Eduardo Cordero, wearing shirt #6)

Eduardo Cordero – Member of Chile’s basketball delegation at the 1948 and 1952 Summer Olympics

Eduardo “El Mago” Cordero, born September 12, 1921, was a member of two Chilean Olympic basketball teams. In 1948 in London, the nation ranked sixth, while in 1952 in Helsinki it improved to fifth. In between, he won a bronze medal at the 1950 Basketball World Cup. Cordero was a well-known player domestically in Chile, but the only evidence of his later life that we could uncover was an anonymous edit to Wikipedia that claimed that he died in 1991 in Valparaiso. Although Chilean genealogical records have been very helpful in the past for identifying the fates of the country’s Olympic athletes, in this case they were unable to confirm the information that was added to Wikipedia.

(Grave for Manuel Escobar Palomo at BillionGraves)

Manuel Escobar – Member of El Salvador’s sailing delegation to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics

Like many Olympic sailors, we know little about Manuel Escobar, born August 6, 1924, outside of the fact that he represented El Salvador in the Flying Dutchman class at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Alongside Mario Aguilar (another Olympian on our “possibly living” list), he finished 30th and last. The only other potential trace we have of him is a picture of the grave of a Manuel Escobar Palomo born in 1924 who died in Guatemala in 1995. In this case, the year of birth and the full name match, but the country does not. While it certainly would be possible for the Olympian to have moved to a neighboring country (especially when one presumes that an Olympic sailor would have the resources to do so), we cannot claim with certainty that the grave is his.

Pierre William – Member of France’s athletics delegation at the 1960 Rome Olympics

Pierre William, born December 17, 1928 in Senegal, was at his athletic peaking during the early 1960s. At the turn of the decade, he represented France in the triple jump at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he finished last and did not survive the qualifying round. Less than three weeks later, however, he set a French national record in that event with a jump of 16 metres. William then became the national triple jump champion in 1961, but faded after that. Someone who is possibly a relative posted that he died on December 21, 2018 in Dakar but, despite how recent this is said to have occurred, we were unable to verify this information.

That is it for today, but we hope that you will come back next week, when we will have more Olympic mysteries to share with you all!

Roberto Ferrari

Today on Oldest Olympians we wanted to expand slightly on something we mentioned previously, but into which we did not go into much detail. It concerns Italian fencer Roberto Ferrari, born August 2, 1923, who would have turned 96 earlier this month. Until recently, we had listed Ferrari as the oldest living Italian Olympic medalist, but last month we learned that he was in fact deceased. We thought, for this blog entry, that explicating our research in this regard would help provide a little insight into the process of determining whether an Olympian is alive or deceased.

On the surface, Ferrari seems like an unlikely candidate for an Olympic mystery. He was a prolific fencer during the 1950s who won his first international title at the turn of the decade, in the team sabre event at the 1950 World Championships. His only other gold medal at the Worlds came in the team foil in 1954, but he also took team silvers in the sabre in 1951, 1953, and 1955, and the foil in 1953. At the Mediterranean Games, he won gold medals in the team sabre in 1951 and 1955, and bronze and silver in the individual tournament in those years respectively. He competed at three consecutive editions of the Olympics beginning in 1952, winning silver and bronze in the team sabre in 1952 and 1960 respectively.

Ferrari, therefore, was not a marginal figure in the sporting world, yet the internet, even in Italian, seems bereft of information on his later life. Nonetheless, when we saw his name on a newspaper’s online (now-removed) list of birthdays being celebrated in 2012, we had no reason to doubt that he had reached his 89th birthday.

After that, however, we were unable to locate any update until we were forwarded a list of Italian Olympic medalists, published in 2014, which noted that Ferrari was deceased, but did not include a date. In theory, this did not contradict the birthday list, since he could have died between 2012 and 2014, but we were nonetheless skeptical, since we assumed that an obituary for an Olympic medal-winning fencer who died in the 2010s should be easy to find. Since we had been proven wrong in this regard in the past (in the case of centenarian German alpine skier Gustav Lantschner, whose death we noticed only half a year later in a name-only listing among church funeral services), we decided to contact Italian Olympic expert Beppe Odello to see if he could confirm the information one way or another.

Odello responded quickly to let us know that Ferrari had indeed died, in Genova, but he did not have an exact date. The 2014 listing was, therefore, correct, and it remains possible that the 2012 account was mistaken, or that it had simply assumed (incorrectly) that he was still alive without researching the matter. That as notable a figure as Ferrari could die without drawing significant attention is itself an Olympic Mystery, as clearly the issue here goes beyond a language barrier, since neither the newspaper nor Odello could locate a notice of his death easily.

(Alessandro D’Ottavio, pictured at Boxrec)

In fact, the 2014 list noted that one of our bronze medal mysteries, boxer Alessandro D’Ottavio, born August 27, 1927, was also deceased. Despite having an Olympic medal-winning amateur career and a title-winning professional career, Odello was unable to even confirm the list’s report that D’Ottavio was deceased. We often try to post here about forgotten Olympians because, as the case of Ferrari shows, no athlete, no matter how successful, can be remembered unless people put the effort in to keep their memories and accomplishments alive.

Ben Verhagen

Today on Oldest Olympians, our mystery is not very deep, and is more of a curiosity. It concerns Gijsbertus “Ben” Verhagen, born September 29, 1926, who represented the Netherlands at three editions of the Olympic sailing tournament in the Flying Dutchman class. His first outing, at the 1960 Rome Games, was his best, as he finished in fifth with veteran sailors Gerard Lautenschutz and Jaap Helder. In 1964 in Tokyo he was sixth, and in 1968 in Mexico City he was joint-17th with the Austrian team. In the latter two instances, his partner was Nico de Jong.

(Verhagen from the Dutch National Archives)

Verhagen was more successful at the European Championships, where he won bronze medals in the Flying Dutchman class in 1961 and 1968. He attempted to qualify for the 1976 Montreal Olympics in the Tempest class, but did not succeed. Nonetheless, he continued to race in the Soling class through the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite his lengthy career, we have been unable to confirm whether or not he is still alive, and thus since 2016 he has been on our list of “possibly living” Olympians. At the end of last month, however, we noticed that an anonymous user had added the following note to his Wikipedia page:

Ben Verhagen 91 years old. Still alive and fit 18-1-2018

Unfortunately, by the time we discovered this addition, over a year and a half had passed, so it seems unlikely that the author has the same IP address, let alone will respond to our inquiry. We turned, therefore, to Dutch OlyMADMen member Jeroen Heijmans, but he was unable to confirm whether the notice above was true. We have no particular reason to doubt the message’s veracity but, as Wikipedia is so prone to vandalism, we cannot consider the statement above sufficient proof to list him our tables. We felt, therefore, the next best step would be to share this information with our readers in the hopes that someone may have the confirmation needed to close this question.

As a small addition to this post, however, we do have some good news. While searching through Dutch sources, we discovered that Jan Ceulemans, born January 11, 1926, who represented Belgium in basketball at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, was still alive in 2018 at the age of 92, and we were therefore able to add him to our tables:

(Announcement of Jan Pieter Ceulemans’ birthday)

Finally, thanks to a message left on this blog by Christian Brücher, we have learned that one of our Bronze Medal Mysteries, Swiss sailor Pierre Girard, is still alive. Girard, born August 2, 1926, represented his country in the 5.5 metres class at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he took home a bronze medal. Thanks to Christian Brücher, we are now able to add Girard to our tables as well!