The Earliest-Born Olympian

We are still catching up on our blog posts here at Oldest Olympians, so today we wanted to post a quick answer to a simple question: who is the earliest-born Olympian? Since we are missing so much biographical information about the earliest editions of the Games, we cannot respond with absolute certainty, but we do think that we have a pretty strong candidate, even though he did not participate in the inaugural 1896 Athens Olympics.

(William Martin’s gravestone)

William Martin, born October 25, 1828, was the grandson of an English industrialist who moved to France to establish a foundry in Rouen. William studied engineering in England at a factory run by Sir William Fairbairn, but returned to Rouen to run the business until 1880, at which pointed he started his own concern, the Déville gas company, where he served as president until his death.

(Martin’s vessel, the Crabe II)

At the 1900 Paris Olympics, Martin competed in six sailing events and placed in what would today be considered the silver and bronze positions in the first and second ½-1 Ton races respectively (the scheme of gold, silver, and bronze medals for every Olympic event did not begin until 1904). He also took sixth and seventh in the 3-10 Ton races and failed to finish either of the open class events. He died February 25, 1905 in Paris at the age of 76. As far as we know, no Olympian, starter or otherwise, was born earlier.

(Selwin Calverley)

Martin was not, however, the first Olympian to die. That unfortunate distinction, to the best of our knowledge, goes to Selwin Calverley. Calverley also competed in sailing at the 1900 Paris Games and took second place in the 20+ Ton class. He died suddenly at the age of 45, on December 30, 1900, about four months after taking part the Olympics. Although several individuals who competed in 1900 died over the next few years, we know of no 1896 competitor who died prior to 1903.

As stated above, however, this information is somewhat tenuous due to all of the missing data on early Olympic competitors. The information that we do have is biased towards particular countries and especially towards medal winners, and thus it is very possible that new research will come to light that challenges these facts. For example, a J. Brassard represented France in masters foil and épée fencing at the 1900 Paris Games and was deceased by the end of the year. Unless he died on December 30 or 31, therefore, he would supplant Calverley as the first Olympian to die, although we simply do not have sufficient information to verify that for certain. For now, perhaps, the true answers to these questions will remain an Olympic mystery.

July 2020 Updates

We have had a lot to report on at Oldest Olympians this month, and thus we are a little behind on our blogging schedule. We wanted to start catching up today by providing updates on some of the cases that we have covered in the past.

(Charles Dewachtere, as pictured in his obituary)

The case that spurred our desire to post about this topic was that of Belgian marathon runner Charles Dewachtere, born December 22, 1927. Dewachtere’s brief running career began in 1949 and culminated in 1952, when he was crowned the Belgian national marathon champion. This led to his participation at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics where, despite having had one of the fastest times that year, he placed 18th due to an injury suffered shortly before the Games. He received a 30-month prison sentence for an altercation that he was involved in shortly after his Olympic appearance, and this effectively ended his athletic career.

We posted about Dewachtere in May 2018, since we had last heard of his being alive in 2007, which was just at the limit of when we would note someone as living on our lists. Unfortunately, we never received any additional updates and thus removed him from the tables. As it turns out, he was still alive, but he died this July 22, at the age of 92.

(Fred Markus, pictured in the July 3, 1954 edition of the Vancouver Sun)

A much more recent case was that of Canadian cyclist Fred Markus, born June 26, 1937. Markus had a successful cycling career that culminated in his appearance at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where he competed in three events. Despite being at the peak of his career, Markus seemed to vanish after his participation in the 1959 Pan American Games. Frequent contributor Connor Mah, however, was able to track him down and learn that he moved to Australia in 1963, where he worked as an industrial engineer. Happily, Markus is still alive and well, although he is a few years shy of being one of the Oldest Olympians. Nonetheless, we look forward to celebrating his 90th birthday in the future!

Next, we were able to resolve the case of the two Olympic Ahmed Labidis, one who represented France in the 10,000 metres race in 1952 and one who represented Tunisia in the marathon in 1960. As we suspected, these two individuals were in fact one person: Mohamed Ali Ahmed Labidi Ben Dali, who was born April 19, 1923 and died July 17, 2008. Thanks to information from his daughter, who responded to our blog post, we were able to solve this mystery.

We also uncovered more information about Hans Frischknecht, born December 31, 1922, who represented Switzerland in the marathon at the 1948 London Olympics and was a non-starter in 1952. We had speculated originally that he may have died in 2001, but recently we discovered his obituary, which demonstrated that he died August 9, 2003, at the age of 80.

Just as we were writing this entry, we received an additional update. We had in the past come up against many false leads for Ken Box, born December 1, 1930, who represented Great Britain in athletics at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Thanks to a comment on our blog from one of his children, however, we learned that he is still alive and living in Australia.

(Leo Wery)

Finally, we were able to solve some of our previous Olympic medal mysteries. We discovered that Ivano Fontana, born November 25, 1926, who won a bronze medal for Italy in middleweight boxing at the 1948 London Games, died December 24, 1993. In the case of Leonard Wery, born March 27, 1926, who won a silver medal for the Netherlands at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, he was alive when last we posted about him, but we uncovered an obituary for him dying August 29, 2019 at the age of 93.

Bob Fowler

Today on Oldest Olympians we wanted to feature a topic that gives a nod to both Canada Day and Independence Day, and we think that we have found just the case. Today’s is a lighthearted mystery concerning Bob Fowler, a long-distance runner who competed at both the 1904 St. Louis Olympics and the 1906 Intercalated Games. We have complete biographical details on Fowler, yet seemingly the simplest detail is the one that is most mysterious: the nation that he represented.

(Fowler, center, in 1904)

Bob Fowler was born September 18, 1882 in Trinity, Newfoundland, but moved to Boston in 1898. Taking up distance racing in 1901, he competed in the marathon at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, but did not complete the race. He also failed to complete the marathon at the 1906 Intercalated Games, and was entered into the 5 mile event at that tournament, but did not start. He had better luck in other competitions: he was runner-up in the 1907 Boston Marathon, third in the 1905 and 1908 editions, and fourth in 1911. He also set a short-lived record when he won the 1909 Empire City Marathon. Following the end of his active career, he coached for many years and eventually settled back in Massachusetts to work as an electrician. He died October 8, 1957.

Fowler did not become an American citizen until 1907, which means that although he was living in the United States during both of his Olympic appearances, he was technically not an American competitor. Complicating this discussion, however, is the fact that until 1908, Olympians were permitted to represent the nation of their club, regardless of any citizenship questions. As national delegations were often not formalized or “official” before this, some athletes could be debated as to which country they represented, particularly as they were likely not concerned with this manner of identification themselves.

Fowler is one of these cases. In 1906, he was listed as a member of the official delegation from the United States to Athens (the first time the country had organized its team formally), and thus it seems to reasonable to list him as representing the United States. His identification for 1904, however, is debatable. He was living in the United States and competing for an American club, which means that there is an argument for his being American at this tournament too.

(Dominion of Newfoundland Blue Ensign, 1870–1904)

In terms of his homeland, however, he had been born in Newfoundland, which since 1854 had been a self-governing colony and had explicitly rejected confederation with neighboring Dominion of Canada. Newfoundland would gain its own status as a dominion, or semi-independent political entity under the British Crown, in 1907, and would not join Canada until 1949. In 1904, therefore, the territory was still a British colony.

A case could therefore be made that Fowler represented Great Britain, but this would surely not reflect his self-identity at the time and he had no known direct connection to that country. Would this mean that he can be said to have represented Newfoundland? At the time, it was arguably not independent enough to be considered its own nation, but neither was South Africa when it competed unofficially in 1904 and officially in 1908, as the Union of South Africa did not occur until 1910. Again, as with representation, the rules for which territories of countries could compete under their own flag did not even begin to be addressed until 1908, and even then they were largely arbitrary determinations of who could compete independently.

So, who was Fowler representing at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics? Would he perhaps best be categorized as an independent athlete? In the end, perhaps all that matters is that he took part, and that he was, therefore, an Olympian.