Olympians Competing for an Unknown Country

Today on the Oldest Olympics blog, we wanted to make a quick post about a slightly offbeat topic: competitors for whom the country they represented is unknown. Before 1908, there are more than a handful of competitors for whom their nation is debatable. For example, as noted in Jeroen’s recent post about the first Olympics with competitors from across the world, double tennis silver medalist Demetrius Casdagli is listed as Greek in most places, although he never identified as such and a case could be made for him being Egyptian or, more strongly, British.

That situation, however, is not what we are raising here today. Instead, we wanted to highlight the case of two Olympians for whom we do not have any evidence of what country they represented: Fritz Eccard and A. Laffen. Both competed in the Olympic art competitions at the 1912 Stockholm Games, specifically the architecture event.

(The winning architecture entry from the 1912 Olympic art competitions, pictured at 24heures.ch)

As noted by Bill Mallon, “The names of the 1912 Olympic art competitors mostly derive from an anonymous piece of paper in the IOC archives. Although deciphered by Richard Stanton, not all of the names have been matched to known architects”. Thus, lacking this identifying information (as well as the name of their submission), it is unknown what countries Eccard and Laffen might have represented. In Eccard’s case, there are a few individuals by this name and of an appropriate age in Switzerland and Germany, but none that can be linked to architecture, let alone the Olympian. For Laffen, we have no clues to go on at all.

That is all there is to the story at this point, but we thought it would be an interesting case to share with our readers. Before we conclude this entry, however, we wanted to point out one more update. Two posts ago we discussed Olympians who had been removed from our lists recently without any notice. Today we have more to add: Danish rower Ove Nielsen, born November 15, 1924. Until recently, we believed that we had confirmation from 2015 that he was still alive. Unfortunately, it turns out that he died at the end of 2008, long before becoming a nonagenarian, and thus we have removed him from our tables.

First Olympics with competitors from across the world?

A few days ago, the IOC’s official Twitter channel asked the following question:

Most answers were “Stockholm 1912”, which was later also confirmed as the correct one. But my answer would have been “well, that depends”. Of course, that could be because I used to be a consultant, but I think there’s really multiple possible answers here.

One reason for this is there’s no universal definition of “continent”. There are said to be five continents here by the IOC. According to the definitions at Wikipedia, there’s one configuration with five continents, but that includes Antarctica. Of course, there have never been any Olympians from there, so we’ll look at the options with six continents. Excluding Antarctica, that gives us:

  1. Africa, Asia, Europe, America and Australia
  2. Africa, Eurasia, North America, South America and Australia

As for the first option, it’s also worth noting that two countries relevant to us are in both Asia and Europe: Turkey and Russia.

Athens 1896

With this in mind, the first possible answer is Athens 1896. But this is a bit of a stretch. If we look at continental configuration 1, it’s clear that participants from Europe, America and Australia have competed. There are some participants, however, that are usually listed as Greek that could be said to hail from Asia and Africa, though. For example, tennis player Casdagli is sometimes listed as Egyptian (and he lived there part of his life, although British is probably a better guess for his nationality), while cyclist Loverdos hailed from Smyrna, which is in the Asian part of Turkey. Stretching even further, we could look at continental configuration 2. That eliminates the need for an Asian competitor, but requires a South American one. This might have been Subercaseaux, who some Chilean researchers insist competed, but the evidence for that is limited at best.

Paris 1900

The case for 1900 being the right answer is much more reasonable than 1896. There definitely were competitors from Australia, Europe, North and South America, as well as Asia. Three competitors in gymnastics definitely hailed from Africa: Castiglioni, Koubi and Martinez all represented a club from Oran, Algeria, and hailed from the same place. However, they are usually listed as French, given that nation’s control of Algeria at the time.

St. Louis 1904

St. Louis definitely featured competitors from (North) America, Europe and Africa, as well at least one Australian. However, there were no Asians in the events that are normally considered of Olympic status. But such distinction was not clearly made in 1904, so you could make the case that the rather embarrassing Antropological Days should be included as well. This display included “athletes” (they were attendees to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) from various “primitive” people. This include Native Americans (including from Patagonia, thus also covering South America), but also Japan and the Philippines, giving room for an argument there were Asian competitors.

Athens 1906

The Intercalated Games – held at the 10th anniversary of the first Olympics – are not presently recognised by the IOC as official Olympics, but given the official status at the time and its importance for the Olympic Movement, I’m including it here. When using the first continental configuration, the question marks are Asia and Africa. Like for 1896, there’s representatives typically listed as Greek that could be termed Asian (e.g. from Smyrna) or African (again Casdagli, as well as his brother). The Asian link is a bit stronger, though: one athlete from Ankara (albeit of Armenian heritage) also competed.

London 1908

For 1908, the only question mark is Asia. There was one Turkish competitor, Aleko Mulos, so one might say Asia was represented. However, given that he represented the Galatasaray High School, we might surmise Mulos was from the European part of Istanbul, making his claim as an Asian competitor a bit weak. It’s possible, though, that one of the six Russian competitors hailed from across the Ural (and were thus Asian), but details on these competitors are scarce, but I’m not aware of any that did.

Finally, we might inspect the huge British contingent. That featured several athletes born in Asia, and several of them spent most of their lives there, such as William Knyvett, so they might be termed Asians. However, from 1908 on all competitors officially represented a country or NOC, so most conventional is to view them as British.

Stockholm 1912

Finally, there’s 1912, the “official” answer. This is the first year where we can do an unqualified claim: with Japan competing, there is no need to depend on the cross-continental nations of Turkey and Russia to put a check next to Asia. And with the – this time undisputed – presence of Chile, even the adherents of the second continental configuration can be satisfied.

Embed from Getty Images

I hope the above makes clear that even such a simple question has a complex answer if you’re into Olympic statistics. But, if pressed to give a single answer, I would probably go for Paris 1900

1928 Indian Athletics Delegation

Recently on Oldest Olympians, we have been looking into the topic of Olympians from the 1928 Amsterdam Games who are missing their full names in our database. Three of those names come from the 21-man Indian delegation, the majority of which consisted of the gold medal-winning field hockey squad. Thus, broadly speaking, we have a lot of good, albeit not complete, biographical information about the team.

(Dalip Singh)

There were also, however, seven track and field athletes who represented India at the Amsterdam Olympics. We have complete dates of birth and death for only one of them, James Hall, who was entered into several events in both 1924 and 1928 . We know much about another, Dalip Singh, who is alleged to be the first Sikh to represent India at the Games, taking part in the long jump in both 1924 and 1928. Although we do not know Dalip Singh’s date of death, his son Balkrishan won a field hockey gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and thus the family is well-known. Two others have at least full names, although we are uncertain if these are the names they actually went by: Dr. B. Chavan (or Chawan) Singh in the 10,000 metres and Gurbachan Singh in the 5,000 metres.

(S. Abdul Hamid)

For the remaining three, we are missing even a full name. S. Abdul Hamid, born c. 1907, was eliminated in the first round of 110 and 400 metres hurdles. He had a successful national career during the late 1920s, but he was usually referred to as simply “Abdul Hamid”. R. Burns of Bengal, meanwhile, was similarly eliminated in the opening rounds of the 100 and 200 metres events. Finally, J. Murphy of Madras was eliminated in round one of the 800 metres.

Unfortunately, with such limited information on these athletes, there is not much to say aside from presenting the mystery. With India being remember at the Games primarily for the achievements in field hockey, however, we did appreciate the opportunity to remind our readers that their sporting history has actually been more diverse.

A Handful of Small Updates

Today on Oldest Olympians we wanted to do a quick roundup of a handful of miscellaneous cases that merit a little more than a regular post, but a little less than their own blog entry. In that regard, today we wanted to present two removals from the list that have not yet been mentioned, and two cases that went under our radar, but just long enough ago that they do not meet the criteria for an independent post.

(Gavril Serfözö, pictured at Romanian Soccer)

In the former category, we first have Romanian footballer Gavril Serfözö, who in 2019 we featured as having recently turned 93 based on a source from 2011 that celebrated his 85th birthday. Serfözö, born September 25, 1926 (although we listed him previously as born on the 26th), represented his country in the tournament at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where Romania was eliminated in the qualifying round. With no updates since 2011, he was slated for removal next year but, thanks to a contributor on Wikipedia who sent us a death certificate, we learned that the original report we read had been in error and Serfözö died May 16, 2002 at the age of 75.

(Spencer Spaulding, pictured in the April 10, 1947 edition of The Times Record)

Next, at the end of 2018, we featured the case of American lacrosse player Spencer Spaulding, born December 27, 1926, who had represented the United States in the demonstration event at the 1948 London Olympics. There, his team from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute tied an All-England squad 5-5. He held a doctorate in theoretical physics, had a distinguished career at RCA, and had just published a book of short stories the previous year, so we were much more confident that he was still alive than in Serfözö’s case. Unfortunately, we learned from a blog comment via Connor Mah that he had died earlier in 2018, although we have been unable to locate an obituary or a family contact to confirm an exact date.

Finally, we wanted to end with two nonagenarian deaths pointed out by a user on Wikipedia, which occurred just outside the frame that we would normally announce them on Oldest Olympians, because they went beneath our radar. First, Charles Van Antwerpen, born June 10, 1925, who represented Belgium in rowing’s coxless pairs and coxless fours events at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics respectively, died December 12, 2019 at the age of 94. He was a three-time medalist at the European Championships, including gold in the coxless fours in 1951. Secondly, Franz Frauneder, born December 6, 1927, who represented Austria in the coxed fours at the 1948 London Olympics, died July 9, 2020 at the age of 92.

We wanted to once again thank all of the contributors who have provided us with information that moves our research forward. That is what we have for this week, but next week we intend to look into more missing names from the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, so we hope that you will join us!