All posts by Paul Tchir

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!

1928 Swiss Field Hockey Team

Two posts ago on Oldest Olympians, we began looking into the topic of Olympians from the 1928 Amsterdam Games who are missing their full names in our database. Several individuals sent in information that identified S. de Lanfranchi and Simon de Lanfranchi and L. le Cornu as Léon le Cornu. We greatly appreciate all of the submissions! In that vein, we decided to do another post on this topic, this time looking at the three Swiss competitors with missing full names, all of whom played for their country’s field hockey team at these Olympics.

Switzerland is an oddity in that it is a European nation for whom we have much data missing. The Swiss field hockey team that placed joint-seventh out of nine squads at the 1928 Amsterdam Games in particular has very little biographical data; as of this writing, there is only one starting member for whom we have complete birth and death information. Four others have at least some details. Of those that remain, we know the complete names and clubs for four: Adalbert Koch of the BSC Old Boys, Maurice Magnin and Max Zumstein of Urania Genève Sport, and Roland Olivier of Servette FC.

(Henri Poncet)

Of the remaining seven members, four at least have complete names: Charles Piot, Fred Jenny, Werner Fehr, and Henri Poncet. Poncet was better known as an ice hockey player with AEHC Zurich from 1921 through 1932 and played for the national team in two games at the 1929 European Championships. This brings us to our three missing names. The first, F. Fischer, played for Red Sox, Zürich, and there are two individuals with this surname active on the national team: Alfred and Beppo. Alfred would seem to be the more likely candidate, perhaps going by “Fredi” or “Freddy” Fischer, but reports on initials have known to be mistaken in the past, so Beppo remains a possibility.

For the other two, J. Loubert and R. Rodé, all the information we have on them is their clubs, Varembé and Servette respectively, and we know nothing additional about their careers. We do not have much else to add but, in addition to hoping to bring in more leads with greater attention, we hope as always that you found a few details on the lost history of the Olympics at least a little interesting and that you will join us next time for another post!

Viktor Shuvalov and Zdeněk Růžička

Normally when one among the oldest Olympians dies, we prefer to dedicate a post uniquely to them to honor their life and legacy. Unfortunately, the deaths of two very prominent individuals among the Oldest Olympians were announced today and, since we covered one of them only a few days ago and could not choose which to feature, we decided to write a quick blog post mentioning them both.

Firstly, Russian ice hockey player Viktor Shuvalov, born December 15, 1923, died today, April 19, at the age of 97. Shuvalov, who was also a footballer, crowned his decade-long ice hockey career with a trip to the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Games, where, as a member of the Soviet team that won the gold medal, he played in all seven matches. Internationally, he was a World and European Champion in 1954 and 1956 and earned an additional European championship title in 1955. He also won the Soviet Championship five times. He retired from active competition in 1958 and embarked upon a coaching career, in addition to holding several roles in sport administration, and was the last surviving member of his 1956 Olympic champion squad and the oldest living Olympic ice hockey player. Shuvalov’s death means that American Ralph Warburton, born February 7, 1924, who competed at the 1948 St. Moritz Games, is now the oldest living Olympic ice hockey player. Canadian Murray Dowey, born January 3, 1926, who won that gold medal at that edition, is now the oldest living Olympic ice hockey medalist.

Secondly, Zdeněk Růžička, whose 96th birthday we covered only a few days ago, died shortly thereafter. Růžička took part in three editions of the Olympic Games – 1948, 1952, and 1956 – and won two bronze medals, in the rings and the floor exercise, in 1948. He also competed at the 1954 and 1955 World Championships, won three national all-round individual championships (1948, 1954, and 1956), and carried his country’s flag at the 1956 Melbourne Games before retiring in 1957. He went to coach and train at his club, Sokol Brno 1, and also served as its president. By career, he had training in ceramics and worked at a brick factory. His wife Matylda was also a two-time Olympic medal-winning gymnast. He was the oldest living Olympic medalist to have represented Czechoslovakia, a distinction that now goes to Marie Kovářová, born May 11, 1927, who won a gold medal with the Czechoslovakian gymnastics team at the 1948 London Games.

1928 Missing Full Names

Recently on the Oldest Olympians blog, we have been highlighting Olympic competitors whose full names are not known. We concentrated on the 1948 London Games partially because there are so few of them from this edition, but also because 1948 is somewhat of an anomaly given that there are no competitors from the 1932 and 1936 Olympics for whom we do not have at least a full name. On the other hand, there are 17 such participants (not counting art competitors) from the 1928 Amsterdam Games: eight from Belgium, three from Switzerland, three from India, two from France, and one from Turkey. Today, we wanted to highlight the latter three cases.

(The 1928 Turkish team, pictured in the document mentioned below)

A. Şefik – Member of Turkey’s wrestling delegation to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics

A. Şefik represented Turkey in wrestling’s light-heavyweight, Greco-Roman tournament at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, where he lost his first two bouts and was eliminated from the competition. He was known in contemporary reports as “Şefik Bey”, but since “Bey” is just an honorific from that era, and there were many individuals who held it, this does not help us identify him. We do know from a very detailed report in Turkish that Şefik was a member of the Haliç Wrestling Club of Istanbul but, unfortunately, he is the only competitor not named in full from the 1928 Turkish wrestling delegation. There was a founding member of that club by the name of Bahriyeli Şefik, who was active during that era, but we cannot confirm that he is the Olympian, even though it is possible that the “A.” stands for a rarely used part of his name, or even a military rank such as Albay (colonel).

(L. le Cornu, fourth from the left, pictured at the Bibliothèque nationale de France)

L. le Cornu – Member of France’s rowing delegation to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics

L. le Cornu (or Lecornu) represented France in the coxed fours rowing event at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, where his squad was eliminated in round two. We know that he was a member of Rowing-Club Paris, and that he was the namesake of the “Le Cornu” coxed fours squad that won the French national championships in 1929. Unfortunately, this has been all we have been able to learn about him, despite him being referenced several times in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

(S. de Lanfranchi, pictured as the rightmost wrestler, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France)

S. de Lanfranchi – Member of France’s wrestling delegation to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics

Similarly, the Bibliothèque nationale de France provides us with a picture of wrestler S. de Lanfranchi, but does not provide enough information for us to identify him. De Lanfranchi represented his country in the heavyweight, Greco-Roman event at the 1928 Amsterdam Games, but lost his first two bouts and was eliminated from the competition. We know that he was active in the years surrounding the Olympics, but we have been unable to discover anything more than that.

We wanted to raise these cases not only to publicize our research in the hopes of finding some new leads, but also because it highlights a fact about much of the missing information in the database: we lack the names of these individuals because we cannot access the resources necessary to track them down, not because they are particularly mysterious. By 1928, most athletes had to truly earn their way to the Olympics, and all three of these competitors had notable accomplishments outside of the Games that were reported in the press. Unfortunately, the press of this era often left out full names of individuals to save printing space, meaning that the further back one goes, the more difficult it becomes to recreate the history. This problem is not limited to the countries mentioned in this post; although American newspapers are perhaps the most accessible digitally, there are still many American Olympians from earlier Games who remain unidentified. All this is to say is that research into sporting history is not always a binary switch, where one simply needs to locate the correct document in order to solve the puzzle (although this can certainly be helpful!). Often times, it requires piecing together enough evidence to finally crack the riddle, so we hope that you will share any tip, big or small, that might help us shed some light on these sportsmen and we thank you as always for spending some of your time with us!

Prince Philip and the Olympic Games

It would not be the Oldest Olympians if we did not make some connection between the recently-deceased Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, nearly 100 years old, and the Games. The short answer would be that he officially opened the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. A slightly more involved answer would be to say that he was the father of HRH Princess Anne, who competed in equestrian eventing at the 1976 Montreal Games, and the grandfather of Zara Phillips, who did the same in 2012. We, however, have a more tenuous connection.

Philip is often cited as being one of the modern developers of the sport of carriage driving, which is exactly what it sounds like – a competitive horse test in which the animals pulled carriages and a rider behind them. This event’s history at the Olympics, however, is far older than even the Duke of Edinburgh, having been held at the 1900 Paris Olympics. Known as the “mail coach” or “four in hand” competition, there were at least 28 entrants from six countries, although only the top four finishers are known, and individuals could have more than one entry in the competition (more precisely – the owners of the horses could have different riders). The winner, Belgian Georges Nagelmackers, for example, had two entries, and was a wealthy individual who was involved in the transportation industry.

(Depiction of the fishing tournament at the 1900 Paris Olympics)

Officially, the 1900 Paris Games contained several interesting events, including basque pelota, croquet, and underwater swimming. Unofficially, non-medal events were held in automobile racing, ballooning, baseball, boules, firefighting, and fishing, many of which have interesting stories and competitors worthy of their own blog posts. So why is this equestrian driving competition afforded Olympic status? Up until 1996, it was generally not, and until recently the winners were not listed in the official IOC database. It was only through advocacy of Olympic historian Bill Mallon, based on research by Karl Lennartz and Walter Teutenberg, that this event (among others) has come to be considered Olympic.

Edmond Brassart

Today on Oldest Olympians we wanted to bring you a quick update on some trivia that we have covered in the past. Some time ago, we mentioned that, to the best of our knowledge, the first Olympian to die was Selwin Calverly. 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.

(Selwin Calverley)

At the time, however, we acknowledged that this information was somewhat tenuous due to all of the missing data on early Olympic competitors. In fact, we explicitly mentioned J. Brassard, who represented France in masters foil and épée fencing at the 1900 Paris Games and was deceased by the end of the year, although we did not have an exact date of death.

(La Passerelle du Pont des Invalides, where the incident took place, pictured at the bibliothèque numérique de l’INHA)

Thanks to research from Taavi Kalju, however, we have learned that J. Brassard was actually Eugène Edmond Brassart, born March 5, 1870 in Paris. He was killed alongside three others in the collapse of the Passerelle des Invalides, a temporary bridge built for the Exposition Universelle de 1900, on August 18, 1900 (although his body was not found until the following day). Taking place just over a month after his final event, this new information leads us to believe that he has the unfortunate distinction of being the first modern Olympian to die.

In addition to this, we have two more smaller updates. First, Connor Mah was able to determine that British gymnast Doris Woods, who we covered recently, was born August 1, 1902 in Plaistow, Essex and died September 13, 1956 in Caterham, Surrey. Secondly, we wanted to thank Wes Shutt for confirming that British biathlete Norman Shutt, born November 9, 1929, who represented his country at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games, is still alive at the age of 91. As our last update on him had been in 2009, we are very happy to add him back to our tables!

J. Basham

Today’s blog post concerns a boxer who represented Great Britain in the welterweight division at the 1924 Paris Games: J. Basham. Officially he is known as Joseph J. “Johnny” Basham but, as will be seen, we cannot be entirely certain of this. What we do know is that he was about 21 years old when he attended the Olympics and a member of the Columbia Amateur Boxing Club.

The first obstacle we encounter is that there was a much more well-known professional boxer from Wales with the name Johnny Basham who also competed as a welterweight. His professional career began in 1909, which precludes him from being the Olympian, but the two are often confused in both contemporary and more recent accounts. In fact, while we usually like to illustrate our blog posts, and a good picture claimed to be of the professional Basham is widely available, we have chosen not to post it here, to avoid adding further confusion. Thus, at a basic level, any search for a Johnny Basham or a boxing J. Basham is complicated by the existence of this other boxer. In the few newspaper clippings we have been able to locate referring to the Olympian, as is the case for many early athletes, only his first initial, “J.” is given, and never his given name, adding another layer of uncertainty to the search.

To add to the difficulties, it appears that there may have been two other boxing Bashams that were active around this time, one associated with the London Fire Brigade in the late 1920s, and one associated with the London & Northeast Railway and Goodmans Yard in the early 1920s. Since the Olympic Basham did not have a significant amateur career, it is difficult to connect any details of his life to the other Bashams, particularly as newspapers of the time do not seem to have made much effort to distinguish the professional from the amateurs, let alone amongst the amateurs.

One possible candidate (assuming the age of 21 in 1924 is correct) for the amateur boxer is John Basham, born March 19, 1903 in Manchester, who worked on the railways and was living in London around the time of the Paris Olympics. There was also a James George Basham, born May 12, 1903, who is noted in 1939 to be a fireman with the London Fire Brigade, but in both cases there are no obvious links to either man being the Olympic boxer.

(Article on Johnny Basham’s injury from the June 6, 1928 edition of The Guardian, page 19)

A newspaper article from 1928 noted that a former British welterweight champion boxer and fireman named Johnny Basham was injured in a training accident and hospitalized at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. There is, however, no evidence that the professional was ever a fireman; in fact, a later article noted a communication from the professional, back at home in Wales, that there was “no truth whatever[sic]” in the previous report. Consequently, there is no evidence of the amateur Johnny Basham ever winning any titles or championships. A 1924 article states J. Basham of Columbia ABC to be the “winner of military, polytechnical and V Division 10st 7lb competitions”, though we have not been able to find any further information about this.

(Basham’s denial of injury, from the June 7, 1928 edition of The Guardian, page 4)

Thus, we could have at least three boxing J. Bashams: Johnny (the professional), John (the railway worker), and James (the fireman). The railway worker and the fireman may be the same individual and, given how common the surname Basham is, it is possible that the Olympian, perhaps named Joseph, is someone entirely different than anyone we have mentioned here. While this can get confusing, we hope that we can clear up at least one misconception with this post: the Olympic boxer is not the same as the Welsh professional , but the jury still remains out on who the Olympic boxer was.

As we often do here, we want to thank Connor Mah and Rob Gilmore for contributing to this post and uncovering much of the information!

Felix Würth and Lotte Haidegger

We have another quick post today on Oldest Olympians. Until recently, we listed Felix Würth, born August 11, 1923, as the oldest living Austrian Olympian. This was based on a report from late 2012 that listed him as alive and living in Ontario, Canada, but we had not seen an update since. Recently, however, we removed him from our tables on credible, albeit yet unproven, evidence that he may have died, and we wanted to dedicate a little space to explaining that decision.

First, a little background, as Würth was no marginal athlete. His domestic career in Austria began after World War II and, from 1947 through 1952, he won a total of 21 national titles: four in the 4×100 relay, four in the 4×400 relay, five in the long jump, six in the triple jump, and two in the decathlon. He competed in both the long and triple jump at the 1948 and 1952 Summer Olympics, and was eliminated in the first round of all events except the long jump in 1948, where he placed eighth. He also represented Austria at the 1950 European Championships, finishing 13th in the triple jump and being eliminated in the qualifications for the long jump.

(Lotte Haidegger)

Würth married Lotte Haidegger, herself an accomplished track and field Olympian. She won Austrian titles in the shot put, discus throw (twice), and pentathlon, and was eighth in the discus at the 1950 European Championships. In both 1948 and 1952 she placed fifth in the Olympic discus tournament, and she was also entered in the shot put in 1952, although she did not start. After retiring from active competition, the couple eventually moved to Canada, and Haidegger was listed as deceased in the 2012 update on Würth.

This was the basis of our listing Würth as alive, although we also noted that a “Felix Wuerth” was listed as living in Guelph, Ontario at the same address as the retirement home that published the update. Public records, of course, may be slow to update, and recently an anonymous user on Wikipedia claimed that Würth died February 25, 2014. This user also noted that Haidegger died February 14, 2004 in Puslinch Township, Ontario. None of this information conflicts with what we know for certain but, unfortunately, even with such specific data we were unable to locate corresponding proof of these claims. We do, however, suspect that it is accurate, hence our removal of Würth from our lists. Until we uncover more evidence, however, this will remain a small Olympic mystery.

(Franz Zigon, pictured at the age of 94, at Nachrichten)

All of this means that the oldest known Austrian Olympian is now Franz Zigon, born March 9, 1924, who recently turned 97. Zigon represented his country in the water polo tournament at the 1952 Helsinki Games, where Austria was eliminated after the preliminary round. Unlike with Würth, we have much more documentation that Zigon is alive (and active in swimming!).

Mystery 1948 Olympic Competitors

Two posts ago, when we discussed the French gymnast known only as “F. Vailee”, we noted that there were several other competitors from the 1948 London Olympics for whom we lacked even a full name. This was a more common phenomenon in the prewar era, when records were not kept as well and participants could take part having had limited success even in their home countries. By 1948, however, the Games had been firmly established as one of the pinnacles of international sporting competition.

It is true that newer nations, or at least those that had not participated previously, were beginning to take part, but all five of the individuals we are covering today were from countries that had at least one previous appearance at the Games. Thus, while we may not know a lot about the starting competitors from some non-European and non-American countries, we at least have a full name for almost all of them.

The first exception is that of G. M. Jagi, who represented Afghanistan in the field hockey tournament in 1948. Afghanistan had sent two track and field athletes, as well as a hockey team, to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and returned to the Games after the war with both a hockey and a football squad. While their footballers were eliminated in the qualifying round, the field hockey team fared slightly better, winning, losing, and tying one game to place joint-seventh among 13 teams overall. Despite knowing very little about the delegation in general, Jagi remains the only starting player from either team for whom we lack even a full name.

(The 1945 national water polo team of Chile, seated, pictured at Water Polo Legends)

The other non-European is A. Hurtado Vargas, who was a member of the Chilean water polo team that was eliminated in the group stage in 1948. Connor Mah has suggested that this individual may be César Augusto Hurtado Vargas, who died in 2007, but we have been unable to confirm this for certain.

The other three are all French sport shooters, which may be due to the lack of widespread media coverage given to the sport. For one, R. Gauthier-Lafond, who placed 20th in the small-bore rifle, prone, 50 metres event, we have a small hint that he may be French-Tunisian Georges Henry Gauthier-Lafond, who was active in the sport in the 1930s. He was born on October 16, 1914 and lived in Zriba, where his son Guy was born, and died September 30, 1992 in Auch. We have not been able to link him conclusively, however, to the Olympian. For the other two, R. Bouillet who finished 32nd in the rapid-fire pistol, 25 metres, and R. Stéphan, who was 48th in the free pistol, 50 metres, their names are common enough that we have encountered difficulty in locating any clues.

That is what we have for today – given the subject matter, we did not have much to say on the actual competitors, but we hope that there is still some interest in the topic nonetheless. As always, we hope to see you in the future for another blog post!

The 1928 Mexican Winter Olympic Bobsleigh Team, Part II

Today on Oldest Olympians we have an exciting update to a story that we covered recently on this blog. Two posts ago, we shared what little we knew of the tale of the Mexican bobsleigh team at the 1928 St. Moritz Olympics. At the conclusion, we noted that the full identities of three of the five competitors remained a mystery.

(Porfirio Díaz)

Shortly thereafter, Carlos Hernandez forwarded us some fascinating information: the entire team was composed of the close circle of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz, who had been ousted from power and sent to exile in Paris in 1911, where he died a few years later. G. and J. Díaz, therefore, were close relatives of this famous politician! Based on this evidence, and with a little help from Hilary Evans and Connor Mah on the finer details, we were able to identify these men as Porfirio’s grandsons: Genaro Díaz Raigosa and José de la Cruz Porfirio Genaro Díaz Raigosa. Both were born in Mexico City; Genaro on April 19, 1904 and José on April 29, 1907. Genaro eventually returned to Mexico and died there on December 5, 1963. José died sometime in 1988, but we have been unable to ascertain further details.

(Manuel Escandón)

As for the final competitor, Juan de Landa, we were told that his full surname included either y Escandón (from Carlos Hernandez) or Osio (from Fernando Arrechea). While we have been unable to find an exact match for either, we suspect that he may actually have been José Manuel “Pepe” de Landa y Osio, born May 28, 1899 in Tlalpan and died March 6, 1961 in Mexico City, who was the son of Guillermo de Landa y Escandón. We have, however, been unable to confirm this. This would, however, make him related to the Escandón brothers, Manuel, Pablo, and Eustaquio, who won a bronze medal for Mexico in the polo competition at the 1900 Paris Olympics.

There is certainly a much larger story to tell here, but for now this is all that we have. In terms of updates, we also wanted to thank Gérard Lefebvre, who confirmed that two-time French water polo Olympian Maurice Lefèbvre was born on October 30, 1913 in Tourcoing and died there on May 24, 1983. We will be bringing you something new shortly so, as always, we hope that you will join us!