Category Archives: Summer Olympics

Olympic Challenge Trophies

It is not well known, but in the early years of the Modern Olympic Games, from 1906-1920, a number of IOC Challenge Trophies were awarded. These were special trophies that were donated, usually by quite prominent persons, and the trophies were given to the winners of the various events on a temporary basis. The trophies were in addition to the gold medal awards, and had to be returned to the IOC prior to the next Olympic Games.

At the 1908 Olympic Games in London there were 12 challenges. Three more were donated at the 13th IOC Session (1910). When further challenges came to the IOC in 1911 it was then decided that no further Challenge Trophies would be accepted. Some of the challenge trophies were not awarded and strangely, a few of the challenges were for the same events. The last three challenge trophies that were donated were never awarded and the event for which they were to be given was also never announced.

At the 22nd IOC Session in Rome on 12 April 1923, the IOC discontinued the practice of awarding challenge trophies. Most of the trophies still reside in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. In 1946, the Baroness de Coubertin, widow of Pierre de Coubertin, donated a final challenge trophy that was never awarded. The other two trophies that were never awarded were donated by the Czechoslovakian President and the Italian Gymnastics Federation.

The most well-known challenge trophy was that won by Jim Thorpe in 1912 for the decathlon, given by the Russian Emperor. When Thorpe’s medals were returned by the IOC in 1982, the family questioned if they should also receive the challenge trophy, but as stated, these were to be temporary and returned to the IOC at the next Olympics, so after 1920, Thorpe’s family had no official claim to them.

Here are the lists of all the Challenge Trophies awarded, from 1906-1920:


Donor (Event),1906

Unknown Donor (ancient pentathlon),Hjalmar Mellander



Donor (Event),1908

Mme. de Montgomery (discus throw),Martin Sheridan

Gold & Silversmiths (heavyweight wrestling),Richárd Weisz

The Football Association (football),Great Britain

Brunetta d’Usseaux (coxed eights rowing),Great Britain

Brunetta d’Usseaux (1500 swimming),Henry Taylor

Lord Westbury (clay trap shooting),Walter Ewing

King of Greece (marathon footrace),Johnny Hayes

The English Fencers (épée team),France

City of Prague (individual gymnastics),Alberto Braglia

French Government (6 metre yachting),Great Britain

Prince of Wales (100 km cycling),Charles Bartlett

Hurlingham Club (polo),Great Britain



Donor (Event),1912

Mme. de Montgomery (discus throw),Armas Taipale

Gold & Silversmiths (heavyweight wrestling),Yrjö Saarela

The Football Association (football),Great Britain

Brunetta d’Usseaux (coxed eights rowing),Great Britain

Brunetta d’Usseaux (1500 swimming),George Hodgson

Lord Westbury (clay trap shooting),James Graham

King of Greece (marathon footrace),Kenneth McArthur

The English Fencers (épée team),Belgium

City of Prague (individual gymnastics),Alberto Braglia

French Government (6 metre yachting),France

King of Sweden (pentathlon),Jim Thorpe

Swedish Calvary (overall equestrian),Sweden

Pierre de Coubertin (modern pentathlon),Gösta Lilliehöök

King of Italy (show jumping team),Sweden

Contessa Casa de Miranda (women’s platform),Greta Johansson

Russian Emperor (decathlon),Jim Thorpe

German Emperor (show jumping team),Sweden

Austrian Emperor (dressage individual),Carl Bonde

City of Budapest (sabre team),Hungary

Géza Andressy (show jumping individual),Jean Cariou



Donor (Event),1920

Mme. de Montgomery (discus throw),Elmer Niklander

Gold & Silversmiths (heavyweight wrestling),Adolf Lindfors

The Football Association (football),Belgium

Brunetta d’Usseaux (coxed eights rowing),United States

Brunetta d’Usseaux (1500 swimming),Norman Ross

Lord Westbury (clay trap shooting),Mark Arie

King of Sweden (pentathlon),Eero Lehtonen

Swedish Calvary (overall equestrian),Sweden

Pierre de Coubertin (modern pentathlon),Gustaf Dyrssen

King of Italy (show jumping team),Sweden

Contessa Casa de Miranda (women’s platform),Stefanie Clausen



Countries winning medals in just a single sport

The best performing countries, such as the US, the major European nations and, in recent decades, China, earn medals in a large variety of sports. Other countries, however are very dependent on a single sport to earn their medals.

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Hanni Wenzel is the most successful Olympic athlete from Liechtenstein.

In all, 41 nations have only won medals in a single sport. In 27 of these cases, this is not a very interesting finding, as these are countries which have only ever won a single Olympic medal. Looking at the remaining 14 nations with at least two medals, Ethiopia clearly stands out. The nation’s long distance runners have racked up a total of 45 Olympic medals. Apart from the track, Ethiopia’s best Olympic result is a quarter-final spot (=5th place) for boxer Chanyalew Haile in 1972. Second in line, with 9 medals, is Liechtenstein, which has won all of its medals in alpine skiing. The tiny Alpine nation is also the only country to have only medaled in the Winter Olympics.

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Frankie Fredericks has won all four of Namibia’s Olympic medals.

The rest of the nations in the list have largely depended on a single athlete to win their medals. For example, Namibian sprinter Frankie Fredericks won four silver medals in the 1990s.


Country, Sport,Medals

Ethiopia, Athletics, 45
Liechtenstein, Alpine Skiing, 9
Costa Rica, Swimming, 4
Namibia, Athletics, 4
Independent Olympic Athletes, Shooting, 3
Panama, Athletics, 3
Afghanistan, Taekwondo, 2
Ecuador, Athletics, 2
Kuwait, Shooting, 2
Mozambique, Athletics, 2
Sri Lanka, Athletics, 2
Suriname, Swimming, 2
Tanzania, Athletics, 2
West Indies Federation, Athletics, 2


If we expand our view slightly, we could look at the percentage of medals won by a nation in a single sport. Ignoring the 41 nations already mentioned, we get two more track and field giants at the top. Sprint island Jamaica has only ever won a single medal outside athletics, by David Weller in track cycling. Kenya, a long distance running nation like Ethiopia, has won seven medals in boxing.

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One of Kenya’s first long distance stars was Kipchoge Keino.

The only nations that have won more than 100 medals which owe more than a third of their medals to a single sport are Australia, which has earned 37.6% of their medals in the swimming pool, and Austria, which collected 114 medals (35.2%) in alpine skiing.


Country, Sport, Medals, Total medals, %

Jamaica, Athletics, 66, 67, 98.5%
Kenya, Athletics, 79, 86, 91.9%
Zimbabwe, Swimming, 7, 8, 87.5%
Morocco, Athletics, 19, 22, 86.4%
Bahamas, Athletics, 10, 12, 83.3%
Malaysia, Badminton, 5, 6, 83.3%
Pakistan, Hockey, 8, 10, 80.0%
Trinidad & Tobago, Athletics, 14, 18, 77.8%
Ghana, Boxing, 3, 4, 75.0%
Lebanon, Wrestling, 3, 4, 75.0%
Peru, Shooting, 3, 4, 75.0%
Puerto Rico, Boxing, 6, 8, 75.0%
Singapore, Table Tennis, 3, 4, 75.0%


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All but one of Zimbabwe’s medals have been won by swimmer Kirsty Coventry.

Gymnasts are no longer the stars of the Olympics

While the world’s top gymnasts are competing at the World  Championships in Nanning, China, we look into a remarkable trend in Olympic gymnastics.

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From 1928 through 1992, a gymnast was always among the top 3 athletes with the most medals at the Olympics. On 10 of those 15 occassions, the gymnast was ranked first. Since then, only one gymnast has reached the top 3, Zou Kai in 2008.

One might argue that this is due increased competition from athletes in other sports (which may be the case), but the number medals gymnasts are winning is also decreasing. At the last three Olympic Games, the top gymnast earned a total of three medals, while the average between 1928 and 2000 was between five and six medals.

Below are the highest ranking gymnasts at each Olympics since 1924, when individual apparatus events were introduced.


Year,Overall Rank,Gymnast,NOC,Gold,Silver,Bronze

1924,7,Francesco Martino,ITA,2,0,0

1924,7,Leon Štukelj,YUG,2,0,0
1928,1,Georges Miez,SUI,3,1,0
1932,1,Romeo Neri,ITA,3,0,0
1936,2,Konrad Frey,GER,3,1,2
1948,2,Veikko Huhtanen,FIN,3,1,1
1952,1,Viktor Chukarin,URS,4,2,0
1956,1,Ágnes Keleti,HUN,4,2,0
1960,1,Borys Shakhlin,URS,4,2,1
1964,2,Věra Čáslavská,TCH,3,1,0
1968,1,Věra Čáslavská,TCH,4,2,0
1972,2,Sawao Kato,JPN,3,2,0
1976,1,Nikolay Andrianov,URS,4,2,1
1980,1,Aleksandr Dityatin,URS,3,4,1
1984,1,Ecaterina Szabo,ROU,4,1,0
1988,3,Viktor Artyomov,URS,4,1,0
1992,1,Vitaly Shcherbo,EUN,6,0,0
1996,7,Aleksey Nemov,RUS,2,1,3
2000,7,Aleksey Nemov,RUS,2,1,3
2004,5,Cătălina Ponor,ROU,3,0,0
2008,2,Zou Kai,CHN,3,0,0
2012,14,Zou Kai,CHN,2,0,1


Why is this happening? We suspect that the reason is the increasing degree of specialization for the individual apparatus events. Of the six male gold medallists in London 2012, two (Arthur Zanetti-Rings and Krisztián Berki-Pommelled Horse) only competed in their specialism. None of the other four athletes competed in the individual all-around, with only Zou Kai reaching a second apparatus final – in which he won a bronze medal, too. Things were a bit different among women, though, as Aly Raisman, Aliya Mustafina and Sandra Izbașa reached one additional final (Raisman and Mustafina winning bronze).

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If we expand our view a bit, specialization does appear to be a trend. At each Olympics, there are ten apparatus events (six for men, four for women), with at least three medals awarded in each event (in case of ties, more than three athletes per event may receive medals). If we look at the number of gymnasts dividing those medal, that number gradually increasing. For decades, around 11 gymnasts divided the men’s medals, while for the last three Games that number is 16. The lowest number came in 1980, when only eight men divided the medals, with Aleksandr Dityatin taking a medal on each apparatus. Among women the number of distinct medallists has increased from 7 to 10, as shown in the chart below.


Not just the apparatus gymnasts are specialists – the all-around gymnasts are also becoming specialists. From 1924 through 1992, the men’s winner of the individual all-around always won at least one additional gold medal on an apparatus. Since then, the all-around winner “merely” added a single silver medal, save for Aleksey Nemov in 2000. In the women’s field the all-around winner had already been less successful historically, but 2012 marked the first time the winner (Gabby Douglas) did not win any apparatus medal at all. These trends are visible in the below charts.



Olympians with a disability – Part One

For a few days this week it appeared that legally blind cross-country skier Brian McKeever was to win a place of the Canadian team at Sochi. Unfortunately for him an eight place finish in the last Canadian trial race means his chances of becoming an Olympian this time round are now extremely slim. McKeever did make the team for the Vancouver Games but was left on the side lines by the team coaches and did not take part in the Olympic races. So it looks like we may have to wait a little longer for an athlete with a disability to take a full part in the Winter Games. The Summer Games is an entirely different matter and the list of competitors who have triumphed over disability is a lot longer than you might think. Read on…

1904 St. Louis
George Eyser (USA) – Gymnastics
3 gold medals, 2 silver, 1 bronze
Born in Germany, George Eyser arrived in the US as a child. It is believed that he lost most of his left leg in an accident either with a train or a trolley car – there are conflicting reports. To compensate for this loss he developed his upper body strength and became a gymnast. Competing at the 1904 Olympics he won 6 medals in a single day and won gold in the vault, parallel bars and the now obsolete rope climb.

Bobby Bridge (GBR) – Athletics
The first person with a disability to compete in Olympic track and field, Bobby Bridge qualified for the Stockholm Games despite the handicap of his left arm being amputated at the elbow. A competitor in the 10,000 m race walk, he had the misfortune to be disqualified for running. In one race at Stamford Bridge in 1914 he broke the world record for every distance from 11 miles to 16 miles. He was a qualified dentist.

Brian Pickworth (NZL) – Fencing
Brian Pickworth was a promising rugby player until he lost his left arm above the elbow in a shooting accident when he was 21 years old. He then switched to fencing and represented New Zealand not only in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome but also in the Empire (Commonwealth) Games in 1958 in Cardiff and in 1962 in Perth fencing all three weapons.

Neroli Fairhall (NZL) – Archery
Originally a track & field athlete, Neroli Fairhall became paralysed from the waist down following a motorcycle accident. She continued her athletics career, competing in the 1972 Paralympic Games in various events in track and field. She then switched to archery, winning the gold in the 1980 Paralympics. She started competing with able-bodied athletes, from her wheelchair. When archery made its only appearance at the Commonwealth Games in 1982, she won the gold medal. Two years later, she became the first paraplegic to compete at the Olympics. Fairhall did not return to the Olympics, but competed twice more in the Paralympic Games, in 1988 and 2000. She retired after the latter event, switching to coaching. She passed away at the age of 61, of an illness related to her disability.

Olivér Halassy (HUN) – Water Polo
2 gold, 1 silver
Olivér Halassy was eight years old when he lost his left leg from the knee down following an accident as he attempted to jump on board a tram. 25 times a Hungarian national champion in swimming and European champion over 1500 m freestyle in 1931, Halassy was even better known as a water polo player. He was a vital part of the Hungarian team that dominated the sport in the 20s and 30s and won Olympic titles in 1932 and 1936 as well as silver in 1928 and three Olympic titles. Halassy was being driven home one night in 1946 when his taxi was stopped by a Soviet military patrol. An argument broke out between his driver and the soldiers and both driver and passenger were shot dead. He was just 37 at the time of his death.

Marla Runyan (USA) – Athletics
Being legally blind (due to Stargardt’s disease), runner Marla Runyan initially focussed on competing in events for visually impaired athletes. She was highly successful, winning three sprint events and the long jump at the 1992 Paralympics, while also competing in cycling. She added a fifth title at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, winning the pentathlon and a silver in the shot put. But Runyan also aspired to compete in the Olympics, and had tried to qualify for the heptathlon at the US Olympic Trials, placing 10th. Her good 800 m in that competition convinced her to switch to middle distance running. This switch proved a good choice, and in 1999 Runyan won the 1500 m at the Pan American Games, and reached the World Championship final in the same event. She repeated that performance in Sydney, placing 8th in the Olympic final. She then turned her attention to long distance running, eventually competing in the 2004 Olympic 5 km, and placing 4th in the 2002 New York Marathon.

Part two of this article will follow soon.