Competing in gymnastics, athletics, weightlifting and Greco-Roman wrestling, Germany’s Carl Schuhmann was arguably the biggest star of Athens 1896, winning four gold medals to become the most successful athlete of the first Olympic Games of the modern era.
The Games revived
The date of 23 June 1894 is a momentous one in Olympic history. It was on that distant day, following a proposal made by Pierre de Coubertin, that the Olympic Games were revived in Paris and the International Olympic Committee was founded, with Dimitrios Vikelas of Greece being named its first president. It was also then that Athens was chosen to host the inaugural Games of the modern era, in 1896, some 1,500 years after Greece had staged the last of the Ancient Olympic Games. Their revival reflected a growing interest in sport across the globe, particularly in Europe, where a number of sports clubs and associations had come into being, among them the Berliner Turnerschaft, a gymnastics club founded in the German capital in 1863. One of its most eminent members was a multi-talented athlete by the name of Carl Schuhmann, who at the age of 26 was chosen to represent Germany at Athens 1896.
Those inaugural Games were held on 6-15 April 1896 (or from 25 March to 3 April according to the Julian calendar in use in Greece at the time), with the squat and powerfully built Schuhmann making his entrance in the track and field events, held at the magnificent Panathinaiko Stadium, which had been renovated for the occasion. The Munster-born all-rounder competed in the long jump, triple jump and shot put, his best finish being fifth in the second of those events. He also took part in the two-handed weightlifting competition – the forerunner of the clean and jerk – lifting 90kg to take fourth place.
A golden hat-trick
Schuhmann came into his own in the gymnastics events, held before tens of thousands of spectators at the Panathinaiko Stadium on 9 April. Forming part of a peerless 11-man German team captained by Fritz Hofmann, who won silver in the 100m, the lithe Schuhmann helped his country land gold in the horizontal bar and parallel bars events before going on to win the individual vault competition, topping the podium three times on the same day.
A wrestling champion
Further success would come Schuhmann’s way in wrestling, one of the sports that forged a symbolic link between the ancient and modern Games. The only event on the programme at Athens 1896 was the men’s Greco-Roman, which was an open competition at the time. The versatile German began his bid for another gold by getting the better of Great Britain’s Launceston Elliot, a victory that earned him a place in the final against local hero Yeriyos Tsitas. Also held at the Panathinaiko Stadium, the gold-medal bout began late on 10 April, as an ecstatic crowd celebrated Greek runner Spyridon Louis’ triumph in the marathon, and was suspended after 40 minutes owing to the gathering darkness. The two combatants resumed hostilities the following morning, with Schuhmann throwing his man to the ground after 15 minutes to claim his fourth gold of the Games. On presenting the German with his medal, King George I of Greece told him: “You are now the most popular man in this country.”