Germany’s Carl Schuhmann was arguably the brightest star of Athens 1896. Competing in gymnastics, athletics, weightlifting and Greco-Roman wrestling, he won four gold medals, more than any other athlete at the inaugural modern Games.
The middle of the 19th century had seen sports clubs mushroom across Europe, and among the most illustrious was 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.
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.
However, it was in the gymnastics events, Held before tens of thousands of spectators at the Panathinaiko Stadium on 9 April, that Schuhmann came into his own. 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.
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.”
Schuhmann is one of only three athletes to have competed in four different sports at the same edition of the Games and the most successful member of that trio, a distinction he will quite possibly hold forever. After becoming a gymnastics teacher in England, he joined up with the Germany team at the 1908 Olympic Games in London and maintained close ties with the Olympic movement through to Berlin 1936, where, despite being in his mid-60s, he took part in a gymnastics exhibition. He died in Berlin ten years later at the age of 76. His tomb bears the words “Germany’s first Olympic champion”, below which are inscribed the five Olympic rings and the legend “Athens 1896”.