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István Pelle’s performance at the 1928 Olympic Games seemed an unlikely portent of the glory that would soon come his way.
Having failed to place highly in Amsterdam, the Hungarian gymnast hardly looked like a future Olympic champion. But an upturn in Pelle’s fortunes came two years later at the 1930 World Championships, where he won the gold medal in the horizontal bar.
Then in Los Angeles, helped in part by the fact that several of the world’s best gymnasts had not travelled to the Games, the 25-year-old proceeded to etch his name into Olympic history.
For the first time, individual competitions were held for all of the different gymnastics apparatus, as well as tumbling, rope climbing, and club swinging. And in another break with tradition, the scoring for the team competition was separate from the scoring for individual events. According to the Official Report, “the innovation of individual competition on the horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommelled horse, rings, and vaulting horse proved to be very popular with contestants and officials.”
It was one such event – the “pommelled horse” – that saw Pelle claim one of his two gold medals, while the other came in the floor exercise. He also won two silvers and only the sensational three-gold haul of Italy’s Romeo Neri prevented Pelle being the stand-out gymnast of the Games.
Pelle failed to build on his Los Angeles success at the 1934 World Championships, which were held in his home city of Budapest, and his disappointment continued at the 1936 Ber-lin Games where he again failed to live up to expectations.
Nevertheless his career total of 41 Hungarian titles across various pieces of apparatus was an impressive record. He also went on to achieve distinction in a non-sporting field, finishing his studies with a doctorate in law.
After World War II he left Hungary, touring the world as a singer and violinist, before settling in Argentina, where he died aged 78.