Although you probably never heard of him before, American George Eyser is one of the most decorated Olympians in history. In the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, he put on one of the greatest single-day performances in Olympic History.
Yet, his real claim to fame is not what he accomplished, but how.
Learn more about the incredible Geroge Eyser on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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The 1904 Olympics have come up before on this podcast. It was a….unique event to say the least. The event was stolen from Chicago, much of the world didn’t bother to attend, and it was horribly run. Please check out my episode on the 1904 Olympic marathon, which was the worst event in Olympic history.
The way events were held back in 1904 was different than how they do it today. Rather than cramming everything into a single two-week competition, in St. Louis, everything was spread out over a five-month period from July through November.
George Eyser was born in Kiel, Germany in 1870 and migrated to the United States with his family when he was 14 years old. They moved to Denver where, in 1894, at the age of 24, he received his American citizenship.
He left the house and moved to St. Louis where he got a job a construction company as a bookkeeper. While in St. Louis, he joined a local gymnastics club called Concordia Turnverein Saint Louis.
Turnvereins were german gymnastic clubs which were located all over the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. Members of turnverein clubs were called “turners”. In addition to being early forms of a gym membership, they also served as ethnic and social clubs for Germans in the United States.
At the Concordia Club, George excelled. He won several local and regional competitions. He soon began eyeing the upcoming Olympics which would be held in his home city of St. Louis.
Gymnastics in 1904 was held as two different events. The International Turners’ Championship was held on July 1 and 2 and the start of the Olympics. Gorge did poorly. He placed 10th in the all-around competition. George’s club took 4th place in what were the team gymnastic medals.
The second competition took place on October 29th and this is the one which went down on the books as the official Olympic gymnastics competition for individual events.
Everything was done in a single day. Something which would never happen today, but back then things were different and everyone was a true amateur. They all had regular jobs they had to return to.
He competed in five events on that day: horizontal bar, pommel horse, parallel bars, vault, and the rope climb. All the events but the rope climb were used to determine the medals in the all-around category.
Overall he won 6 medals that day. 3 golds in rope climbing, the vault, and parallel bars. 2 silvers in pommel horse and overall competition, and a bronze in the parallel bar.
6 medals in one single day is a record that still stands, and it is likely never to be broken because modern Olympics simply don’t do that many events in a single day anymore.
However, he didn’t put on the best men’s gymnastics performance at the 1904 Olympics. Anton Heida also won 6 medals on the same day, and five of his were gold.
So, why am I doing a podcast about George Eyser and not Anton Heida?
Because there is something about George Eyser that I didn’t tell you that changes his entire story.
George Eyser only had one leg.
As a young man, he lost his left leg in a train accident and he had to use a wooden prosthetic leg. Most of the events in which Gorge competed focused on his upper body and the loss of a leg didn’t impact him that much. However, he also won a gold medal in the vault, which absolutely does involve using your legs because you have to run and land.
It would take another 104 years before another athlete competing in the Olympics with a prosthetic limb. In 2008, South African swimmer Natalie du Toit computed in the 10k swimming marathon at the Beijing Olympics and finished 10th.
George continued to compete in gymnastics after the Olympics. His team won the 1908 world championships in Frankfurt, Germany, and then won the 1909 National Championship in Cincinnati, Ohio.
George passed away at the age of 48 in 1919 near his family in Denver.
Even though the 1904 Olympics were not the greatest Olympics in history, the performance of George Eyser was a highlight of an otherwise forgettable competition.
His accomplishment wasn’t forgotten. In 2008 the London Times listed Eyser’s feats as one of the top 50 moments in the history of the Olympic games.
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