Remembering The Disabled Medallists Who Preceded The Paralympics

Long before the Paralympics were an open competition, there were disabled athletes competing for Olympic medals. From American gymnasts to Hungarian pistol shooters, these are their stories.

by Will Magee
Sep 15 2016, 7:19pm

Olivér Halassy (far right) with his teammates // Via Wikicommons

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Though the earliest forerunner of the Paralympics was inaugurated in 1948, it wasn't an open competition for another 12 years. The Stoke Mandeville Games, as it was then called, was initially intended to aid the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers and, as such, was contested only by former military personnel. In 1960, shadowing that year's Summer Olympics, the ninth edition of the competition was held in Rome. This was the first such event to be opened to civilian contestants and, accordingly, is considered to be the first official Paralympic Games.

READ MORE: How The Paralympics Came To Be – Remembering The Stoke Mandeville Games

That said, the term 'Paralympic' didn't come into use until the 1988 Games in Seoul. Its early forerunners were only open to athletes with spinal cord injuries, and competitors with other disabilities only began to participate as late as 1976. The development of the modern Paralympics has been long and arduous at times, and there is still a long way to go before it has full parity with the Olympics. Before it was even an embryonic idea, however, there were disabled athletes winning medals, and riveting the attention of spectators across the world.

George Eyser, pictured in 1908 // Via

The first disabled athlete to compete in the Games was George Eyser, a German-American gymnast who was selected to represent the USA in the 1904 St. Louis Olympics. He took on the pommel horse, climbing rope and horizontal bars, and also took part in the athletics triathlon which accompanied Olympic gymnastics at the time, all despite the fact that he had a wooden prosthesis in place of a left leg. Eyser had seen his leg amputated as a child, having been run over by a passing train. Nonetheless, despite his relatively crude prosthesis, he became a dedicated athlete, and was determined to challenge when the Games came to Missouri that year.

Gymnastics was grouped into two sets of events at the 1904 Olympics. There was the International Turners' Championship, comprised of apparatus, triathlon and team events, and then there were the Olympic Gymnastics Championships, which consisted of seven individual apparatus events and one combined. Eyser struggled in the International Turners' Championship, falling well short in the apparatus events and coming last in the triathlon by a significant margin. This was hardly a surprise, considering the nature of his prosthesis. Nonetheless, he refused to be deterred.

In the Olympic Gymnastics Championships, held several months after the first set of events (as was the fashion in the early days of the Olympics), Eyser not only improved his showing, but excelled across the board. On a single day in late October, he won six medals, three of which were gold. With that, he became the first disabled Olympian to win an event, and remained the only person to compete in the Games with a prosthetic leg until South African swimmer Natalie du Toit in 2008. Alongside his golds, he picked up two silver medals and one bronze. He had set a precedent for disabled athletes, though it would be over two decades before someone followed his example.

Olivér Halassy, posing by the pool in 1931 // Via

Much like Eyser, Olivér Halassy suffered a devastating injury at a young age. Having lost his left foot in a streetcar accident when he was eight, the Hungarian nevertheless went on to become a freestyle swimmer, and a star of his country's world-famous water polo team. Halassy first competed at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, before going on to play a crucial part in the team's successes in Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936. Over the course of eight years, he won two golds and one silver medal. Considered one of the greatest halfbacks of the thirties, he scored a grand total of 20 goals at the Games.

READ MORE: Has The Time Come For The Olympics and The Paralympics To Merge?

Though he never managed to win a medal in the freestyle, Halassy was the European champion at 1500m, and won dozens of national championships in Hungary. He was another man who smashed all obstacles, and reached the pinnacle of his sport. He would probably have gone on to win more medals, had the Second World War not interrupted his career. Exempted from military service, he survived the war, only to be gunned down in a robbery by Soviet soldiers in September 1946. He was 37, and was mourned as a national hero when news broke of his death.

Károly Takács practises his shooting, 1961 // Via

While Halassy was still winning medals in the pool, Hungary was about to produce another iconic disabled athlete. His name was Károly Takács and, by 1936, he was one of the best pistol shooters in the land. He was denied a place at the Berlin Olympics on account of the fact that he was a sergeant in the Hungarian Army, and only commissioned officers were allowed to compete. The rules were changed that very same year, and Takács was expected to excel at the 1940 Olympics, then scheduled to take place in Tokyo.

The 1940 Games would never take place, for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, for Takács, disaster soon struck. In 1938, during a routine training drill, a faulty grenade exploded and took Takács right hand with it. That was his shooting hand and, by the look of his injuries, his dream of competing at the Olympics seemed to have been snuffed out.

Having been barred from competing once, however, Takács wasn't about to let his wounds get in his way. He began practising again using his left hand, though he kept his hopes of a comeback to himself. In the spring of 1939, with the world on the brink of a terrible cataclysm, Takács shocked the nation by winning the Hungarian national pistol shooting championships. There wouldn't be another Olympic Games until 1948 but, all through the war, Takács kept on practising. When the London Olympics rolled around, he won gold in the 25m rapid pistol event. He repeated the feat four years later, when he triumphed once more at the Helsinki Games.

Much like Halassy, Takács became a national treasure for his endeavours at the Olympics. Arguably, though, neither of them upset the odds quite so much as Danish equestrian Lis Hartel. She was the national dressage champion in 1943 and 1944, only to contract polio in the autumn of the latter year. She was severely paralysed below the knees, while also losing much of the control in her arms and hands. Her first challenge upon hearing of her diagnosis was to finish the term of her pregnancy, which she did, delivering a healthy daughter not long afterwards.

Hartel wasn't finished there, however. Despite medical advice to the contrary, she decided to continue riding, and even entered the Scandinavian championships in 1947. She had to be helped onto her horse in order to ride but, after a good showing, she shocked her competitors and finished second. From thereon out, she was only more determined to fulfil her ambitions. In 1952, at the Helsinki Games, she won silver in the individual dressage, and did the same in 1956 in Stockholm.

Were Eyser, Halassy, Takács and Hartel born today, they would most likely go on to compete in the Paralympics. They are the Paralympians that preceded the Paralympic Games. Much like the men and women currently competing for medals in Rio, they refused to be limited by their disabilities. In that sense, they paved the way for the Paralympics, and proved that disability cannot stop an athlete for competing, and succeeding, on the international stage.


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