SIOM #17: The Triumphant Trainwrecked Turner

This week’s story comes in the wake of numerous riots throughout England, ostensibly in reaction to the death of a gang member at the hands of the police, but, ultimately, amounting to little more than opportunistic looting of electronics and clothing by a bored and disenfranchised youth. Theft of food and basic essentials notwithstanding, these mindless acts have primarily involved petty theft and vandalism, harming London’s reputation ahead of next year’s Olympics. Swift action by the powers that be can, and arguably has, done much to restore confidence in London’s suitability for the 2012 Games. In the meantime, this week I give you George Eyser, a German-American gymnast who certainly had more to complain about than the majority of this week’s looters, but chose instead to rise above his circumstances and prevail on the world’s stage.

George Eyser was born on 31 August, 1871 in Kiel, Germany. Little is known about his early life (or, as will be detailed further on, his later life) other than the fact that he was injured irreparably during his childhood following a collision with a train (he was on foot at the time). When he was 14, his family immigrated to America. They ultimately settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where Eyser worked as a bookkeeper at a construction factory. Their choice of location would prove fortuitous, as the 1904 Games were ultimately scheduled to take place in his home town.

Eyser was an able sportsman whose talent encompassed athletics and gymnastics. He focused his efforts on the latter and joined local gymnastics club Concordia Turnverein (Team Concordia). The 1904 Games were the third modern Games and the first where gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded for the first three places. (The first competition, the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertain, was held in Athens in 1896. At these and the 1900 Games, winners received trophies, while runners up received handshakes.) Eyser did not participate in the 1896 or 1900 Games (possibly because for these and the 1904 Games, the team events were organised at a club, not country, level).

Team Concordia qualified for the 1904 Games and Eyser was among its team members. American spirits were high, particularly as the1904 Games had been scheduled to coincide with the World’s Fair, an international exhibition focusing on technological inventions and advancements. The locals were hungry for gold medals; few anticipated that many would come from gymnastics, given German dominance in this sporting discipline at previous Games. Team Concordia faced further obstacles, given that one of their principal medal contenders was thirty four years of age and still bore the effects of his train collision.

Unlike contemporary Games (which last some two weeks), the 1904 Games were subject to a complex and protracted schedule. The gymnastics component consisted of two phases, the International Turners’ Championship on 1-2 July (encompassing the all-around, triathlon, and team events) and the Olympic Gymnastics Championships on 29 October (comprising seven individual apparatus events and the combined event).

Team Concordia in 1908 - Eyser is in the centre.

Eyser fared terribly in the International Turners’ Championship, placing 10th in the nine-event all-around competition. In the gymnastic-all round competition (consisting of the same nine events but comprising fewer routines) he came 71st. Eyser also competed in the athletics triathlon, registering 15.4s for the 100 metres, 4m for the long jump and 8m for the shot put, efforts that were insufficient to garner anything more than last place. Given the legacy of his train crash, it was surprising that Eyser competed in the triathlon at all.

With little to lose in the Olympic Gymnastics Championships some four months later, Eyser mounted what must surely rank as one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history, and one of the most successful individual performances at a modern Games, let alone in a single day’s competition. Eyser won six medals in total: gold in the parallel bars, long horse vault and 25 foot rope climb, silver in the pommel horse and four-event all round competition and bronze in the horizontal bar. The only gymnast more successful than Eyser at the 1904 Games was fellow countryman Anton Heida, who won five gold medals and one silver.

Without wishing to detract from Heida’s achievements, it’s worth mentioning at this point that he, unlike George Eyser, did not compete with a wooden leg.

Eyser’s Team Concordia finished fourth in the team competition, going on to win a 1908 international meet in Frankfurt, Germany and a national meet in Ohio the following year. Eyser’s life thereafter remains a mystery. Last recorded as a St Louis resident in 1910, he is not registered on census records, social security death records, death certificate registries or leading ancestry websites. Eyser’s whereabouts post-1910, and the date of his death, are unknown.

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