In his two appearances at the Games, in 1900 and 1920, Hubert Van Innis became the most successful archer in Olympic history and the first Belgian to win an Olympic gold.
Born in Elewijt, near Brussels, Hubert Van Innis took up archery at a very early age and made the most of every opportunity to practise the sport he loved. Sent on milk rounds by his parents with a dog and a cart, he would often send the dog home after completing his deliveries and steal away to hone his craft. The talented young archer caused a sensation at the age of 16, getting the better of an experienced Belgian and Dutch field to win his first major tournament.
Archery first appeared on the Olympic programme at Paris 1900, forming part of the “Concours internationaux d'exercices physiques et de sports” held between May and October that year, all under the umbrella of the city’s Exposition Universelle (World Fair). Held in the Bois de Vincennes during the summer, the Olympic archery competition featured six events: tir au cordon doré (33 metres and 50 metres); tir au chapelet (33 metres and 50 metres), tir sur la Perche à Herse and tir sur la Perche à la Pyramide.
Van Innis was by now an experienced archer in his mid-30s, and in Paris he competed in four events. He began by taking silver in the 50-metre cordon doré behind France’s Henri Hérouin, and followed up by winning the 33-metre cordon doré and the tir au chapelet at the same distance. He recorded his worst result in the 50-metre tir au chapelet, finishing only fourth. The double Olympic champion did not defend his titles at St Louis 1904 and also missed London 1908, with archery then being omitted from the programme at Stockholm 1912.
The Belgian was back on the medal hunt on home soil at Antwerp 1920, by which time he had turned 54. Victorious in the individual 28-metre and 33-metre moving bird target events, he won silver in the 50-metre competition and added two more golds to his collection in the 33-metre and 50-metre moving bird target team events. In also picking up a silver for good measure in the 28-metre team competition, he took his Olympic medal haul to six golds and three silvers, making him the most successful archer in the history of the Games and Belgium’s leading Olympian. He also remains to this day among the Games’ top 20 medallists of all time.
Despite the sport’s absence from the Olympic programme for the next 52 years, only reappearing at Munich 1972, Van Innis continued to enjoy great success on the international stage, winning the world title in 1933 as a mere 67-year-old. Such was his passion for archery that he even set up a practice range at the restaurant he owned in the Belgian capital, and he continued to play the sport through to his death on 25 November 1961, at the age of 95. His legend lives on. His great, great-granddaughter Sarah Prieels, who was born in 1990, is also an international archer, while a statue of Van Innis’ now stands in his home town.
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