George Eyser: Medals, mystery and the Games’ first amputee 

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of curious, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: American gymnast George Eyser who scooped six medals in Saint Louis in 1904 – three of them golds – with the use of only one flesh-and-blood leg.

The background

There are more than a few big mysteries in the life and times of Olympic gymnast George Eyser. For example, when, exactly, in his childhood did he lose most of his left leg after being run over by a train? The date and circumstances of this catastrophe remain vague in the official record, but what is not open to debate or doubt are the six medals Eyser went on to win in the space of one single day at the 1904 Olympic Summer Games in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Born Georg Ludwig Friedrich Julius Eyser on August 30, 1870 in Kiel, Germany, he immigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 14. After stops in the mountain country around Denver, Colorado, the Eysers settled in Saint Louis, Missouri, a popular Midwestern destination for German immigrants. It was here that young George found work as a bookkeeper at a local construction company.

Undeterred by his physical hardships, he maintained an after-work interest in gymnastics, especially the Turnverein variety (from the German words meaning ‘to practice gymnastics’ and ‘club’). Established in his native country in the 19th century, Americanized versions – known as Turner Clubs – grew across the U.S.A with every new batch of German immigrants.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, there were eleven Turner Halls in the city of Saint Louis alone and approximately 316 clubs across the country with more than 42,000 members.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch referred to the 1904 gymnastic competition as the “Turner Games,” going so far as to say: “It [the 1904 competition] will without doubt be the greatest competition ever held by Turner societies”

Eyser was a member of the Concordia Turnverein club (which still exists to this day) in the Southern suburbs of Saint Louis. It was with Concordia that he competed in the 1904 Games, as the gymnastics competition then was divided among club teams – not nations.

And as for the prosthetic leg he wore in those games, it attached above the knee and was made mostly of wood, including an elaborately carved foot. While one might expect prostheses of the era to have been primitive, the unfortunate events of the American Civil War, which ended 40 years before the 1904 Games, created a large market for the product in the U.S. as well as advancements in the science behind their design.

The events

At Saint Louis 1904, the third Olympic Games of the modern era, Eyser started slowly before hitting his stride. He performed poorly early in the competition (in July). But he took full advantage of his moment when it came. In the space of a single day in October, when the apparatus events were held, he won three gold medals (1904 was the first year that the Olympics handed out gold, silver and bronze medals rather than cup-shaped trophies). Eyser scooped three golds in the parallel bars, 25-foot rope climbing and the long-horse vault. Yes, the vault, which in those days required athletes to sprint and leap great distances and heights without even the aid of a springboard.

While upper-body strength alone – or primarily – can be credited for his other gold medals on the day, Eyser’s vault could not. The 1904 event required athletes to perform the launch and landing three separate times.

Eyser also took silver on the pommel horse and in a four-event all-around competition He rounded it all off with a bronze on the horizontal bar. His extraordinary efforts that day helped his Concordia Turnverein club finish fourth in the 1904 team competition.

The legacy

Eyser went on to medal in later international meets in 1908 (in Frankfurt, Germany) and 1909 (in Cincinnati, Ohio), putting to bed assumptions that the awkward scheduling of the 1904 Olympic Games – and a lack of quality competition – were the major reasons for Eyser’s successes on his famous medal day.

Unfortunately for Eyser, and the world of gymnastics, his life was not a long one. After years of uncertainty – and theories that he merely disappeared from Saint Louis – the date of his death has come to be accepted as 6 March 1919. That would have made Eyser just 48 when he died, 15 years after his heroics at the Games in 1904. And as was the case with the hows and whens of the loss of his left leg, the nature of his death remains clouded in mystery. No cause has ever been specified.

While Eyser’s passing came far too soon, his legacy lives on long and strong. As the first athlete to compete at the Olympic Games with a prosthetic leg, he opened the door for later athletes like South African swimmer Natalie Du Toit, who took part in the Beijing Games of 2008.

Whatever happened to him in the end, the Olympic records will forever remember George Eyser and his achievements of 1904.