Probably more than a few track and field fans think sprinter Oscar Pistorius was the first amputee Olympian. However, Gymnast Georg Eÿser beat him by 108 years.
The 5-foot-7-inch, 170-pound German-born American won six medals — half of them gold — in 1 day at the 1904 Summer Olympic Games in St. Louis. Afterward, he reportedly faded into obscurity.
Gaining an interest
A native of Kiel, Germany, Eÿser migrated to the United States with his parents when he was 14 years old. The family settled in Denver, then St. Louis, where he became a U.S. citizen and worked as a bookkeeper.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reported that he lost his left leg as a child, when it was run over by a train. The article also noted that before the incident, “he took little interest in athletics.”
However, after being fitted with a prosthesis, Eÿser took an interest in sports. “He applied himself with such diligence that, notwithstanding his [disability], he became an expert in ‘the turner,’ the Post-Dispatch noted. The “turner” referred to turnverein, a gymnastics movement originated in Germany.
Setting the pace
An international tournament was set for Frankfurt, Germany, and expected to attract 50,000 athletes worldwide. Eÿser would compete as a member of the Concordia team, which was representing St. Louis.
The Post-Dispatch predicted Eÿser would “be the most unique participant whom St. Louis will contribute to the international tournament.” It referred to him as a “marvel” and the “star runner, jumper and acrobat of his team,” adding that he ran and jumped with “prodigious leaps” and when performing on the horizontal bar “he either removes the cork leg or straps it closely to his sound limb.”
According to the report, Concordia won at the Frankfort meet. SR/Olympic Sports noted the team won at the U.S. National Turnfest in Cincinnati the next year.
Eÿser competed in turnverein competitions around the world. He was a mainstay in Denver’s Vorwaertz Turnverein, reports noted. In Kansas City, Miss., “[he], won the crowd by some remarkable rope climbing,” according to the Omaha Daily Bee.
In the St. Louis Turnerbund, Eÿser’s “cork leg…did not interfere with his work on the horizontal bars, and his good work called out much applause,” the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported. At the St. Louis Olympiad, he claimed gold in men’s horse vault, parallel bars and rope climbing.
He finished second in the Trans-Mississippi Turnfest in Omaha and lost first place “only … because he could not jump with his cork leg,” according to the Kansas City Journal.
He won silver in the men’s individual all-around four events competition, losing out to Anton Heida, the 1903 American Athletics Union champion, SR/Olympic Sports reported. He won bronze in the men’s horizontal bar competition, which Heida also won, the report said.
In the parallel bars competition, a scoring error had given Heida the gold medal over Eÿser, according to SR/Olympic Sports, but it was later corrected to 44 points for Eÿser and 43 points for Heida.
An Olympic pioneer
Eÿser, with a cork leg and a sense of resolve, was the first amputee to participate in the Olympics. Sources differ on when he died; some say it is unknown. While the latter part of his life is characterized by mystery and misinformation, most agree he was an Olympic pioneer.