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Britain’s First Olympic Champion

Launceston Elliot was a versatile athlete who took part in no less than five events at the inaugural modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, becoming Britain’s first Olympic champion. He had a magnificent physique and was described as: ‘the most handsome man of his generation.’

His father, Gilbert Elliot, was a magistrate related to the Earls of Minto, who were known for their distinguished service in India, and Launceston was born in India on 9 June 1874. While Gilbert was staying in a hotel in Launceston, Tasmania, his first wife fell to her death from a balcony, apparently under suspicious circumstances, and Gilbert married the hotel receptionist, Ann, who was of Scottish descent. Launceston was a product of this marriage, and he was said to have been named after the town where he was conceived. After spending part of his early childhood in Australia, he saw his true homeland for the first time in 1887 when his father began farming in rural Essex.

He became interested in bodybuilding and attended the school of Eugene Sandow (1867-1925), the respected professional strongman and exponent of physical culture, where he was introduced to the sport of weightlifting. Sandow was a man of thoughtful views who advocated moderation in all methods of health. Under his expert guidance Elliot was taught to recognize the advantages of acquired muscular power by a system of movements over basic brute strength. Elliot was a good pupil, and at the age of only 16 he gave a good account of himself at the first weightlifting championships open to competitors from all over the world, which were held at the Cafe Monaco on Piccadilly in London, on 28 March 1891. The competition lasted three days, during which time each man attempted ten lifts consisting mainly of repetition or alternate pressing of 56-pound and 84-pound weights with each hand. The contest was won by Edward Lawrence ‘E L’ Levy (1851-1932) of Birmingham. Elliot won his first title in 1894.

The Olympic Games were held in ancient Greece for twelve centuries, until AD 393 when they were abolished by the Emperor Theodosius and the great stadium at Olympia was allowed to crumble into ruin. Britain was highly influential in the movement towards an Olympic revival. The Cotswold Olympic Games were started by Robert Dover in 1636, continuing for 200 years, and in 1850 Doctor Penny Brooke founded an Olympic Society at Much Wenlock in Shropshire. Many new sports were being devised and established in Victorian England, and this ‘golden age’ of sport put an idea in the head of a French nobleman called Baron Pierre de Coubertin, an adviser on physical culture to his government, who was becoming concerned about the advance of commercialism in sport. When he visited England he was impressed with the stature of games played purely for recreational purposes at public schools, and he admired the spirit of internationalism shown by Doctor Brooke when he met him on a visit to Much Wenlock. He was determined to revive the Olympic Games as a way to bring young people together to take part in friendly competition.

De Coubertin worked with untiring energy to organise an International Sports Congress, and his efforts were rewarded in Paris on 23 June 1894, when he chaired a meeting of 285 representatives from 13 nations, and a further 21 countries pledged their support. From this meeting the International Olympic Committee came into being. It was decided to hold the Games every four years, London being the initial choice for the first venue. However, de Coubertin wanted to stage the inaugural Games to coincide with the forthcoming Paris World Fair scheduled for 1900. However, enthusiasm was such that an earlier date was demanded, and Greek delegates put in a plea based on tradition for the Games to be held in Athens. The request was accepted, and the first modern Olympic Games were staged in April 1896, at the stadium where its ancient predecessor had met its demise.

Lawrence Levy had been involved in the Olympic Movement, and it was probably due to his influence that Elliot decided to sail to Athens from Marseilles aboard the ‘SS Congo’. His magnificent appearance caused quite a stir when he arrived in the Greek capital. The official report of the 1896 Olympic Games states: ‘This young man attracted universal admiration by his uncommon beauty. He was of impressive stature, tall, well-proportioned, his hair and complexion of surprising fairness.’ He most certainly appealed to the Greeks, especially the females, and an Athens newspaper was prompted to report: ‘His handsome figure procured for him an offer of marriage from a highly-placed lady admirer.’

On Easter Monday afternoon, 6 April 1896, 4,000 eager spectators packed into the newly-renovated Panathenaic Stadium, along with de Coubertin and several other dignitaries, to hear King George of Greece announce the opening of ‘the first International Olympic Games.’ There were no official entries, most competitors seem to have travelled to Athens on their own initiative, and it is believed that about 250 men took part from 14 nations. Of the 81 non-Greeks only ten were from the British Isles, and some of these were resident in Athens. There were 43 events from ten sports – track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, weightlifting and wrestling. However, the rowing events were cancelled due to bad weather and the sailing was dropped through lack of interest. Lawrence Levy intended to take part in the weightlifting competition, but there was some difficulty with organization and he decided to officiate instead. He also wrote reports on events for the Birmingham Post. Among the thousand or so people outside the stadium was the Royal Navy crew of HMS Howe docked at Piraeus.

James Connolly of Boston became the first Olympic champion when he won the triple jump on the first day of competition. Times in the running events were not expected to be fast because the bends were too sharp to be negotiated at speed. Launceston Elliot was one of 15 men who entered for the heats of the 100 metres, and the first Briton to compete in the Olympics was Charles Gmelin (1872-1950) of Oxford University, who came fourth in the third heat. Elliot was also eliminated in the heats. The sprints produced an incident of comic farce when a dapper French runner insisted on wearing white gloves because he was performing in front of royalty. Charles Gmelin became the first Briton to compete in an Olympic final when he lined up for the 400 metres on the second day. Britain’s sole competitor in the field events was George Stuart Robertson (1872-1967) of the London Athletic Club. He was a classics scholar and an Oxford blue for the hammer. However, there was no hammer event at the Games so he entered the discus and came sixth. He also found time to write daily reports on the action for Field magazine.

There were just two events on the weightlifting programme, the one-handed lift and the two-handed lift, both scheduled for the second day, 7 April. In the first event Elliot raised 71 kilograms – 156 pounds, with his right hand. The nearest anyone got to that was 57.2 kilograms – 126 pounds, by Viggo Jensen of Denmark, so Elliot won by nearly fifteen kilograms – thirty pounds, to become Britain’s first Olympic champion. Both men met again in the two-handed event, which caused the first instance of an Olympic judging controversy. Both men lifted 111.5 kilograms – 245 pounds, but as in the two tied athletics events, the decision of the referees went against the Briton. Elliot was said to have moved his foot during his attempt and the decision went to Jensen on the strength of his ‘superior style’. Elliot thus became the first Briton to be placed second in an Olympic event, and he lifted the most weight when both disciplines were added together. Apparently, King George volunteered to help clear up the apparatus, and after lifting one of the heavier weights, he threw it quite a considerable distance!

Elliot and Jensen met for a third time when they competed in the rope climbing event three days later, as part of the gymnastics programme. Unfortunately, neither man managed to reach the top of the rope. On the following day, Elliot entered the wrestling competition, which took place outdoors in a sand pit, and although it was technically a Greco-Roman event, leg holds were allowed. Elliot met Carl Schumann, a formidable Germany who had won three Olympic gymnastics championships and had placed fourth in the shot putt. Elliot had a slight psychological advantage in that he had beaten the German in the weightlifting. As it was, Schumann ‘grabbed him round the middle and threw him to the ground in the twinkling of an eye’ – and went on to win the competition.

The prize ceremony on the tenth and final day of competition took place in pouring rain on 15 April. King George presented each champion with a silver medallion and an olive branch and runners-up received a bronze medallion. Third placed athletes went unrewarded and the presenting of gold, silver and bronze medals was not introduced into the Olympic Games until 1908 in London. George Robertson recited a self-composed Greek ode, for which he received a laurel branch from the king, as a parade of champions brought the Games to a close. Robertson was knighted in 1928, and when he died at the age of 94 he was the last known survivor of the first Modern Olympic Games.

Launceston seems to have shunned the attention he attracted among the rich and affluent women of Athens, because in 1897 he married Emelia Holder, the daughter of a Kentish clergyman. His Olympic successes boosted his confidence and he went virtually from strength to strength in his sport. In 1899 he set four new weightlifting records at the British Amateur Championships. His magnificent physique brought him much fame, and he became one of the men displayed on nickelodeon cards which made popular viewing in arcades at the beginning of the twentieth century. Music Hall or Variety Theatre was at the height of its popularity at the time, and Launceston created a speciality act with the famous circus strongman, Montague Spencer, with which they toured Britain, Europe and South America. Among scenery representing a Roman arena and dressed as gladiators, they enacted a fight-to-the-death struggle, using mock-up weapons of the time, such as the cestus, trident and net. At the end of the show, Elliot gave exhibitions of strength, the finale of which was to suspend a bicycle and rider on each end of a long metal pole which was supported across his shoulders. He would raise them off the ground and start to revolve, gaining in momentum until the two cyclists were horizontal.

In 1923, he and his wife went to live in Australia, making their home in Melbourne, where he became a respected member of a group of well-known sporting characters. In 1930, he developed cancer of the spine and was admitted to hospital for specialized emergency treatment. He failed to recover from a serious operation, and died on 8 August 1930, aged 58. He was buried in the Fawker Cemetery in Melbourne. Because of his family connection with the Earls of Minto he is the only Olympic weightlifter to be listed in Burke’s Peerage, and as Britain’s only Olympic weightlifting champion he has a position of prominence in the Scottish Athletes Hall of Fame in Edinburgh.

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