From Hollywood to war heroes: 10 Olympians who were more famous outside sport
From Nobel Prize winners to Hollywood heartthrobs, Gavin Mortimer profiles 10 Olympians who were more famous for what they achieved outside the Olympic arena than in it.
It requires an enormous amount of hard work to become an Olympian and an even greater effort to stand on the podium with a medal around your neck. Yet since the first modern Olympics in 1896, a handful of competitors have managed to distinguish themselves on the silver screen, the battlefield and in the world of politics – as well as going for gold in the Games.
John Jacob Astor V, 1st Baron Astor of Hever
Gold medallist turned soldier, politician, media baron and peer
Born in New York City in 1886, JJ Astor (pictured below) came to England with his family five years later and became a British citizen before adolescence. He trod the same path as many of the country’s elite – Eton, Oxford and the Guards – but Astor achieved athletic distinction in the 1908 London Olympics by winning a bronze in the singles of the Rackets and a gold partnering Vane Pennell in the doubles. In truth, Astor was required to win just one match for his bronze medal, while the only entrants for the doubles competition were British.
After the London Games, Astor served as aide-de-camp to the viceroy of India and then saw action in the First World War. After the conflict, Astor – minus his right leg – became a Unionist MP for Dover from 1922 to 1945. He also served as chief proprietor of The Times for many years and in the late 1930s was president of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and a member of the BBC’s general advisory council. He died in 1971 having accepted a peerage 15 years earlier.
Gladys Olive Jepson-Turner
The figure-skating Hollywood star who “hated the ice”
Born into good English stock in 1923, Gladys Olive Jepson-Turner was only 12 when she skated for Britain in the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria. She recalled later that all the skaters were instructed to give a Nazi salute before stepping on to the ice.
Jepson-Turner finished 16th in the ladies’ figure skating competition. The following year she turned professional and took the stage-name ‘Belita’, winning plaudits for her role in Claude Langdon’s Rhapsody on Ice. It was the start of a glittering career for the beautiful blonde and in the early 1940s she relocated to Hollywood where her contract with Allied Artists netted her $2,000 a week.
Described as “one of Hollywood’s top box-office stars”, Belita appeared in films alongside Clark Gable and Gene Kelly before she retired from show business in 1956. “I hated the ice. I hated the cold, the smell, everything about it,’’ she subsequently confessed. In later years she ran a garden centre in west London before retiring to France where she died in 2005.
King Olav V of Norway
Monarch, sailing ace and official ‘Norwegian of the 20th century’
The ‘People’s King’, as Olav V was known by his subjects, won a sailing gold for Norway in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. A Crown Prince at the time, Olav competed in the 6 Metre Class and skippered a crew of four to glory ahead of Denmark and Estonia.
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Following the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940, Olav volunteered to remain as head of the resistance. This idea was quickly overruled by his father, King Haakon VII, and instead Olav fled to London where he became a figurehead for Norwegians who had been forced to flee from their country. Olav was subsequently appointed chief of defence in the exiled Norwegian government.
Olav succeeded his father as king in 1957 and ruled until his death in 1991, aged 87. He was much-loved by the Norwegians and when the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation asked viewers to elect their ‘Norwegian of the 20th century’, King Olav triumphed.
The Indian sprinting star who took Broadway by storm
Born in India in 1877 to British parents, Pritchard was the star of Bengal sprinting in the late 19th century, winning the province’s 100m title in seven consecutive years. He was also a handy footballer (and secretary of the Indian FA) but it was Pritchard’s athletic ability that took him to the Paris Olympics in 1900. Competing for India, he won silver in the 200m in a time of 22.6 seconds, and a medal of the same colour in the now defunct 200m hurdles, becoming in the process the first Asian-born Olympian to medal.
Pritchard settled in London in 1905 and the following year was encouraged by Sir Charles Wyndham to take up acting. Proving a natural thespian, he became a star of the West End and on Broadway and in 1915 he made his silver screen debut in After Dark. Under the stage name Norman Trevor he starred in 28 movies before dying of a ‘brain malady’ – thought to be Alzheimer’s in 1929.
The man who won Ireland’s first ever Olympic medal – for a painting
The younger brother of Nobel Laureate poet WB Yeats, Jack was an expressionist painter and an influential Irish artist.
Though his favourite subjects were the Irish landscape and horses, Yeats found fame in 1924 with The Liffey Swim, a depiction of the annual swimming race in Dublin’s river. The work was entered in the ‘Painting’ category of the art competition at the Paris Olympics (art competitions were part of the Olympics from 1912 to 1948) and it won Ireland a silver medal. Luxembourg painter Jean Jacoby took gold with his paintings Corner, Départ and Rugby.
Yeats later published several novels and wrote numerous plays, but he was a painter first and foremost and, in November 2010,
A Horseman Enters a Town at Night fetched £350,000 at auction.
A lover of sport and the face of natural history
The son of explorer Robert Falcon Scott, Peter (pictured below) grew up knowing that shortly before his death in the Antarctic in 1912 his father had written to his mother, saying, “Make the boy interested in natural history. It is better than games.” But Peter went against his father’s wishes in his early years and in the 1936 Berlin Olympics he represented Britain in sailing. Competing in the single-handed dinghy event, Scott took bronze.
When war broke out in 1939, Scott was commissioned into the navy and was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross while serving on a destroyer. After the war he went into broadcasting and in 1947 commentated for the BBC on the marriage of the then Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.
But it was in the field of natural history that Scott made his mark (and received a knighthood in 1973) in a series of television programmes. In 1961 he was one of the founders of the World Wildlife Fund and by the end of his life in 1989 he was a renowned artist and writer.
Sprinter and double Victoria Cross winner
Along with his twin brother, Christopher, Noel (pictured above) ran for Britain in the 400m in the 1908 London Olympics while reading medicine at Oxford University. Both brothers were eliminated in the heats with Noel recording a time well below his personal best.
On completion of his medical studies in 1912, Noel Chavasse became house surgeon at the Royal Southern Hospital in Liverpool and a year later joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). It was while he was serving with the RAMC in the First World War that Chavasse achieved the distinction of becoming the only man in the conflict to be awarded two Victoria Crosses, one of which was for bravery shown during the 1916 battle of the Somme. Chavasse earned the second VC in 1917 but died of his wounds before the medal could be bestowed on him.
The straight-shooting general who excelled in the pentathlon
Immortalised during the Second World War as ‘Old Blood and Guts’, George Patton was an athletic young buck when he represented the USA in the 1912 Stockholm Games. Selected in the modern pentathlon, Patton gave up tobacco and alcohol as he trained for the Olympics.
He did well in four of the five events: pistol shooting, 4,000m footrace, fencing and 5,000m equine steeplechase. But Patton’s swimming cost him a place among the medals and he finished fifth overall.
Patton’s military career took off within a couple of years of the Games. He finished the Second World War in command of the Third Army having led them through France and into Germany. He was killed in a car accident in December 1945, aged 60.
MP, war hero and Nobel Prize winner who also found time to win a silver medal
The only Olympian to have won a Nobel Prize, Philip Baker ran for Britain in the 1500m at the 1912 and 1920 Games. He finished sixth in the Stockholm Olympics and eight years later he took silver in Antwerp in a time of 4 mins 02 secs.
In between Games, Baker served in the Friends (Quakers) Ambulance Unit during the First World War and was decorated for gallantry. He married after the war (appending his wife’s name to become Noel-Baker) and was heavily involved in the establishment of the League of Nations. In 1929 he was elected to the Commons as Labour MP for Coventry and, though he lost his seat two years later, Noel-Baker returned as MP for Derby in 1936 and sat in parliament until 1970.
At the end of the Second World War, Noel-Baker played a prominent role in the British delegation that helped draft the charter of the United Nations. A fervent campaigner for nuclear disarmament, Noel-Baker received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1959. He died in 1982.
King of the jungle, king of the swimming pool, king of the divorce settlement
For a man best remembered for his ‘Tarzan yell’, Johnny Weissmuller’s portrayal of the jungle hero detracted from his achievements as an Olympian. The winner of five gold medals in the pool, the 6ft 3in Weissmuller was the greatest swimmer of his age and dominated both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, winning every race in which he appeared and setting new world records.
Upon retirement, the Hungarian-born American became a swimwear model and then in 1932 appeared in the first of 12 Tarzan films. As his heartthrob status grew, Weissmuller was told by MGM to divorce his wife and the studio paid her off with $10,000.
By the time of his last Tarzan film in 1948, Weissmuller had earned an estimated $2m from the role and gone through four wives. He married wife number five in 1963, by which time Weissmuller had retired from acting and set up business in Florida. He died in 1984 aged 79.
Gavin Mortimer is the author of The Daring Dozen: 12 Special Forces Legends of World War II (Osprey, June 2012) and The Longest Night: The Worst Night of the London Blitz (Phoenix, 2011)
This article was first published in the September 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine