History / Sport

Obscure Olympians 1: Launceston Elliot

So, the Olympics again. Once more a new generation of athletes. Colossi, giants even, striding with their gelled blond hair and stomachs like tortoise shells, all ribbed.*

Obviously, we’re all looking for Team GB to podium (some say medal), because nothing gives greater pleasure than watching television and seeing someone you have never met, but who lives in – maybe was even born in – the same country as you, being faster, stronger or higher than someone else.

But while the Olympic heroes of today can look forward to advertising Quorn, and possibly even appearing on A League of Their Own (should another series be made), the Union flag-bedecked medallists of old never got to see their names put on a board while Gabby Logan sang a Spandau Ballet song. So I intend to remember some of those who ought to be more celebrated …

artwork - Launceston ElliotAnd we start with Launceston Elliot.

Sill, amazingly, the only man called Launceston ever to win an Olympic medal, the aristocratic Indian Raj-born Scot had his moments of glory in the first modern Games of 1896 in Athens. A weightlifter always happy to be pictured only slightly more clothed than competitors in the ancient Olympics (in fact his luxurious moustache means than in many photos his top lip is wearing more than any other part of his body), Elliot was one of the British amateurs who set off for Greece.

In the gentlemanly manner of the day, he didn’t feel constrained by a single discipline, and he started with an appearance in the 100-metre dash. He went out in the second heat of the first modern Olympic event, but his main events were to come.

First up was the two-handed lift, and Launceston was left to represent the nation alone after compatriot Lawrence Levy withdrew in protest at the use of barbells rather than dumbbells, instead joining the judging panel, alongside George, Crown Prince of Greece.** Elliot tied for first place with Dane Viggo Jensen, to whom George awarded gold on the grounds that he seemed to have lifted the 110kg weight with less effort than the Scot. (Brexit cannot come soon enough, if we’re ever to wash our hands of such conniving continentals; tellingly, George’s future great-nephew and godson Prince Charles made no such intervention in London 2012, constrained no doubt by Brussels red tape.)

Never mind, refusing the offer of a breather, our Scottish hero immediately competed in the one-handed lift, triumphing by hoisting 71kg, Jensen having been injured in an aborted attempt in the previous event. The Greek crowd took to the Adonis-like Pict, but according to the official report of the Games, were even more delighted when, having seen a servant struggling to move the weight after the event, Prince George picked it up himself and threw it a considerable distance.

Nowadays, a silver and gold medal in the same sitting would satisfy even the hungriest of competitive palates. But not Launceston, who then gave the wrestling a crack, having to be escorted away, unhappy at his defeat, before going on to finish fifth behind our old friend Jensen in the gymnastic rope climbing (admittedly, this was fifth in a field of five). Disappointingly, Elliot didn’t enter the cycling, fencing, tennis or swimming, but four years later he did travel to Paris and – since there was no weightlifting competition in the 1900 Olympics – he entered the discus, finishing tenth with a British record.

Now it was time to put Olympianism behind him and Launceston turned ‘professional’ as a travelling circus strongman, donning his leopardskin and toga all over Europe and South America, swinging round metal bars from which were suspended bicycles, complete with riders. Later, Eliot retired to Australia to become a farmer, dying in Melbourne in 1930 aged 56 of spinal cancer.

His feats were not seen all over the world by hundreds of millions of people; in fact you may not have heard of Launceston Elliot before. But being Britain’s first Olympic medallist, having a go at rope climbing, helping invent modern bodybuilding (did I mention that?), the Scottish son of Empire was probably a bit closer to the Olympic ideal than is, say, golf.***


* Our thanks to Sir Alan of Partridge for the imagery.

** From the Danish House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, he was Uncle George to the present Duke of Edinburgh.

*** Yes, I know there was golf in the 1900 Olympics, but the competitors were not actually aware they were part of the Games.


Also in this series:
1900 – CBK Beachcroft, cricketer and music hall star
1908 – City of London Police, coppers made of stone
1912 – Arnold Jackson, runner and Versailles negotiator
1920 – John Wodehouse, polo winner and proto-Bertie Wooster

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8 thoughts on “Obscure Olympians 1: Launceston Elliot

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