The Record-Setting Olympian Who Was Lost to History

On July 18, 1976, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci took to the uneven bars at the Montreal Olympics. A few minutes later, she had made history. Comăneci’s performance was literally perfect — the judges gave her a 10.000, the highest possible score one can earn. It was the first time in Olympics history that anyone had performed such a feat; the score was so unheard of at the time that the scoreboard, seen here, didn’t have space for two digits on the left of the decimal point, and instead was shown as “1.00.” Comăneci earned the gold medal in that event (obviously), on the balance beam, and also as the Games’ best overall woman’s gymnast that year. At age 14, she was one of the youngest-ever gold medal winners.

But she wasn’t the youngest. In the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Marjorie Gestring, a competitive springboard diver from the United States, took home gold in the 3-meter dive, and at age 13 years and 248 days, became the youngest Olympic gold medalist.

Officially. But probably not in reality.

The modern Olympic Games got their start in 1896 in Athens, and it took a few decades for the Games to become the spectacle it is today. At times, the structure of the games — who can enter, the allowable equipment, etc. — could be lax. Further, a lot of the competitions that were held a century or so ago are either no longer on the agenda or have changed somewhat. For example, in the 2020 Olympics, the two-rower rowing competition is called the “coxless pair” — there are two people rowing the boat, and they don’t have a coxswain with them yelling at them the instructions to keep them in sync. But if you go back to 1900, the duo rowing event was a “coxed pair” — two rowers and a coxswain giving instructions. And if you go to the Olympics’ official website and check to see who won that gold in that race, you’ll find something curious. The winning trio is listed as a “mixed team,” signifying that all three competitors aren’t from the same nation. But all three men listed — rowers François Brandt and Roelof Klein, and coxswain Hermanus Brockmann — were born in and represented the Netherlands. 

What happened? Basically, Brockmann got fired because he was too big. In the semifinals, the Dutch team lost to a French team — and the ultimate silver medal winners — by more than eight seconds. Brandt and Klein realized that the French team, including the one that just beat them, had been employing young boys as coxswains, giving them an advantage. The boys weighed only about 25 kg (55 lbs) while Brockmann, hardly a large man, weighed 60 kg (132 lbs). It’s easier to propel a lighter person through the water than a heavier one, so Brandt and Klein benched Brockmann and, per the New York Times, “recruited a local French boy to be their coxswain.” And that trio won the gold. Here’s a picture of the winning team, via the New York Times. 

But the young boy didn’t receive a medal — or, for that matter, was his identity ever recorded. Per the Times, “Though several candidates have been put forward, his identity has never been discovered, and it remains one of the greatest mysteries in Olympic history.”

It’s almost certain that the boy was no older than 11 or 12 and likely, ten or younger, which would make him the youngest-ever gold medalist. But as no one knows who he was, that distinction is lost to history.

Bonus fact: Croquet was an Olympic sport starting in 1900 — and ending in 1900, too. In total, seven medals were awarded, all to French teams, but that was hardly a shock: no other nation entered a team. But it’s unlikely anyone cared; as Time magazine notes, “only a single spectator purchased a ticket to the event.” The sport was removed from the Olympics after the 1900 Games, but probably not because of the lack of participation or spectators; as Time further explains, “most likely it was due to a damning declaration by an official report of the Paris Olympics that croquet was a game with “hardly any pretensions to athleticism.'”

From the Archives: When a Calendar Defeated Russia in the Olympics: In the year 1908, July 11th wasn’t July 11th everywhere — and that caused some problems.