World's Most Senior Olympian Packs for Atlanta Visit
BOSTON — Leon Stukelj is a Slovenian legend. Nearly as old as the summer Games, Mr. Stukelj is the world's oldest Olympic champion.
Daily, this once-renowned gymnast strolls to a public park in his native Maribor, an oasis of peace in the turbulent Balkans. There he sits on a bench and gently moves his hands and feet, around and around, up and down.
"This enables him to do the 'L-seat' exercise on a chair," says Rajko Sugman, a Slovenian sports official. "Physical exercises are still Mr. Stukelj's major daily concern."
Some 75 years ago, Stukelj made his international gymnastics debut, swinging and swirling around bars and rings.
This week, the Grand Old Man of the Olympic movement is finalizing plans to attend the Centennial Games in Atlanta. He has been invited as a "special guest" by International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch.
In 1922, Stukelj won three gold medals at the World Gymnastics Championships in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. Two summers later, he carried that form to the Paris Olympics and captured gold medals in the horizontal bars and the all-round competition.
"When I won the [first] gold medal it was a national holiday," recalls Stukelj in answers to questions furnished through the Slovenian Embassy in Washington. "It was something very special because it was the first Olympic gold medal for my country." He won his third Olympic gold medal in 1928 in Amsterdam.
His most memorable Olympics experience, however, occurred in 1936 in Berlin. At those ideologically infamous Games, American athlete Jesse Owens disproved Hitler's theory that blacks were physically inferior.
It was here that the Slovenian proved that age is not the barometer for physical fitness. In a sport that seems to favor the young, Stukelj won a silver medal in the gruelling rings that year.
Slovenia, a nation of about 2 million people, borders Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia. It was the first Yugoslavian republic to declare independence in 1991. And unlike the other republics - Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia - Slovenia remains free from war.
Last March, during the European Championships in Goslar, Germany, the elder Olympic statesman had an emotional reunion with his former gymnastics rival, German Alfred Schwarzmann, who beat him to the gold at the Berlin Games. The meeting, which had been planned for several years, brought together two pioneers of the sport.
"The Berlin Olympics lacked in ethical values," recalls Stukelj. "Only today when the endeavors of all people in the world towards peace and mutual respect enjoy a general support [the Olympics] are acquiring a worldwide significance."
After winning a total of 17 medals, eight of them gold, at the World Championships and the Olympic Games, Stukelj bid adieu to competitive sports and became a judge and later an attorney. Now retired, he still remains active.
Six years ago, Stukelj wrote his first book, "My Seven World Championships." The book is not only an autobiographical work but also a "reliable historical document of the world's gymnastics," says Sugman.
In addition, the unofficial ambassador of Slovenian sports is officially involved in building the country's Olympic movement. He's a founding father of the Olympic Committee of Slovenia.
In 1987, he was awarded the Olympic Order by Samaranch and recently the National Bank of Slovenia issued a gold coin with his image.
"It was my greatest satisfaction that my efforts and success aroused so many pleasant feelings in my people," he says.