Obituary: Leon Stukelj

IT WAS a typically balmy Catalan evening in Barcelona, when the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympic Games was staged in the Mont Juic stadium.

As thousands of hopeful young athletes marched past, high up in the great bowl of the stadium, in the VIP enclosure alongside some of the most powerful men in world of sport, there stood a frail-looking nonagenarian. With his thumbs down the seams of his neatly pressed trousers, Leon Stukelj stood proudly to attention, a tear in his eye. The oldest surviving Olympic champion had just seen the flag of his country, Slovenia, paraded in its own right for the first time at the opening ceremony of the Games.

Stukelj was born in Novo Mesto, near the Slovenian border with Croatia, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1898. He died four days short of his 101st birthday.

Competing for Yugoslavia, Stukelj won three golds and three bronzes at the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928, helping to establish a tradition for gymnastic excellence in his small country which was to be continued with Miro Cerar into the 1960s. In Berlin in 1936, at the age of 36 - already geriatric in terms of gymnastics - Stukelj won his last Olympic medal, a silver, on his best piece of apparatus, the rings.

So accomplished was Stukelj at the rings that his most famous manoeuvre still bears his name. Two rings are suspended from the gym ceiling, nearly two feet apart and eight feet off the ground, and the gymnast clutches the rings and is expected to perform a routine which requires immense strength, involving static positions and swinging. Stukelj was the first gymnast ever to master the inverted crucifix, effectively a handstand with arms out from the shoulders, which helped him to win the rings gold at the Amsterdam Games. His other Olympic golds came from the all-round title and horizontal bar at the Paris Games 75 years ago.

Stukelj first joined his local gymnastics club when he was aged just eight, and went on to win three world titles in 1922 and two further world championships in 1926. He might have won further Olympic medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Games had he not refused to travel on a point of principle, when the Yugoslav government offered to pay his travel expenses but not those of his team mates. In total, in an international gymnastics career spanning 15 years, he won 20 medals.

In recent times as famous for his longevity as much as his sporting achievement, Stukelj was awarded the Olympic Order in 1987 and had been presented to Bill Clinton and the Prince of Wales, as well as being a guest of honour at the Centenary Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. In the same year, Slovenia's President, Milan Kucan, decorated Stukelj with his country's highest honour. Kucan was among the first to send his condolences to Stukelj's widow and daughter, both called Lidija.

After retiring from sport in 1938, Stukelj, a lawyer by profession, became a judge, and author of several sports books. Throughout his life, he kept himself fit by working out on gymnastics apparatus and by taking a daily one-hour walk. In recent weeks, he had complained of chest pains, and in a Slovenian newspaper interview published last Sunday, he had demurred when asked if he would be attending next year's Sydney Olympics. "Maybe," Stukelj said, "if I am feeling well. But not if I feel the way I do now."

Steven Downes

Leon Stukelj, lawyer and gymnast: born Novo Mesto, Slovenia 12 November 1898; married (one daughter); died Maribor, Slovenia 8 November 1999.

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