Champions suffer bitter twist of fate

Posted at 07/07/2012 8:23 AM | Updated as of 07/09/2012 11:03 AM

LONDON, United Kingdom - Olympic Games medallists don't always live happily ever after.

Jesse Owens, who famously won four golds at Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin, endured tough times after his Games glory, even racing against horses and working as a petrol pump attendant to make ends meet.
 
But before he died from lung cancer at the age of 66 in 1980, Owens, the grandson of slaves, refused to be bitter.
 
"When I came back from Berlin I couldn't live where I wanted," said Owens, aware of the contradiction between dominating an Olympiad planned as a showcase for Aryan might and the treatment of his own people in the United States.
 
"I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either."
 
The 1936 Games were the last before the Second World War.
 
Around 20 of the Polish team were to die in the fighting as were around 25 German medal winners including Lutz Long who, despite Nazi discomfort, played his part in Owens's achievements by helping the American avoid missing qualification for the long jump final.
 
Long, who won silver behind Owens, died during the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.
 
"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Lutz Long," said Owens.
 
New Zealand's Jack Lovelock, who won the 1500m in Berlin, survived the war and moved to the United States where he worked as a doctor.
 
But the aftermath of a horse-riding accident was to account for his death just eight days before his 40th birthday.
 
On December 28, 1949, he complained of feeling dizzy as he stood waiting at a New York subway station before suddenly falling onto the track and into the path of an oncoming train.
 
Polish-American sprinter Stella Walsh also endured a bitter legacy from Berlin.
 
Walsh was second to America's Helen Stephens in the 100m final.
 
Many of her supporters tried to undermine Stephens by suggesting she was too fast to be a woman, but that slur returned to haunt them in 1980 when 69-year-old Walsh was gunned down in crossfire during a botched bank robbery in Cleveland.
 
A mandatory autopsy revealed Walsh had male genitalia as well as male and female chromosones.
 
Scotland's Eric Liddell, the 400m gold medallist from the 1924 Olympics in Paris, and whose story formed the backdrop for the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire, was another former athlete who never reached old age.
 
He died at the age of 43 in 1945 in a Japanese internment camp in China where he had been working as a missionary.
 
His grave remained unmarked until 1991 when a headstone was erected by the University of Edinburgh with the inscription: "They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary."
 
Later Olympic medallists were dying in more mysterious circumstances.
 
Iranian wrestler Gholam Reza Takhti won a first Olympic gold for his country at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but his anti-government beliefs were frowned upon by Shah Reza Pahlavi.
 
Takhti died in January 1968, just 38 years old. His death was officially listed as suicide, but many suspected Iran's secret police, the SAVAK, to be responsible.
 
Kazakhstan boxer Bekzater Sattarkhanov died in a car crash New Year's Eve 2000, just months after winning the featherweight gold medal in Sydney.
 
His father, Seilkhan, believed his son was killed for refusing to share the financial windfall that came with the medal; Kazakh champions were rumoured to receive up to 100,000 dollars in bonuses.
 
"It's forbidden to speak about his death openly," said Seilkhan.
 
© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse