In the modern Olympic athletics program there are several events which will always be considered marquee, setting the identity more often than not for that specific games. The 100 metres sprint has the pure and elemental prestige of showing men and women running at their very fastest over the shortest period for a gold medal. Then there is the marathon, which goes to the opposite pole, as athletes endure over two hours of tortuous running, trying to cover in name the same distance run by the ancient Athenian Phidippides. The decathlon takes ten of the events from the track and field program and in turn provides in the form of its winner the greatest all-round male athlete at a Summer Games. For each of these events there have been iconic champions; Lewis, Flo-Jo, Morrow, Owens, Cuthbert, Thompson to name a few.
Then there is the 1500 metres. Originally run over a mile and part of the first modern games in Athens in 1896, the 1500 metres has also a proud lineage of champion athletes, who in turn have provided their games with lasting images and historic memories. Nurmi, the Flying Finn in 1924 took out the event, as did the Kiwi Jack Lovelock in 1936 at Berlin. One of the greatest Kenyans to ever race at the Olympics was Kip Keino, and his victory at the 1968 Mexico City games was memorable for on a personal level for that day his wife gave birth to their third daughter. Sebastian Coe, now a Lord and key member of the London 2012 Olympic Games committee took out the 1500 metres twice, each time at a games impaired by boycotts (Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984). Yet on each occasion his achievements reflected his amazing ability to be the best no matter who competed against him. Later, Algeria has provided some of the best 1500 metres runners, with Hassiba Boulmerka at Barcelona and Nourredine Morcelli at Atlanta showing how female and male Muslim African runners can also win gold. Yet this partial list doesn’t including other great milers who didn’t win 1500 metres Olympic gold. Ovett, Landy, Bannister, Cram, Bayi, Ryun and Aouita never reached the same podium position as these and other 1500 metres Olympic champions. Nor did they achieve what Josy Barthel from the small European Duchy of Luxembourg did, at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.
Josy Barthel was not without some credentials before entering the final of the 1500 metres in Helsinki. A previous champion runner in the 800 metres and 1500 metres at various military world championships, he had also attended the 1948 London Olympics where he finished ninth in the same event. Yet there was a definitive underdog aura about Barthels in Helsinki. Some of it was due to his competition; Roger Bannister was yet to set his mark in history by running a mile in under four minutes, the first man to do so, but he had carefully worked out his strategy for Helsinki and was certainly a gold medla chance. World record holder Werner Lueg from Germany had run 3.43.00 over the 1500 metres when he set the record at his national championships, so there was great belief he would win.Rolf Lammers (Germany), Denis Johannson (Finland) and Robert McMillen (USA) were also potential winners.
Yet it wasn’t just the competitors that faced Barthel at the start line for the 1952 Helsinki 1500 metres final that made him such an unlikely prospective winner of a gold medal. Barthel was also an unlikely potential medallist because he didn’t come a traditional Olympic athletic powerhouse like the USA, Finland, Germany or the United Kingdom. Barthels was from the small European duchy of Luxembourg. A country that had a population similar in size to the Australian state of Tasmania, with only one nominal gold medallist before 1952 (Michel Theato, whose 1900 Paris medal is officially credited by the IOC to France), Luxembourg had not been able to provide any other athletes who would hear their national anthem after an Olympic final. Josy Barthels would change this though.
As recounted in David Wallechinsky’s ‘bible’ for the Olympic hostorian, “The Complete Book of The Olympics”, the 1500 metres final in Helsinki began with Boysen of Norway taking the initial lead, being overtaken by Lammers who held first place till the third lap. Then in the backstretch the German Lueg took the gold medal position, fighting off challenges from several others including Bannister. Successfully countering these moves, Lueg went into the final bend with McMillen and Barthel within range. Wearing the number 406 Barthel made his move in the last straight, striding past the fading Lueg as the world record holder looked over his right shoulder with McMillen strongly following into second place. For a moment McMillen’s strong finish threatened Barthel, but thankfully for the Luxembourger the finish line came quickly enough for him to raise him arms in victory.
The time in itself was an Olympic record, but not close to the world record. Yet as always at the Olympic Games it is not how quick one runs to win a gold medal, but more often how one achieves that medal and then reacts to the achievement that makes history. And for Luxembourg’s first official gold medallist in the modern Olympics, the result was one which made him weep with joy for himself and for his country. Crying with happiness immediately after experiencing the surprising happiness of actually fulfilling his Olympic dream, Barthel later stood on the highest step of the podium, as the red white and light blue bands of his nation’s flag fluttered, his tears again falling with joy. There have been very few comparable moments in Olympic history for any country, let alone one as small and as limited in success at the Olympics as Luxembourg has been, where a gold medallist has shown such emotion after an unlikely win. Josy Barthel defined his country’s Olympic history with his winning run in the 1500 metres at Helsinki in 1952, and perhaps just as importantly showed that in achieving a dream for yourself against larger or more favoured powers, the open and impassioned display of an Olympian’s joy can move us all.