Another amputee beat Oscar Pistorius to the Olympics... by 108 years.
Meet George Eyser. He's the one in the center there, wearing khakis as he holds himself upside down on the parallel bars. Eyser won six medals in the 1904 Olympics, including three gold medals. He had one flesh-and-blood leg. The other was amputated below the knee and terminated in a wooden prosthetic.
He is quite obviously the forebear of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter, who competed in this year's London Olympics.
The totally understandable tendency when we hear about Eyser or a Pistorius is to go straight to the Great Man theory: "Wow! That guy is a a hero!" And Eyser is obviously tremendously talented. Let's even go with heroic. But I couldn't help but wonder: how does a guy with a wooden leg get all the training to be an Olympic champion, even in the decidedly more amateur and amateurish games of those days? What were the structures and circumstances that helped him fulfill his astounding potential? Who helped him "build that" body and skill set?
And to tell that story, we have to start with Napoleon.
No, seriously, Napoleon, the military genius and notoriously short man from France. Turns out that in the early 19th century, when the French army was running roughshod over all its European neighbors, a guy named Frederick Ludwig Jahn, aka "Father Jahn," whipped up a frenzy among the Germans to train their youth in the gymnastic arts. His story gets complicated quickly as many later thinkers and writers implicated him as one of the influences that came together to form Nazi thought. But the organizational infrastructure that he created -- the Turnverein, or gymnastics club -- moved out of his control and became very strongly associated with the radical political movements that attempted revolutions in 1848. Yes, gymnastics clubs as revolutionary machinery. Believe it.