Luxembourgers who went Olympic

Since the revival of the Olympic Games by French baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, Luxembourg has competed a total of 24 times in the Summer Games. This legacy, spanning over a century, holds the tales of many Luxembourgish Olympians striving for a medal. Here, we highlight six of these athletes who left a mark on national Olympic history.

Jean Jacoby: Unrivalled Olympic artist to date

Born in Luxembourg and raised in France, Jean Jacoby (1891-1936) lived a life marked by creativity. Early on, his teachers noticed his inherent artistic talent, leading him to study at the Beaux-arts School in Strasbourg. Although his artistic career built up gradually, Jacoby gained international renown in 1923 when he won the French Concours de l'Auto with his sports drawing Hurdle runner, leaving 4000 competitors in the dust. In 1924, his rise as a promising artist continued as he won a gold medal at the Olympic art competitions in Paris, beating 193 rivals. Four years later, he claimed yet another gold medal at the Amsterdam Olympics, securing his position as the most decorated Olympic artist of all time.

Jean Jacoby

Lost honours

Unfortunately, the medals from these art competitions are not officially recognised today, tarnishing Jean Jacoby's hard-earned achievements. However, it's unlikely that he will ever lose his title, as art competitions were only part of the Olympic Games from 1912 to 1948.

Jos Alzin: Luxembourg's dissatisfied first medallist

It's 1920 and the Olympic Games draw many sports enthusiasts to Antwerp, Belgium. Among its eager participants is 26-year-old Joseph Alzin (1893-1930), better known as Jos, competing in the heavyweight division of weightlifting. Prevailing over 51 competitors, he is facing his Italian rival, Filippo Bottino, in the final round. Regrettably, Bottino beats Alzin's attempt, which the Luxembourger contests as an invalid lift, but to no avail, leaving a furious Alzin in second place.

Jos Alzin

A medal shrouded in controversy

According to some sources, Alzin is said to have even refused his silver medal. In a later interview with a Marseilles newspaper, he revealed the poor organisation of the event, as well as the incompetence and partiality of the jury, leading him to call the tournament a place where "the splendour of sport was transformed into a disgraceful parody".

Factually speaking, Alzin was the first Luxembourger to officially win a medal for the Grand-Duchy at the Olympic Games. However, the controversy surrounding Michel Théato leaves this a contentious topic.

Josy Barthel: A national Olympic legend

Joseph Barthel (1927-1992), commonly known as Josy, is the Grand-Duchy's only Olympic athlete to bring home a gold medal. Born and raised in Luxembourg, Barthel barely escaped military service under the German occupation at age 17. After the war, the Luxembourgish middle-distance runner began his ascent in the athletics scene, winning multiple championships up to 1951. Renowned for his exceptional sprints, Barthel utilised this talent to clinch first place in the 1500m race at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. This triumph cemented his name within Luxembourg's Olympic history, and his legacy was honoured with a high school and a football stadium named after him shortly after his untimely death in 1992.

(left to right) Bob McMillen (United States, silver medal); Josy Barthel (Luxembourg, gold medal); Werner Lueg (Germany, bronze medal)

Beyond the track

While most know him for his Olympic achievement, Barthel's diligence and perseverance stretched far beyond sports. He was a qualified chemist and a Harvard graduate in environmental protection. Following his athletic career, he served as head of the Luxembourg Athletics Federation, head of the Luxembourg Olympic and Sporting Committee and later on even as minister for Transport, Energy, the Environment and Tourism.

Michel Théato: the Frenchman who was ultimately a Luxembourger

Luxembourger Michel Théato's (1878-1923) win in the 1900 Paris Olympics marathon is the stuff of legends. Under a scorching sun, participants got lost on the busy streets of Paris and the French winners, Michel Théato and Émile Champion, were accused by US athletes of having used their knowledge of the streets of Paris to take shortcuts. Théato's victory – confirmed by the judges – was the first Olympic victory for France in an athletics discipline.

Michel Théato's arrival on the Piste de la Croix track on 12 July 1900 for the amateur marathon at the 1900 Olympic Games.
© Jules Beau

An unclear situation

Wait, what? A French victory? Indeed, Michel Théato was living in Paris and had registered in the French team. However, as it turned out nearly 100 years later, he had never applied for French citizenship, making his victory technically a Luxembourgish victory. In 2004, Luxembourg formally tried to claim Théato's medal – to no avail. He remains registered as a French runner, although his page on the IOC's website does mention his Luxembourgish origins.

Edmond Schmitt: the last 1948 torchbearer

The year is 1948 and the London Games are about to begin. For the second time ever, a torch relay is to be held. Starting in Athens, the Olympic torch is to be carried across seven countries, of which Luxembourg is one. In Luxembourg, a total of 38 runners take part in the event, passing the torch between them as they cross Frisange, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg City, Ettelbruck and Wiltz over a total of 108km.

Edmond Schmitt carrying the Olympic torch in 1948.
Edmond Schmitt and Anne Kremer, the 2024 torch bearer. In this emotional moment, Schmitt was allowed to hold the 2024 torch for a moment. In his arm, you can glimpse the original 1948 torch, which he has kept to this day.
© SIP / Julien Warnand

Three memorable kilometres

Among them is Edmond Schmitt (*1927), a sprinter in Luxembourg's national athletics team and today the last surviving member of the torch-bearing team, at 96 years. Together with a teammate, he receives the torch around 2.30 a.m. and carries it for 3km, in one of the most memorable moments in his life. He recalls feeling honoured on being chosen – but also that the torch started feeling quite heavy during his leg of the relay.

Joséphine Jaans and the first Women Olympics

Joséphine Jaans (1890-1988) was born into a world that did not look kindly on women in sports. After attending two gymnastics training camps in Switzerland, she became a teacher and started teaching PE in 1916. In the 1920s, she supported Alice Milliat and other women in their lobbying for women's participation in the 1924 Olympics – which the Olympic Committee deemed “uninteresting, inaesthetic and incorrect”.

Joséphine Jaans

A resolute pioneer

In response, they organised the Women's Olympiad and Women's World Games. The latter event in 1922 brought together athletes from 5 countries and over 20,000 spectators! A success which contributed to the legitimisation of women in sports. Joséphine Jaans went on to found the Luxembourg Women's Sport Federation and supported the creation of women's basketball teams. This remarkable woman, who also joined the Resistance movement in WWII, is today considered a pioneer for women's sports in the Luxembourgish society.