Leon Stukelj was a legendary Slovene gymnast. He dominated the arena of gymnastics for nearly 14 years: from the 1922 World Championships in Ljubljana to 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, he became the top Slovene athlete and a giant of world gymnastics. This legendary Olympian won 20 international medals: eight gold, six silver and six bronze, through his participation in seven major international competitions, of which six medals were claimed at the Olympics. This brains-and-brawn personality worked as a lawyer before venturing into gymnastics and resumed his law profession after retiring from the sport after the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He lived a long-life of more than 100 years, and at one time he was the oldest living Olympic gold medalist—a record he held for over ten years. His sportsmanship and phenomenal performances at the Olympic Games were appreciated with several honors, including his induction into the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame and Slovenian Athletes Hall of Fame.
Childhood & Early Life
Leon Stukelj was born on November 12, 1898 in Novo Mesto, Austro-Hungarian Empire, present-day Slovenia.
He completed his formal education from grammar school and graduated in law in 1927 to become an active member of the Slovenian Sokol athletic movement, though for a brief period.
He pursued his judicial practice by becoming a judge first in Novo Mesto, followed by in Lenart and Maribor.
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In 1922, Leon Stukelj participated in his first major international gymnastics competition, the World Championships in Ljubljana.
At his debut appearance at the Olympic Games, held in Paris, in 1924, he clinched gold in the all-around and horizontal bar events, the first for Yugoslavia. A national holiday was announced upon his return at the end of the tournament.
At the 1926 World Championships held in Lyon, he competed in high bar and rings events and won gold in both.
He participated in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games and secured a gold medal in the rings and two bronze medals, one each in all-around and team competitions.
He went on to participate in the subsequent World Championship tournaments—Luxembourg in 1930 and Paris in 1931.
Since Yugoslavia did not have enough funds to sponsor its athletes, he was forced to pull out of 1932 Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles.
In 1936, he competed in the Berlin Olympic Games and won a silver medal in the rings event, despite his old age as regulated by the gymnastics standards.He retired from gymnastics in 1936 at the end of his last major competition, at Berlin Olympics and continued his legal career as a judge.
In 1936, he became a member of the Rotary Club Maribor, the oldest running rotary club in Slovenia, though it was shut down after Yugoslavia’s attack in 1941. It was later re-established in 1993.
He was jailed at the end of World War II, due to his opposition to the Communist rule in Yugoslavia. Though he was released after a month, he could not get a job for two years. He retired as a judge at the age of 65 and started assisting a lawyer.
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After the breakup of the Yugoslavia, in 1991, and Slovenia’s birth as a nation, he became a national idol.
Awards & Achievements
Leon Stukelj was made an honorary citizen of Slovenia by Novo Mesto in 1968.
In 1988, he was honored with the Olympic Order by IOC President J.A. Samaranch and made an honorary member of the Olympic Committee.
He was honored as the oldest living Olympic gold medalist at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in Atlanta, US, and greeted by the then-US President Bill Clinton.
He was included in the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, in 1997.
In 1998, Slovenia celebrated his 100th birthday through a grand and elaborate celebration, especially in his hometown Novo Mesto.
In 2011, he was among the first two athletes to be inducted into the Slovenian Athletes Hall of Fame posthumously, the other being Miroslav Cerar.
Personal Life & Legacy
Leon Stukelj was married to Lidiji and had two children.
He suffered a heart attack and died on November 8, 1999, just four days short of his 101th birthday, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He was interred at Pobrezje Cemetery, in Maribor.
The University Sports Centre Hall at the University of Maribor and sports hall in Novo Msto, used by the local basket ball team, are named after this legendary gymnast.
The first Slovenian postage stamp and 5-tolar coin featured this distinguished gymnast, after Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.