Editor’s note: Tom Ecker of Cedar Rapids is an Olympic historian
RIO DE JANEIRO — The oldest participant in the 2016 Rio Olympics is Mary Hanna, who is competing in the equestrian events at the age of 61.
But the oldest person ever associated with the Olympic Games has to be Timofey Pokorov, an eccentric “Russian monk,” who became famous at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
At the close of World War II, Pokorov decided to build a home and a small church in the middle of an abandoned airfield near Munich. A portion of the area was being used as a dumping ground for the tons of war bomb rubble from downtown Munich, so no one cared if a Russian monk lived there or not.
I was fortunate enough to meet Pokorov the year before the Munich Olympics. With flowing white hair and a long, full beard, he announced to me, and to anyone else who would listen, he was 2,000 years old. He and his younger sister, who didn’t look a day over 1,500, had scavenged items from nearby junk piles and built a “modest” home (no heat, no electricity, no water, no plumbing) and a small chapel.
When the German Olympic Committee decided the open field and the hills of bomb rubble would make an ideal site for the 1972 Olympics, Pokorov was told he would have to move. The monk refused, not knowing that he was soon to become the subject of the human interest story of the year. As the Munich newspapers began running articles about the threatened eviction of a 2,000-year-old Russian monk, the German people rallied behind the underdog.
Finally, much to the regret of the Olympic Committee, it was decided the Olympic grounds would have to be built around Pokorov’s land, and the site of the main stadium would have to be changed. The monk and his sister, appearing to relish their new-found fame, remained on the Olympic grounds, offering tours of their chapel to passers-by.