The phenomenon of an athlete.
Georg Lurich from a historical figure to the hero of folk tales
The athlete Georg Lurich was
a person who managed to imprint a deep mark in the memory of
Estonians. Although he was active more than a hundred years ago,
he now and again emerges as a hero, when someone somewhere talks
about the national pride and dignity of Estonians. Tales
are spoken about Lurich, he has become a myth. Why? The most
provocative question is - why has Lurich left such a deep trace
and how measurable is that trace? Is there anybody anywhere who
could excite people to a similar degree? Much of what Lurich
has done lives only in myths and is still waiting for a more
thorough (further) research.
Lurich had a most
harmoniously built body and was therefore used as a model by
several famous sculptors. Estonian Sports Museum.
Modern sports started to develop
in the first half of the 19th century in Great Britain. At that
time the territory of Estonia was culturally in the German sphere
of influence. The same phenomenon was also discernible in the
sports life here - when the more active sportsmen started to
become organised in the middle of the 19th century, the Baltic
Germans were among the initiators. The first athletic associations
that were founded in Estonia in the 1860s were the Baltic German
gymnastic associations in Tallinn and Tartu.
Estonian sports enthusiasts
took the first steps in organising in the last decades of the
19th century. The first (unofficial) Estonian athletic association
was the Tallinn heavy athletics club formed by the heavy athletics
enthusiast Gustav Boesberg in 1888 (Hallismaa 1998: 28). From
the heavyweight lifters and wrestlers who practised in that association
the first great generation of Estonian athletes arose. One of
the best known among them was the later national pride and honour
of Estonians, the versatile professional athlete Georg Lurich.
The second half of the 19th
century was an extremely important time for Estonians - it was
the time of awakening, of national self-awareness. The main attention
was paid to the self-determination in general - the discovering
of definite means of self-expression (including sports) was only
beginning. The development was hampered by several problems -
the clubs were in their initial stage, the euphoria of finding
one's identity was hit by Russianisation, etc.
It was the time when each success
of fellow countrymen was welcome and a national hero was a hero
indeed. It can be said that Lurich happened to be in the right
place and in right time. He was by no means the first Estonian
athlete, nor the man, who introduced heavy athletics in Estonia,
yet he was the most popular athlete in his time. His role in
the popularisation of sport in Estonia was really remarkable.
Unfortunately it is quite difficult to get a factual overview
of Lurich's sportsmanship. Although it is generally believed
that Lurich was successful as a sportsman, the documentation
of his achievements is problematic. Obviously partly because
at that time both the statistics and archives of sports as well
as the regulation of sports life in general were still in its
infancy and there was no system of contests for professionals
or breaking records (Langsepp 1996: 30). But evidently Lurich
became a hero partly also because he himself wanted to be one.
It seems that he was a man who well understood what advertising
means and who, playing according to these rules, skilfully raised
his own popularity. Often he was so skilful that even later many
have accused him of having cheated. In some cases it is really
likely - for example the story of Lurich's victory over the world
champion in free-style wrestling, the American Frank Gotchi in
the 1913 match, which actually may not have taken place at all,
as Voldemar Veedam has written in his book Lurich Ameerikas
(Lurich in America) (Veedam 1981: 85).
So it may be said that according
to 'undocumented information', Lurich was the winner of world
and European championships in professional classical wrestling,
also he is said to have broken many world records in different
styles of weight-lifting. Enthused over the activities of the
athlete, sports associations and clubs with his name were founded
all over the world. Lurich had a number of imitators who used
his name for advertising themselves - the so-called 'false Lurichs'
(Kristjanson 1973: 125). The farthest 'false Lurich' was in Australia,
in a place which Lurich himself never visited (Vilder 1996: 107).
Lurich was a great innovator of wrestling; he introduced tens
of new wrestling techniques (Sepp 1984: 2) and designed a training
system suitable for himself.
Mirror images of the hero
as different viewpoints of reality
There are tales about Georg
Lurich, which have moved around among people for a hundred years
already - I found first of them mentioned in the Postimees
no. 279 of the year 1898, the last to this day was written down
in May 1996: a total of approximately a hundred stories. A number
of the tales can be found in the ERA and RKM folklore collections
in the Estonian Literary Museum, but not all of them. The tales
are collected from literature and periodicals; I have also collected
What kind of image does Lurich
have in folk tales? The following analysis is inspired by an
article by Priit Pirsko Talud päriseks. Protsessi algus
müüjate ja ostjate pilgu läbi (Farms forever.
The beginning of the process from the point of view of sellers
and buyers) (Pirsko 1995), in which for describing one and the
same procedure - the bought and sales of a farm - he uses different
sources: newspapers and folk tales in German and Estonian, in
order to disclose the transaction from many different aspects.
The press may be observed
as the mirror of the society, which focuses its attention on
one or another phenomenon, as required. In a figurative sense
we may state that if the mirror is inclined, the public opinion
will also be inclined.
(Pirsko 1995: 106)
A postcard with
the autograph of Lurich (1903). Estonian Sports Museum.
The press, a mighty medium
even in those past days, also shaped the charismatic image of
Lurich during his lifetime and after his death. People who have
met Lurich create their own image of him, folk tales picture
the athlete as a positive hero.
Georg Lurich was a real historical
person. Therefore there is the question to what extent the folk-tale-Lurich
corresponds to the real historical individual. Tiiu and Kalev
Jaago have studied the proportion of reality and narrative truth
in family narratives, especially in stories about the origin
of one's ancestors. The study reveals that there are factual
errors in the narratives that are believed: for example, a Swedish
ancestor turns out to be an Estonian (Jaago & Jaago 1996:
64-127). The situation about Lurich, however, differs from family
narratives: if the narrative truth of a story concerning one's
ancestors can be checked with the help of archive materials,
in the case of Lurich unfortunately it is in most cases impossible
to find out which activity or event serves as a basis for such
tales. Yet it is possible to discriminate the reflection of
a folk tale and in this way draw conclusions about the historical
In the analysis of the folk
tales I have proceeded from the treatments explaining the proportions
of reality and the narrative by Vladimir Propp and Mall Hiiemäe.
Vladimir Propp (1976: 115)
produces the link of folklore and reality in three theses.
1. Folklore, like any other
category of art, stems from reality. Even the most fantastic
images in folklore are based on reality.
Lurich was a historical figure.
Hearing-experiencing a folk tale with Lurich as a hero, the question
arises: is it a true story, is it based on something real (event
that actually happened)? It is certain about most tales about
Lurich that they do not reflect actual events. What do they reflect
then? Why do they exist?
2. Despite the will of the
creators and narrators of folklore, it expresses real life. The
forms of expression and their contents are different depending
on the genre.
The narrator does not lie deliberately,
even if the pattern of Lurich does not agree with real life.
He (the narrator) rests upon another truth, another reality -
3. The narrator sets an
aim to reflect reality taking its requirements into consideration.
The narrator tells stories
with a certain aim (to entertain, for example) and this will
determine the narrative truth. Tales about Lurich are linked
with reality through Lurich as a historical person, partly also
through the motifs of the story and its traditional style.
Mall Hiiemäe (1978) has
dealt with analogous material in her treatment of Kodavere narratives.
The stories she has studied are local, differently from the tales
handled here, but the stages of folklorisation of a tradition
based on facts, provide a good parallel to our topic.
About narratives of local
origin it is normal that the users of the narrative (i.e. both
narrator and listener) know the certain people, the prototypes
of the story, they know the events that make up the plot of the
narrative, and the conditions that the story is about. Briefly
- these narratives are based on the specific with regard to the
users. Tales that reflect real life facts the specific knowledge
of which has got lost do not belong here: many funny stories
may transfer such facts but the original link with the specific
has been lost, as the story has spread.
Depending if the folk tales
are based on knowledge about the specific or the major part of
their contents consists of a traditional plot, the tales can
be dealt with in groups, in which the proportion of the specific
gradually decreases and the proportion of the traditional increases.
Stories about Georg Lurich
also point out his central quality (great strength) and his name,
which maintain or at least refer to specificity.
According to the above, Mall
Hiiemäe divides the narratives into thee groups. The more
the narrative is detached from real life as its fundamental fact,
and is grounded on earlier narratives, the more folkloristic
The 1st group starts from
the borderland of the description and the narrative, the contents
of the stories of this group are mostly based on the knowledge
of the specific. The narratives of the 2nd group also include
the motifs or even whole plots of folk tales, but the part of
local origin is predominating. The narratives of the 2nd group
use more structural elements of folk tales than those of the
1st group. The borderland of the 2nd and 3rd group is marked
separately. Here belong stories in which the proportion of the
specific and the traditional matter is more or less equal. The
3rd group consists of narrative forms with plots known in wider
tradition, and they either involve the local matter to some extent
or not at all. (Hiiemäe
In the following a principally
similar classification is employed, although a relatively small
group of people sense the specificity connected with the local
narrative tradition and the figures of the family narrative.
Tales of Lurich as a historical and well-known person are more
Tales about Lurich
Georg Lurich (22.04.1876
Väike-Maarja - 22.01.1920 Armavir). Estonian Sports Museum.
Tales about Lurich can be classified
into three groups - from the stories of each group we get a different
reflection of Lurich:
1. the first group is made
up of stories about Lurich as a real historical person and about
his relationships with his students and other wrestlers. The
majority of these stories are most likely collected from wrestlers
who knew Lurich directly. As these stories are too much based
on specific facts, they are relatively less folkloristic and
at the same time, most believable;
2. the second group, the so-called
transition group, consists of narratives, the main character
of which - the real historical Lurich has acquired new traits
of the general narrative tradition. It seems that here the narrator
does not ask if it is true or not. He creates an illusion of
reality, of something that could really have happened;
3. to the third group belong
stories about Lurich as a traditional athlete - a hero whose
actions have no connection with the historical Lurich. This is
the most folkloristic part of tales about Lurich, they are the
furthest from the historical Lurich and are most of all connected
with traditional stories about the man of muscle. In the case
of this material it is doubtful to what extent it was believed,
evidently its function was different. Lurich himself is not important,
he is an image, which expresses some other idea (the function
of a defender, deus ex machina).
It is worth mentioning that
most of the stories of the first and second group were collected
by Tõnu Võimula, a wrestling enthusiast and collector
of folklore who knew Lurich personally, in the course of a special
campaign in the 1930s. (1) Võimula
namely planned to compile the biography of Lurich, which never
has been published though.
Tales about Lurich as a
real historical person
These stories mainly talk about
Lurich's relationships with his students and other wrestlers,
also simply about his performances-competitions. Võimula
collected most of these stories, in the greater part from former
wrestlers who knew Lurich themselves or people who had witnessed
Lurich in action.
These are mostly tales with
a humorous undertone, narrating about tricks played by Lurich.
When athlete Aruküla
went to St. Petersburg to join G. Lurich's group, he came to
the old Riga hotel in Uus Street, where Lurich lodged. At that
time there were even more Estonian athletes who were spending
their time at a glass of beer, having a talk and they had already
emptied some bottles. Lurich commanded athlete Erdmann to ring
the bell and order some more bottles. Erdmann pushed the button
in the doorjamb. Soon the waiter came and brought what was ordered.
When they had drunk it, Lurich told Aruküla: "Ring
for some more beers!" Aruküla went to the door, pushed
against the doorjamb, but to no avail. Lurich said: "Ring
again, but push harder." Aruküla pushed as hard as
he could but the waiter did not come. Then Lurich said: "You
do not have any strength. See, when I ring, the waiter comes
at once." Saying so, he pushed against the doorjamb and
the waiter appeared at once. Aruküla had not noticed the
button, he thought you had to push the doorjamb. (2)
There were important wrestling
competitions in Riga in which Lurich participated. After wrestling
they went to a nice club to have dinner. Their suddenly one pretty
girl came and asked to join them at their table, and she was
allowed to. Conversation flowed smoothly, Lurich had been especially
joyful. Suddenly he had broken wind, but did not cease to talk.
Aberg, Kalde and others tried hard to keep from laughing. Soon
quite a strong farting followed and now the others could not
suppress laughter any longer. Now the girl swept away from the
table. Then Lurich explained that she was not a usual prostitute,
but an expensive bait who drove men mad in order to cheat them
out of money. (3)
When Lurich gave athletic
performances in Viljandi, he had had quite good income there
- the hall had been crowded every night and all tickets had been
sold out to the very last. Before the last night Lurich had announced
on the wall posters that each of the audience would get a picture
of him as a present. That night there were even more people,
each had wished to get the allowed picture. When the program
was over, Lurich had come to the stage and put his hands on hips
and said that this was the picture, the most perfect picture
of him. People had not been satisfied with such a picture, they
had demanded that they were allowed a picture to take away with
them. When people have started to demand their money back, Lurich
had said that they would get a picture in the size of a post
stamp and the one who gets to the box office first would get
a large picture. Then people had started to pour out and the
fastest had got a large picture. But the police had made a report,
it is not known what its result was. (4)
Lurich is drawn here as a humorous,
jolly person who also likes to take part in his tricks. He does
his main job - wrestling - with maximum attention and requires
similar dedication from others. Relationships with the opposite
sex cause some problems for him; Lurich is cautious about his
female fans and tries to eliminate their approaches from the
Tales of the transition
In the tales of this group
Lurich has slightly changed in comparison with the Lurich of
the previous group. The tales are more varied in subject matter;
there are variations in the behaviour of the hero, in his companions
When Lurich's mother had
been pregnant, she had gone through the wood and happened to
see a bear there, which had frightened her. The result of the
frightening was that she gave birth to a son with bear's strength,
because the bear's strength had gone into her son. (5)
One hot and sunny summer
day Lurich had been sitting on a hill slope in Väike-Maarja
and when the heat was becoming too much for him, he ran down
into the valley to freshen himself up with cool spring water.
While running he hit his foot against a rock and fell on all
fours on the stone. Then he stood up, went to the spring, put
his feet and hands in the spring and washed with spring water.
That is where he got the great strength, he had taken that rock
against which he had hit his foot, and played with it as if it
were a potato. That rock is said to be still there on the edge
of Väike-Maarja memorial hill, covered with moss. (6)
Near Pärnu people say
that Lurich has so much strength because his two lower ribs had
grown together and he is said to know a weak point in man's body,
so that if you push it, the man will be feeble. (7)
When Georg Lurich had been
a young boy, less than 10 years of age, his father had once bought
seed peas and put them in the store in a bin. The boy had gone
there to eat them. Father put a tchetvert [145 kg.] of rye in a sack on the lid of the
bin. The boy had pushed down the sack of rye and still continued
to eat peas. (8)
Once Lurich had walked in
the forest and seen two men there, whose load of logs had fallen
over. Lurich had lifted the load and pulled it onto the road.
Peasants set the manor on
fire. The master of the manor had insured the manor, the government
paid the money. They themselves agitated the peasants on the
manor. Then the landlords complained to the czar about the peasants.
They all did so. The Estonians could not move. But then once
Luuri went to talk to the czar. They would not let him, the guards
are there. So then he pulled open his shirt. Medals all over
his chest, they let him through.
He was a strong man. So then he talked how peasants were beaten,
forced night and day. (10)
A postcard with
the photo of Lurich. It was used by one of the leaders of Estonian
heavy athletics, Adolf Andrushkevich on the diploma (1903). Estonian
It is characteristic that in
the stories of this subgroup Lurich gets on well with common
people, he is always ready to help them and punish evil forces.
He does not mind using his great strength; he is helpful and
well-disposed towards people. As a rule the existence of strength
is connected with some magic pattern. The comparative study of
this matter (for example the origin of the special abilities
of heroes and healers) would be fruitful.
Lurich as the traditional
hero of a folk tale
In its extent this group is
smaller than the ones mentioned before. As an answer to the question
why this is so, one reason might be that the tales about Lurich
mainly carried a specific function - to show the hero as a protector,
helper, keeper (Lurich as a symbol) and therefore were exhausted
quite soon due to the lack of variety. Certainly this hypothesis
needs further revision. Anyway people have engaged the great
strength of Lurich into their service. Examples:
Once one old woman's cow
went over the fence. The old woman is in trouble. Luuri had seen
that and asked if she could not get the cow over the fence. Went
there, took the cow in his hands and lifted over the fence. (11)
Once he [Lurich] had unharnessed
the horses from the plough and started to plough the field himself
instead of the horses. (12)
At Pööravere tavern
there is a large rock called Lurich's rock, because once Lurich
had ousted that rock. Since that day the rock was called Lurich's
In old days a strong man
lived in Pühajärve parish. He was so strong that when
he rode a horse, and when the horse was tired, he carried it
on his back. Once he had lifted the coachman's two horses up
at a time. That strong man's name was Luuri. (14)
In the tales of this group
Lurich is less lively than in those above. He is helpful, always
ready to help the one in need and use his great strength. The
name of Lurich becomes the symbol of a strong man, defender and
helper of people.
In general we may say that
Lurich as the hero of Estonian folk tales has become a hero mainly
because of his great physical strength and because he is not
ashamed of using his strength. Considering the whole material,
his character is much richer in nuance: the humorous, short-tempered
and demanding wrestler and coach (tales of the first group) becomes
the prototype of a traditional man of muscle (tales of the second
and especially the third group), through which Lurich became
a symbol, the bearer of a specific function.
What is the proportion of historical
truth and narrative truth in the tales about Lurich? Undoubtedly
the tales of the first group were believed, they had a sound
historical background. In the second group the narrator has created
an illusion of reality: what is narrated in the stories might
really have happened historically, the stories reflect the narrator's
wishful thinking. The third group is completely based on narrative
truth, which is expressed in the style of the narratives, also
in the narrators' attitude to the hero. Lurich is seen as a character
who in the opinion of the narrator performs (heroic) deeds.
According to Oskar Loorits,
who has studied the prototypes of Estonian heroes, we may suppose
that great strength in the peasant society was remarkable and
worth telling stories about it (Loorits 1927: 37-71). Maybe Lurich
knew how to make use of this rustic preference to create a legend
Translated by Ann Kuslap
Archives of Estonian Folklore
- ERA - The folklore collection
of Archives of Estonian Folklore in manuscripts (1927-1944).
RKM - The folklore collection of the folklore department of Estonian
Acad. Sci. Fr. R.
Kreutzwald Museum of Literature
Estonian Sports Museum (Tartu):
- KV - private collection of
Hallismaa, Haljand 1998. Eesti
raskejõustiku isa Gustav Boesberg. Tallinn: Olion.
Hiiemäe, Mall 1978. Kodavere
pajatused. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.
Jaago, Tiiu & Jaago, Kalev
1996. "See olevat olnud ..." Rahvaluulekeskne uurimus
esivanemate lugudest. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus.
Kristjanson, Georg 1973. Eesti
raskejõustiku ajaloost. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.
Langsepp, Olaf 1996. Georg
Lurich. - 100 aastat Eesti raskejõustikku. Tallinn:
Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, lk. 26-41.
Loorits, Oskar 1927. Vägilaste
prototüüpe. - Album M. J. Eiseni 70. sünnipäevaks.
Tartu, lk. 37-71.
Pirsko, Priit 1995. Talud päriseks.
Protsessi algus müüjate ja ostjate pilgu läbi.
- Arukaevu, Jaanus & Jansen, Ea (toim.). Seltsid ja ühiskonna
muutumine. Talupojaühiskonnast rahvusriigini. Tartu
& Tallinn, lk. 97-117.
Propp, Vladimir 1976. Folklor
i deistvitelnostj. Moscow.
Sepp, Reino 1984. Kui suur
oli Lurich? Stockholm, Baltic Scientific Institute in Scandinavia.
Veedam, Voldemar 1981. Lurich
Ameerikas. Toronto: Oma Press Ltd.
Vilder, Valdemar 1996. Eesti
spordielu Austraalias. - Eesti Spordimuuseumi ja Eesti Spordiajaloo
Seltsi toimetised I, lk. 106-110.
References from text:
The material collected as a result of this campaign is at present
in the folklore archives of the Estonian Literary Museum (RKM
II 45, 609-649). Back
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
ERA II 167, 325 (14) - Gustav Sommer < Hans Kallas (1937).
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
KV: Nissi parish - Kalle Voolaid < Paul Sinisaar. Back
ERA II 227, 191 (52) - Bernhard Parek < Miina Puust, 52 yrs.
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
RKM II 45, 609-649. Back
ERA II 242, 333 (6) - Aino Jõgi < Miina Mets, 57 yrs.