Tarzan shines at the Olympics with five gold medals

American actors Johnny Weissmuller (1904 -1984) as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan (1911 - 1998) as Jane hold hands with 'Cheetah' the chimpanzee, in a still from 'Tarzan and His Mate' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American actors Johnny Weissmuller (1904 -1984) as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan (1911 - 1998) as Jane hold hands with 'Cheetah' the chimpanzee, in a still from 'Tarzan and His Mate' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: The story of Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous actor to play the role of Tarzan, who also won five gold medals at the Olympics. 

The background

These days, Johnny Weissmuller is best known as the most famous actor to play the role of Tarzan. While his yelling went on to become iconic, before his appearances on the silver screen, the American was a swimmer.

An elite swimmer at that. The best of his era.

His first history-making performance occurred on 9 July 1922. On that day, Weissmuller became the first ever swimmer to break the one minute barrier in a 100m freestyle event.

Even before landing in Paris for the 1924 Olympic Games, Weissmuller was already a star.

Historic moment

Weissmuller was aiming for gold at his first Olympic Games, particularly in the 100m event. To do so, he would have to beat the back-to-back Olympic champion Duke Kahanamoku of the United States.

He dove into the 50m pool - the first time a pool of that length was used at the Olympics - and using his unique crawl style, with his head above the water, he won the race in a new Olympic record of 59 seconds.

Kahanamoku finished second in 1:01:04 and his brother Samuel Kahanamoku third in 1:01:8.

For David Davis, author of Waterman: The life and times of Duke Kahanamoku, this race elevated swimming to a new level.

“Swimming became a huge sport in the 1920s when Johnny Weissmuller and Duke Kahanomoku met in the pool in Paris at the 1924 Olympics. They were the two best swimmers in the world.”

The outcome

At Paris 1924, Weissmuller not only won gold in the 100m freestyle but also in the 400m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle relay and bronze with the United States water polo team.

Even though Weissmuller hadn’t appeared in any movies yet, he had already demonstrated a sense of theatre during the Games, according to his granddaughter Lisa Maria Salb: “When the Games started, Johnny along with swimmer and diver Stubby Kruger, performed a comedy diving routine for all the spectators in between swimming events throughout the Games. That just made them hugely popular.”

Weissmuller went on to retain his 100m and 4x200m freestyle titles at the Amsterdam 1928 Games.

He held the 100m freestyle world record for almost 10 years, from 1924 until 1934. When it was eventually broken, Weissmuller had already starred in his first Tarzan movie - 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man. The original script involved no swimming, but with Weissmuller on board it became a large part of the role.

This first Hollywood experience led him to act in a total of 12 Tarzan movies… another record.

Following his success in Tarzan, Weissmuller went on to be the main character in another movie saga, Jungle Jim.

Swimming with Tarzan | Paris 1924
10:29