The Sochi Winter Olympics gave us plenty of glimpses of royal spectators but no royal competitors. But past Games, both winter and summer, have seen their fair share of kings and queens going for gold with some achieving it. Being royal at the Olympics doesn’t mean you have to stay in the stands.
Plenty of Europe’s royals have attempted to scale the heights at the Olympic Games
But it doesn’t mean you’re going to end up on the podium either. There have been just a handful of royal medallists in the history of the Games, but that hasn’t stopped the regal athletes making the biggest headlines.
The gold medal for highest profile with no royal wins has to go to Britain where no one with an HRH in front of their names has won a medal. Instead, our Olympic success has come from untitled members of the Family. One of the first successes for Team GB in London 2012 was down to The Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips, who grabbed a silver in the team eventing. The medal was presented by her mother, The Princess Royal, who had competed in the same discipline herself in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but had missed the major placings. But Zara’s father, Mark Phillips, is a double Olympic medallist in equestrianism having won a silver in Seoul in 1988 and a gold in 1972 when the Games were held in Munich.
Zara Phillips rides High Kingdom in the London 2012 Olympics where she won a silver medal
The gold for most successful royal family at the Games is a tie between Norway and Greece. In 1928, the then Crown Prince of Norway, Olav, won gold in sailing when the Games were held in Amsterdam. Olav was a keen sportsman but, although he was well known for his love of ski-ing, he never entered the Winter Olympics in that discipline. In the 1960s, he found another Olympic sailing champion among the crowned heads of Europe. Constantine of Greece had triumphed in the dragon class sailing in 1960 while still a prince. He never got a chance to defend his title as he ascended his country’s throne in March 1964 just months before the Tokyo Games of that year.
Spain’s royals win the gold when it comes to Olympic achievements out of competition. When the Games came to Barcelona in 1992, it was a moment for national celebration and, as the heir to the throne, Prince Felipe, carried his country’s flag into the stadium at the opening ceremonies, much of the joy was reflected on to the Monarchy. While Felipe came sixth in his sailing event, away from the field of competition, the royal victory was complete. Felipe had done much better than either his father (Juan Carlos competed in the dragon class sailing in 1972), his mother (Sofia was in the same Greek team that saw Constantine sail to victory, but she came nowhere near his success) and his sister (the Infanta Cristina sailed for Spain in Seoul 1988), but his medal miss was yet another for his family.
Olympic gold has been hard to come by for Europe’s royal families
In fact, the only Olympic medal for the Spanish Royals so far belongs to a man they don’t really mention at the moment. Cristina returned to the Olympics in 1996 to support her country’s athletes and met one of its bronze medal winners, handball player Inaki Urdangarin. By the time he competed in Sydney in 2000, he was her husband and his bronze in those Games is the only Spanish royal success so far. Inaki Urdangarin is now under investigation for financial irregularities – he denies all wrongdoing.
But if the Olympic ideal includes the idea that taking part is just as important as winning, then, among royal participants, there are two clear leaders for the gold medal. King Harald of Norway took part in three games. As Crown Prince of Norway, he carried his country’s flag at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 where he competed in the sailing. He was back again in 1968 but, again, there was no medal to match dad’s to take home from Mexico. He gave it one more try in 1972 in Munich before retiring from Olympic competition. And for decades, his Olympic record as the most persistent royal in the face of defeat stood unchallenged.
Then, Prince Albert of Monaco discovered bobsledding. As if the idea of the heir to the throne of one of the sunniest countries in the world taking part in the Winter Olympics wasn’t strange enough first time round in 1988, Prince Albert came back to the Games as a competitor in 1992, 1994, 1998 and 2002. He never won a medal. But he did win huge praise for his commitment to his sport, and for his insistence on staying in the Olympic village with the other athletes and shunning all special treatment. His wife, Charlene, is also an Olympian having been a member of the South African swimming squad in 2000 – she finished fifth in her event.
Albert and Harald have also been among the most visible supporters of their country’s teams at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and that’s among a strong field of very high profile royal cheerleaders throughout the Games. But Harald might yet have an Olympic advantage when it comes to supporting the Games. In two years time, the second Youth Winter Olympiad takes place, and the host city is Lillehammer which held the 1994 Winter Games. Meanwhile, the whole Norwegian Royal Family will be involved in the campaign to bring the 2022 Winter Games to Oslo. Hosting a third Olympic event would surely make Harald the ultimate royal gold medallist.