The world’s oldest Olympic champion died at the age of 102 in San Francisco on May 21, 2016. Sándor Tarics was a water polo gold medalist for Hungary at the 1936 Berlin Games. In a 2012 interview, he said that it seemed like he was walking into a German military boot camp when he arrived at the Berlin Games. “There were swastikas everywhere, and all these uniformed soldiers. And Hitler.” Tarics and his team won the gold, pushing the Germans into second place, to Hitler’s dismay. Tarics trained for the 1940 Olympics, but Hitler’s invasion of Poland caused the 1940 Games to be cancelled.
Tarics attended the 2012 London Olympics as the oldest living Olympic champion, and when he was asked whether he would be in Rio for the 2016 Games, he said: “We will see, it is hard to plan things so much forward.”
Tarics studied engineering at the József Nádor University of Technology in Budapest, and received his diploma in 1936. In 1941, he was awarded a scholarship to spend several months in the United States. Encouraged by his professor, he began work on his PhD thesis. He returned to Hungary and enlisted in the army in 1942, and was fortunate enough to avoid both the German withdrawal and capture by the advancing Russians.
Tarics was invited by Indiana University in 1948. He left Soviet-occupied Hungary in 1949 to settle in the United States. He was a professor in Fort Wayne for two years, then in 1951 he began to teach at the California Institute of Technology. He earned fame in his new home country as a designer of earthquake-proof building technologies. He also served for a period as the UN’s earthquake advisor.
He established a successful architecture and engineering practice in San Francisco where he specialized in redesigning buildings for earthquake safety during his 37-year career. He helped develop the “base isolation” shock absorption system, which is used on many structures to protect against earthquake forces, including San Francisco’s City Hall. Tarics said that his inspiration came from Dobos torta to create the earthquake absorbing layers of rubber and steel. The technology is used in new structures, as well as in retrofitting existing buildings.
His scientific work has been recognized around the world. Tarics received the Goethals Medal in 1984 for research into earthquakes over several decades. He was also granted a golden diploma by the University of Technology in Budapest in 1986 in recognition of his work over the course of half a century. He was honoured in both the USA and his native Hungary.
He was married three times and had three children. One of his daughters died in a car accident, but he had three grandchildren from his son, and two grandchildren from the other daughter.
At the age of over 100, Tarics still drove his car with California license plate “GOLD36”. He swam, worked on solving mathematical problems and monitored sports news in Hungary.
To quote April Dembosky’s article in the June 9, 2012 issue of FT Magazine: "The balance between fighting and play has been an ongoing theme for Tarics. Despite the atrocities he has witnessed, the many wars he has lived through, he is upbeat, cracking jokes, and putting hopeful twists on sad tales. He is opposed to the interference of politics in sports, but open to the influence of sport over politics. 'The creator respects us when we work, but loves us when we play,' he is fond of saying. If everyone would sing, dance, and play ball, there would be no war.”
Judith Eőry Colby is a cousin of our Editorial Board member Éva Wajda, and lives in North Vancouver, Canada.