The Faceless Hero: Nepal’s only Olympic Gold Medalist


Almost immediately following the grand conclusion of the London Olympics on August 12, formal preparations for the Rio Olympiad 2016 began. And in countries around the world, athletes have returned and will soon begin to take stock of their respective performances–the highlights, the low points. Unfortunately for Nepalis, like most Olympiads before this, we don’t have much to boast about this time, in terms of performance or medals.

Official records show Nepal’s Olympic medal count to be, so far, at zero, with only an honorable mention for Bidhan Lama, who won bronze in Taekwondo, when it had been included as a demonstration sport in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Few, however, know that a Nepali has won a gold medal at the Olympics. The feat had taken place way back in 1924, when the first ever Winter Games was organised in Chamonix, France. The man was Tejbir Bura, a Nepali national from the Gurkha regiment, who had received a gold medal in Alpinism. Bura and his accomplishments have, sadly, remained unknown, a fault that can be attributed to poor recordkeeping among other factors.

The Medal

In 1894, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man known as the ‘father of Modern Olympics’, proposed that a gold medal should be awarded to the highest achiever in Alpinism in the Olympiad. When the Modern Olympic Games began in 1896, the Alpinism Prize was instituted, but the medals themselves were never actually handed out until the first Winter Olympics in Chamonix in 1924.

At the 1924 Olympics, the Comite Olympique Francais (French Olympic Committee) awarded the 1922 Everest Expedition the first ever Olympic Medal for Alpinism for what was described as their “outstanding feats on Mount Everest during the 1922 expedition”.
Bura had been a member of that expedition, which broke previous records in terms of highest altitude scaled on the world’s highest summit, going up to 8,230 metres.

On February 5, 1924, de Coubertin personally presented the medals to Lt Col Edward Lisle Strutt, the deputy leader of the expedition, who had been chosen to attend the Games. He was presented with 13 gold medals, one for each member of the team. And in the official records of the 8th Olympiad, de Coubertin is said to have complimented the team on behalf of every nation in the world, “not just for their country but for all humanity”.

The Man

Lans-Naik Tejbir Bura was a Non Commissioned Officer in the 2nd Battalion of the 6th Gurkha Rifles. Details of him are difficult to find, probably because of his nationality (not being an Indian), and flimsy recordkeeping methods.

George Ingle Finch, considered one of the greatest mountaineers of all time, and a part of that expedition team, has described Bura as “the most promising of all our Gurkhas”.

The Expedition

The 1922 expedition was led by Brigadier-General Charles Bruce, a Gurkha Officer, and Lt Col Edward Strutt–both British nationals–who attempted to reach the summit with their party (including Bura) three times, but were ultimately unsuccessful. The expedition was the first such venture with the specific goal of summiting the top of the world, after a reconnaissance expedition had identified routes to summit Mt Everest for the first time in 1921. Bura’s team couldn’t succeed in scaling the peak but set a new world record for highest altitude scaled nonetheless.
Walt Unsworth, in his book Everest–The Mountaineering History, writes: “Accompanying his officer was Lans-Naik Tejbir Bura of the 6th Gurkhas, accepting his position as an equal to ‘sahibs’, as the Gurkhas had always done on that occasion.”

Finch was one of the three, along with Bruce and Bura, who reached the height of 25,500 feet on May 24. He was the one egging on his team to climb further despite their exhaustion. In his diary, he writes, “I wanted to hang on and try our climb the following day. Very cautiously and tentatively I broached my wish with Bruce, he jumped at the idea. And when our new plans were communicated to Tejbir, the only effect upon him was to broaden his already expansive grin. It was a merry little party that gathered round to a scanty evening meal that night.”

Unsworth’s book reveals the next day’s events as being particularly dramatic. The group had set out at 6:30 am, the two British climbers carrying 40-lb loads and Bura 50-lb. The plan was that Bura would go no further than the junction at North East Ridge (at 27,000 feet), at which point he would hand over the spare oxygen cylinders which made up his load and then return to camp. But a few hundred feet above the camp, Tejbir collapsed, utterly exhausted.

Finch remembers the incident in his writings, describing the effects of the cold on Bura’s otherwise “sturdy constitution”, and how he had sunk face-first on to the rocks, crushing beneath him the delicate oxygen cylinders. Bruce had tried his best to convince Bura to struggle on, but it was not to be. “Tejbir had done his best; and he has every right to be proud of the fact that he has climbed to a far greater height than any other Nepali,” Finch writes.

Why was it overlooked?

There are reasons why Bura’s achievement is not mentioned in the record books. When the original Olympic medals were awarded in February 1924, only 12 British and one Australian member of the expedition received them. Sir Charles Bruce, the expedition leader, was not present during the award ceremony. Upon his return, he contacted the International Olympic Committee and suggested medals be given to further eight members of the team–Tejbir plus seven Sherpa porters (believed to be Indians or Tibetans). The IOC acknowledged his request and forwarded additional medals to the remaining eight members.

The other reason is that, in such a case where a multi-national group wins an Olympic medal, the medal is recorded in the name of the country that the team captain belongs to. This is why, in the final tally, the 1924 Olympic Medal for Alpinism is recorded as being won by Great Britain.

The Pledge

When de Coubertin gave away the medals at the foothills of Mont Blanc, he had asked if one could be taken to the summit of Mt Everest. The person receiving the award, Strutt, pledged to do this at the next opportunity. But it was never taken up, and remained a forgotten promise for many years, until this year, when the pledge was revived through the efforts of Kenton Cool, arguably the most successful British national atop Everest. Cool took the medals to the summit.

Richard Robinson, director of Cool’s expedition, said in an e-mail interview, “Tejbir who (in my humble opinion) is the most overlooked son of Nepal. Tejbir Bura was very much part of the 1922 Expedition team, and very much one of the men that we fulfilled the Pledge for.”

So on May 26, 2012, 90 years and one day after Tejbir’s climb in 1922, Cool placed the medals on the top of the world. The British pledge was fulfilled, just two months before the London Olympics. And fittingly, the medals went further than Tejbir himself could, highlighting his heroic achievements.

The medal awarded to Bura is kept on display at the Gurkha Museum, Winchester

Images – Courtesy: Richard Robinson

(PS: This write up appeared in On Saturday of The Kathmandu Post, on 18 August, 2012)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *