Wales's Unsung Olympic Hero

For years, the most successful British Olympian was a Welshman.  The swimmer and water polo player from Cardiff won four Olympic titles in three consecutive Games, yet little is known about Paulo Radmilovic...

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Looking north up Bute Street, Butetown, Cardiff...

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Medal won by Paulo Radmilovic for swimming...

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A medal that belonged to the Welsh Olympic...

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Photograph of Paulo Radmilovic with his trainer...

The boy next door

Paulo Radmilovic is one of Wales’ most successful, and possibly least celebrated, Olympians.  He was a water polo player and swimmer who won four Olympic titles in three consecutive Games, a British record which stood until Sir Steven Redgrave won his fifth gold medal at Sydney in 2000. 

Born in the dockland area of Tiger Bay in Cardiff, Radmilovic was the son of a Serbian father and Irish mother.  His father ran the Glastonbury Arms at the northern end of Bute Street, next to the Cape Horn Inn run by the stepfather of featherweight boxer Jim Driscoll.  Though Driscoll went on to become world-renowned and remembered to this day for his boxing prowess, Radmilovic never quite achieved the same status, despite being a true Olympic great.

Discovering the water

He first discovered a love for the water when swimming with his companions in the Glamorganshire Canal which ran alongside his home in Bute Street.  It was common for the children of Butetown to swim in the Canal’s waters, particularly during the summer when the smoke and dust of the city’s industry was at its worst.  It was in the Canal and the River Taff that Radmilovic did his training, apparently walking out to Blackweir to strengthen his shoulders against the stronger currents in the river. 

Olympic success


Wales played its first international water polo match in 1897 and Radmilovic made his debut for the team in 1901 at the age of 15.   He went on to win his first gold medal captaining Great Britain to victory over Belgium in the 1908 London Olympics.  London was a successful Olympics for Radmilovic as he won another gold medal in the 4x200m relay.  He also gained a place in the semi-finals of the freestyle swims over 100 metres, 400 metres and 1500 metres.

Radmilovic continued to swim successfully as an individual for the rest of his career but his main focus was water polo.  He again captained the British team to gold at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 and at Antwerp in 1920.  The victory in Antwerp was particularly hard-fought as they played the home team in the final with Radmilovic scoring the winning goal, much to the displeasure of the home crowd.  The contest was so brutal that the players were bruised and scratched and the team had to be escorted from the pool by armed guards.  The Belgian Secretary of State apologised the next day.

The gold medal at Antwerp was his last Olympic gold, but Radmilovic continued to compete and won swimming honours at British Championships and was included in the British team for the Olympic Games at Paris in 1924 and Amsterdam in 1928.

Representing Wales

In 1930, Radmilovic represented Wales at the first ever Empire Games in Canada at the age of forty-four.  But he returned empty-handed and soon retired from competition though he continued to swim at his new home in Weston-super-Mare.

Paulo Radmilovic was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1967, only the second British swimmer to have been honoured after Captain Webb, the first man to swim the Channel.  He died a year later in 1968, and even in his later years was able to manage a decent time in a quarter of a mile swim.

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