Black History Month: The story of Louis Martin

Since the start of the 20th century, Great Britain have won four gold medals at the Weightlifting World Championships – all of them belong to Louis Martin.

Since the 1952 Olympic Games, Team GB have won three Olympic weightlifting medals – two of them belong to Louis Martin.

In the entire 70-year history of the Commonwealth Games, only two people have won gold in the same weightlifting event at three consecutive Games – Louis Martin is one of them.

Martin’s incredible record and competitive fire made him the greatest British weightlifter of all-time, while off the platform he was a charismatic, poetry-loving gentleman who left a lasting legacy in the sport right up until his death in 2015.

Fellow weightlifter David Webster summed up the contrasting personas of Martin when speaking to Iron Game History in 2015: “Off the platform he was amiable and courteous to all.

“But on the platform he would stalk backwards and forwards behind the bar – glaring at it with nostrils flaring and muttering self-hypnotising phrases before slapping his hands together and raising a cloud of chalk.

“At that point he would pounce on the bar and whether he was ripping it to arms’ length like a feather in a snatch or grinding it out every inch of the way during a heavy press, he had the crowd enthralled and totally involved in every lift.”

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1936, a 19-year-old Martin came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation in the mid-1950s – sailing on a ship called Rosina to Marseille, then boarding a ferry to England and making his home in Derby, because he had a friend who lived there.

The East Midlands may have been a far cry from the Caribbean beaches of his youth, where he had trained and started weightlifting soon after leaving school, but he registered with a labour exchange to find work and enrolled in a gym.

Martin would later say he felt welcome in Derby of the 1950s, although admitted that he was not allowed to use the bath in his first house due to the colour of his skin, while prejudice increased when jobs grew scarce.

He took up bodybuilding, promptly won Mr England and competed at Mr Universe but a switch to weightlifting proved even more fruitful, with an appearance under the Jamaican flag at the 1958 Empire Games in Cardiff before he truly burst on to the scene at the 1959 World Championships.

Now representing GB, Martin travelled to Poland by train and paid his own fare, yet caused one of the biggest upsets in the history of the event to defeat the 1956 Olympic gold medallist Arkady Vorobyov of the Soviet Union and return with middle heavyweight gold medal.

A nomination for BBC Sports Personality of the Year followed and although Vorobyov got his revenge the following year at the Rome 1960 Olympics, Martin finished third to become an Olympic medallist.

In Tokyo four years later, Martin earned a second Olympic medal as he won silver behind another Soviet – Vladimir Golovanov – although the Brit defeated him in the 1965 World Championships for a fourth global title, having also triumphed in 1962 and 1963.

Martin’s renown was such that when he married his fiancée Ann, a white woman, in November 1963, the Sunday Times colour supplement contacted them to appear in a feature on mixed marriages, photographed by Lord Snowdon, the celebrity photographer who had married Princess Margaret four years before.

During this period, Martin also won three consecutive Commonwealth Games gold medals at Perth 1962, Kingston 1966 (where Ann was able to meet his parents, who still lived in Jamaica, for the first time) and then Edinburgh 1970 – the final achievement of a remarkable weightlifting career.

His post-weightlifting life was just as impressive as his sporting career, as he ran as a Conservative candidate for Derby council in 1971, his campaign credited for opening doors for black and Asian candidates in the city.

Martin worked for British Rail, while also spending over 30 years as a weightlifting coach, passing his knowledge on to future generations, and was eventually elected as president of British Weightlifting.

He died of cancer in 2015 and a plaque in his honour was installed in the floor of a Derby shopping centre three years later in tribute to everything he did for the city.

Martin was a compelling, likeable character on and off the platform, who broke down barriers in all walks of life, and 60 years on from his first Olympic medal his story is as inspiring as ever.

With thanks to Team GB’s official university partner The University of Hull for their research work which has supported the Black History Month series on