Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 22 May 2003 07:54:18 -0400

Our Royalty


(Rerun from May 2000 RC)

The nearest U.S. running has to a royal family is its Olympic marathoners. This lineage reaches back more than 100 years to the first Olympian -- Arthur Blake, who dropped out along the road from Marathon to Athens in 1896 -- and is carried on this year by the lone woman and man headed to Sydney, Christine Clark and Rod DeHaven.

The majority of male Olympians have gone to the big race course in the sky. Relatively few are still able to run, let alone race. Our elder statesman is John A. Kelley, still active in his 90s.

Women had to wait so long for their race, though, that all the U.S. Olympic runners are still living. Most of the dozen still run and race -- notably Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first Games marathon for women, and broke into the top 10 at the 2000 Trials.

I sorted out all the royals for listing in the Running Encyclopedia. Fascinating facts popped up, many of them surprises to me.

I'd always thought, for instance, that Munich was the golden Games for American marathon men. Frank Shorter, Kenny Moore and Jack Bacheler placed 1-4-9. This was the best team showing in modern times but not the best ever.

The high came at the chaotic St. Louis Olympics of 1904. American Fred Lorz "won" but was disqualified for hitching a ride.

But his teammates Thomas Hicks and Arthur Newton stepped up to take gold and bronze medals. Other Americans placed 6-7-8 that year, when entries per country were unlimited and the U.S. sent 18 marathoners.

More royal-family facts:

-- Arthur Newton, future medalist, was the first American to finish an Olympic marathon as he placed fifth in 1900. He ran the Paris race at age 17, still the youngest U.S. runner to compete at this level.

-- Medals came often in those early Games. Americans won six of them between 1904 and 1912, including Thomas Hicks' victory in 1904 and Johnny Hayes' four years later.

-- Hayes set the first world mark at 26 miles, 385 yards (2:55:19). This didn't become the standard length, though, until the 1924 Games.

-- Durable as he was, Clarence DeMar was neither the oldest U.S. Olympian (at 40 in 1928) nor the first three-time finisher. James Hennigan ran in the 1932 Games at age 41. Joseph Forshaw ran in 1904-06-08 and, like DeMar, was once a bronze medalist.

-- DeMar's medal in 1924 was the last for the U.S. until Frank Shorter's almost a half-century later. No one from here broke into the top dozen between '24 and '64, so the current drought has a precedent.

-- We all know about Billy Mills' 10,000-meter upset at Tokyo. But did you realize he ended those Games by finishing 14th in the marathon? And did you know that he is the only surviving member of that U.S. marathon team, as both Buddy Edelen and Peter McArdle have passed on?

-- Do you recall that Frank Shorter contended for a medal in the 10,000 at Munich? He placed fifth in that race, a week before winning the marathon.

-- Single-race Trials don't have a long history. They only date from 1968. Earlier the selection usually was made from results of two to four races.

-- The Trials adopted qualifying times in 1972. Prior to that, anyone could enter.

-- Joan Benoit's victory in the first women's Olympic marathon was the last time any American, female or male, has claimed a single-digit finish. Cathy O'Brien (1992) and Anne Marie Lauck (1996) both placed 10th.

-- O'Brien is the only two-time Olympic woman to date. She made her first team, for Seoul, at age 20 -- which is years younger than anyone who even competed in the latest Trials.

-- The best women's team finish (10-12-21) came at Barcelona. In fact, that's the only time three U.S. women have finished, and it can't happen again before 2004.

-- The last time an American man reached the top 10 was 1976, when Shorter and Don Kardong placed 2-4 -- or 1-3, if history ever amends itself.

UPDATE. For a really deep dive into history, study The Olympic Marathon by David Martin and Roger Gynn (Human Kinetics, 2000). That book revealed to me much of the lore above.

John A. Kelley remains active at almost 96. Joan Benoit Samuelson, 46, has qualified for another Olympic Trials, 20 years after winning the first of these races. Cathy O'Brien, still only 35, recently became a mother for the second time and was inducted into the RRCA Hall of Fame. Likely druggie Waldemar Cierpinski of the former East Germany retains his 1976 gold medal, leaving Frank Shorter to hold a lesser one and Don Kardong, none.


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