As promised after yesterday's post on the best American Olympic men's track athletes of all time, the following are my picks of the field athletes. The altius and fortius to go with the citius, if you will. Again, these are subjective and are for entertainment purposes only. No wagering, please.
The United States owned the high jump in the early Olympics, winning the first eight gold medals ever awarded. Since that streak ended, there have been only five, most recently Charles Austin, who set an Olympic record at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Other notables include Charles Dumas, the first man to clear seven feet, and Dwight Stones, who won bronze in 1972 and 1976, despite being ranked number one in the world from 1973 to 1976. But there is really only one name to know in the high jump and I’ll bet you my Yahoo! paycheck that you will hear it whenever the high jump is covered in the next two weeks. Dick Fosbury won the gold in 1968 and changed the sport dramatically with his revolutionary back-first jump technique dubbed the Fosbury Flop. You rarely see another technique used today.
Even stronger in the pole vault than the high jump, the U.S. did not lose until 1972, and even that loss was controversial when a last-minute ruling disallowed defending champion Bob Seagren’s use of the “banana pole.” Most impressive in that streak has to be the “Vaulting Vicar,” Reverend Bob Richards, who won back-to-back gold in 1952 and 1956 after winning bronze in 1948.
Bob Beamon. Next. Okay, fine, Carl Lewis won four gold medals, and Mike Powell broke Beamon’s record and won two silvers behind Lewis. Powell’s record still stands, but he beat Beamon by less than two inches whereas Beamon’s astonishing leap was almost two feet longer than the previous record and remains the second-longest jump in history. And yes, there are 16 other American Olympic champions to choose from, but no, the choice has to be Beamon.
So, the U.S. historically crushes the competition in three jumping events, but in the triple jump, not so much. Only five Americans have ever won the triple jump and only three - Al Joyner in 1984, Mike Conley in 1992, and Kenny Harrison in 1996 – since Myer Prinstein successfully defended his championship in 1904. The very first Olympic triple jump was won by American James Connolly, who would go on to publish 25 novels. I’d love to include a writer, naturally, and Conley also had a silver behind Joyner in Los Angeles, but I’m going with Prinstein.
And now, the feats of strength. In the first modern Olympics in Athens, Baltimore boy Robert Garrett won the shot put and the discus, even though he had never thrown the latter and nearly hit a spectator with one of his attempts. Garrett also won silver in the high jump and long jump (how much would you like to see Reese Hoffa compete in the high jump?). Since Garrett, 13 Americans have won the event, most notably Ralph Rose in 1904 and 1908 and Parry O’Brien in 1952 and 1956. O’Brien, like Dick Fosbury in the high jump, changed his sport with a new throwing style that enabled him to break the world record 17 times. That’s good enough for my Dream Team.
Eight Olympic champions to choose from, and several multiple medalists, but there’s one name that soars higher and further than the rest: Al Oerter. Oerter might be the greatest American Olympian in field events; he won four gold medals from 1956 to 1968, setting an Olympic record in each victory. He nearly made the team in 1980 at the age of 43, but he finished fourth at the trials despite throwing a personal best 227’ 10 ½”.
The first four gold medalists in the hammer throw were Americans. In chronological order, they are John Flanagan, Matt McGrath, Patrick Ryan, and Fred Tootell. These are my people – except for Tootell, maybe – but the Irish-American reign has long since passed, and no American has been atop the medal stand since Harold Connolly in 1956. In this case, the first winner was also the best. Flanagan, whose middle name was Jesus, set and unofficial world record when he was 14(!) and won three straight Olympic gold medals. Can’t touch this hammer thrower.
Unlike the other throwing events, the U.S. did not dominate the early Games. In fact, only one American has ever won a gold medal. In the 1952 Games, Cyrus Young set an Olympic record to defeat his teammate Bill Miller, who took silver. Finland has reigned supreme over the sport with 19 total medals since the Games began, making Young’s triumph in Helsinki even more impressive.
I covered our last Dream Team event at length in an earlier post, but to review, the Golden Age of the American decathlete came in the middle half of the 20th century, with nine gold medals from 1924 to 1976. Two-time winner Bob Mathias almost gets the nod, especially since he won his first at the age of 17, but I’m going to have to go with Jim Thorpe, whose amazing performance in the 1912 Games in Stockholm earned him gold medals in the decathlon and the now-discontinued pentathlon.
So there you have it. Tune in next time for the women’s track and field Dream Team.
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