Swifter, Higher, Stronger
From St. Louis and Sydney to Belgium and Beijing, 35 people with ties to Columbia have sprinted, jumped, dribbled, skied and wrestled with the best athletes in the global pageantry of Olympic competition. Although the games have caused heartbreak for many mid-Missourians, 14 athletes have returned with the most cherished prizes: Olympic medals.
Joseph Charles (1868-1950)
Joseph Charles, who was born in Boonville, played both singles and doubles. At age 36, Charles was the oldest participant on the team, which played on dirt courts in St. Louis during the first modern Olympiad, held as part of the 1904 World’s Fair.
John Nicholson (1889-1970)
1912; 110-meter hurdles, high jump
According to the Olympic report from that year, through the preliminaries John Nicholson “cleared the hurdles with the most exquisite technical skill.” The reigning Amateur Athletic Union champion won both his preliminary heats, but racing stride-for-stride with two others in the final, the Mizzou grad fell at the eighth hurdle and did not finish the race.
Jackson Scholz (1897-1986)
1920; 100-meter, 4×100 relay (GOLD)
1924; 100-meter (SILVER), 200-meter (GOLD)
Jackson Scholz is the most decorated Columbia Olympian. He competed for the University of Missouri track team and remains the school’s only individual gold medalist. At several points throughout his career, he held or tied world records in various sprint races, and he was the first man to qualify for a sprint final in three separate Olympiads.
The 1981 film “Chariots of Fire” depicts the 1924 100-meter final, when Scholz finished second to Harold Abrahams of Britain.
Scholz graduated from the MU School of Journalism in 1920 and later wrote 31 sports novels. A man of a different era, he competed on cinder tracks and smoked cigars. He died in 1986 and is a member of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Brutus Hamilton grew up in rural Peculiar, Mo. A farming accident nearly severed his foot when he was 6 years old; doctors didn’t think he would ever walk properly. Instead, he ran track and played football for Mizzou. Hamilton even caught two touchdown passes in a 1921 Homecoming victory over Oklahoma.
In the summer of 1920, he traveled to Antwerp, where he led for nine of the 10 events in the decathlon. Decathletes are often called the “world’s greatest athletes” for their abilities to compete across the full range of athletic challenges: sprints, distance, jumps, throws. Helge Løvland of Norway passed Hamilton in the 1500-meter run, the final event, in a come-from-behind finish. Because fewer than four points separated the two — a remarkably close finish in a series of events where each individual time, distance and height are scored and added — Olympic officials ordered a recount to verify the winner.
As good as he was in competition, Hamilton also excelled at teaching track and field — after a brief coaching stint at Westminster College in Fulton, he left to coach at the University of Kansas, where several of his KU athletes would go on to win Olympic gold medals. Hamilton soon headed west to coach at the University of California, sporting his trademark suits and fedora. He also served as athletic director during his 30-year tenure in Berkeley and coached runners such as Don Bowden, the first American to break the four-minute mile. Hamilton served on the coaching staff for the 1932 and 1936 Olympic teams. His decathletes swept the podium in ’36. As head coach for the 1952 men’s Olympic team, his track athletes brought home 14 gold medals. Hamilton has been inducted into several athletic and coaching halls of fame, and is considered one of the greatest track and field coaches.
George Massengale (1900-1988)
George Massengale qualified for the Olympics at age 19. On the voyage to Antwerp, the MU student was sidelined with AS, or ankylosing spondylitis, a disease that causes inflammation of the joints. Alternate Allen Woodring of Pennsylvania, who would go on to compete for Syracuse University, stepped up and won the gold.
Charles N. Proctor (1906-1996)
1928; cross country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined
Charles A. Proctor was a graduate student at the University of Missouri when his son, Charles N. Proctor, was born in 1906. Soon after, the family moved to Vermont. The younger Proctor grew up on the slopes, and in 1925, won the first slalom race in the United States on a course designed by his father, who was by then a professor at Dartmouth. Three years later, he traveled to St. Moritz, Switzerland, to compete in the winter Olympics. Proctor later served as the director of ski operations in Yosemite National Park.
Dick Ault (1925-2007)
1948; 400-meter hurdles
Dick Ault, a Mizzou track star, missed the bronze medal by two-tenths of a second at the 1948 London games. The following year, however, he tied the world record in the 440-yard hurdles. He went on to coach — track, cross-country, golf and swimming — at Fulton’s Westminster College for 29 years.
Helen Stephens’ nicknames included “Popeye” (because she stood 6 feet tall as a teenager), “The Missouri Express” and “The Fulton Flash.” Stephens possessed an unheard-of talent in both sprints and throws, and claimed 1936 AAU titles in the shot put, discus and 100-meter dash.
The 1936 Olympics took place in Berlin, under the specter of Adolph Hitler’s Nazism, but even the shadow of the coming world war could not darken the sparkle of Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in track and field. Stephens brought home two gold medals to mid-Missouri, a feat made even more incredible by the fact that women were allowed to compete in only six track and field events: 100-meter, 80-meter hurdles, high jump, discus, javelin and the 4×100-meter relay. Stephens described her semifinal run “before an endless mass of humans — over 100,000 people” in her diary. The following day she wrote of “the thrill of seeing the American flag raised for me & the crowning of the victors was marvelous.”
Few doubted her victory in the dash, but host Germany stood as a favorite in the relay. The Americans ran second behind the Germans through three legs, but the women from Deutschland bobbled the baton on the final exchange while Stephens anchored the Americans to victory. Adolf Hitler even requested a personal meeting with Missouri girl. The Missouri State Historical Society keeps many materials from her life — trophies, her Olympic diary, correspondence between her and fellow Olympians. More Olympic memorabilia resides in her namesake athletic complex at her alma mater, William Woods University in Fulton.
Dan Pippin (1926-1965)
1952; basketball (GOLD)
Dan Pippin became a star at Mizzou long before his Olympic debut. As a freshman in 1943, he was 17 and thus, too young for the wartime draft. The Big Six All-Conference player carried the Tigers to a third-place finish in the NCAA tournament and led the 1943-44 team in scoring. Like several of his teammates, he left school the following year and served two years of military service before returning to Columbia. He graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer. Pippin took a job in Peoria, Ill., with Caterpillar and played basketball for the city’s AAU team. When the Olympics rolled around, he was named captain and played all eight games in an undefeated campaign. The United States beat the USSR twice in that tournament, the second time to win the gold medal. Pippin’s medal stands as the most recent gold won by a Columbia-area athlete.
Unity fuels the Olympic spirit, but for MU alum Dick Cochran, sharp contrasts exist between his trip to Rome and the games today. “It was totally different than what you see now,” he says. “I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but it was just different. We were truly amateurs.” Sponsorships were unheard of, and his per diem allowance was only $2. The 1960 Olympic Games were the first televised live worldwide, but TV cameras claimed a sparse presence.
During the opening ceremonies, Cochran and his teammates wore white pants and blue wool jackets — not ideal for a hot Italian summer, so the throwers, who were competing soon, sat in the stands.
One night, a man in a dark suit showed up at Cochran’s door. He was from the U.S. State Department. “The lead guy walked up and got right in my face, and he said, ‘We want you to understand that the Russians are not to get any medals. Do you understand?’
“We were about two steps away from bombing each other,” Cochran recalls. “There was a lot of pressure on the United States athletes to do well against the Russian athletes. Frankly, we found the Russian athletes to be a great bunch of guys.”
After several throws in the finals, Cochran was in fifth place. He stepped into the circle on his next-to-last throw and thought to himself: You’re not going to get a medal. You’ve got to do something different. You’re going to let your school down, let your parents down, your country down.
A man sat in the stands 60 yards away as Cochran prepared. “To this day, I have no idea who this guy was,” he says. “I remember clearly hearing him say, ‘Cochran, throw the shit out of the thing.’ And I did. And I beat the Russians, and the Russians just went ape.”
Three American flags rose above the podium that year as Cochran took bronze behind Rink Babka’s silver and Al Oerter’s gold. “I don’t think anybody stands on that stand, particularly when all three of you have won medals, that tears don’t come to your eyes when you hear the national anthem play.”
And for all the differences, some Olympic experiences don’t change.
When Larry Young race-walked his way into the Mexico City stadium in 1968, the hairs raised on the back of his neck. A packed crowd, which included many Americans, cheered for him, a guy who’d only been in the sport for three years.
“I wasn’t even on the map,” he says. “I wasn’t even considered a dark horse.” He won the first and only U.S. medal in the 50-kilometer race walk, but his unknown status caused his teammates to call the success a fluke. Unknown to him, Young had entered the tight-knit club of race walkers.
If track and field is a fringe sport, race walking lies in the proverbial weeds. “We’re the ugly ducklings of track and field,” Young says. Competitors must maintain contact with the ground at all times, and judges watch technique in every race. These aren’t casual events. The U.S. road record for the 50-kilometer (31-mile) race works out to 7:21 per mile.
In 1971, a race-walking buff, Columbia College President W. Merle Hill, called Young to offer him a scholarship. Young moved out of his parents’ house to Columbia, where he trained with several other race walkers on the track team.
Prior to the 1972 Olympics, Young flew to Europe to consult with Puma on a new race-walking shoe. The company cranked out a pair of red kangaroo leather flats with the white Puma racing stripe on the side. Although he’d medaled in Mexico City, Munich presented a new challenge for Young. He had trained harder, averaging 100 miles per week, but so had the Europeans.
“I was much more competitive that year. I really thought I had a shot at gold. Then I found out when I got over there that the Europeans were putting in about 30 miles more per week than I was.”
Despite the perceived disadvantage, Young repeated as a bronze medalist. This time, the stadium was empty because the race finished so late in the day. Officials postponed the medal ceremony until the daytime so the crowd would be there.
Bernd Kannenberg, gold medalist in the 50k, pulled Young and silver medalist Veniamin Soldatenko up to the top podium as the West German anthem played. The news media questioned the gregarious German about the move, but according to Young, Kannenberg “thought their races were so great that they deserved to be up there, too.’”
With his second Olympic medal in hand, Young returned to his dorm and greeted his teammates. “I walked in the door, and they were all sitting there with their Champagne glasses, and I said, ‘Well, there’s another fluke.’ ”
Godwin Obasogie, Nigeria (1954-)
1976; 110-meter hurdles
Ed Ofili, Nigeria (1957-)
1976; 200-meter, 4×100-meter relay
Dele Udo, Nigeria (1957-1981)
1976; 400-meter; 4×400-meter relay
1980; 400-meter, 4×400-meter relay
People often remember the United States boycotting the1980 Summer Olympics in the former Soviet Union, but more than 20 African nations pulled out of the Montreal games four years earlier. Nigeria decided to withdraw its athletes two days before competition. African countries were protesting the International Olympic Committee’s refusal to ban New Zealand after the Kiwi rugby team played a circuit in South Africa, a nation barred from Olympic competition since 1964 for its apartheid laws. South African athletes would not compete until the 1992 Olympics.
These three athletes represent the beginning of Mizzou track and field’s phenomenal sprinting corps of the late 1970s to mid 1980s. Many of the athletes hailed from Nigeria, and their names pepper the top 10 lists of all-time performers in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter sprints and relays.
Sadly, Dele Udo was shot and killed at a police checkpoint in his home country in 1981.
Ben Plucknett (1954-2002)
Nat Page (1957-)
1980; high jump
The U.S. decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics directly affected two Columbia athletes, both members of the Mizzou track team. Following the games, Ben Plucknett broke the discus world record twice in two months in 1981, but his marks were later revoked after he tested positive for steroids, the first time a track record had been thrown out due to a positive drug test.
Nat Page also had his Olympic opportunity dashed by the controversial solidarity of skipping the Moscow games. Page, who still owns the indoor and outdoor high-jump records for the Tigers, now coaches jumps and hurdles at Georgia Tech University.
“After the Olympics, I was offered full scholarship to study at the University of Missouri, U.S., in 1981,” Yusuf Alli recently told NigerianBestForum.com. “I started working with the best coaches in a relaxed but highly competitive atmosphere. I worked very hard and by 1982, I was ranked among top 10 in the world.” Alli currently works on a committee to oversee the Nigerian track team’s preparations for the 2012 London games. His best finish was ninth in 1984.
Ajayi Agbebaku, Nigeria (1955-)
1984; triple jump
This Mizzou grad still holds the Nigerian record for triple jump at 17.26 meters (56 feet, 7.53 inches), which he set in 1983, the longest-standing record in the country’s track and field history.
Pam Page (1958-)
1984; 100-meter hurdles
Pam Page competed in one of the closest races in the history of modern track and field. At the Olympic trials, Page reeled in the leaders with a furious comeback over the last few hurdles. She and three other runners crossed the finish line within 1/100th of a second of each other: four runners in search of three places on the Olympic team. Officials finally determined Page had placed third and qualified. “I think more people know me from that race at trials than as an Olympian,” she later told the Los Angeles Times.
Henry Amike, Nigeria (1961-)
1984; 400-meter hurdles
1988; 4×400-meter relay
Isiaq Adeyanju, Nigeria (1956-)
1984; 4×100-meter relay
1988; 4×100-meter relay, 100-meter, 200-meter
Victor Edet, Nigeria (1966-)
1988; 4×100-meter relay
A second wave of Nigerian-born speedsters called Columbia home and reset the record books at Mizzou. Yusuf Alli, Henry Amike and Victor Edet joined Chidi Imoh and finished fourth in the 1985 NCAA 4×100. During the same time, Imoh, Edet and Isiaq Adeyanju collected a string of six straight 100-meter wins at the Big Eight Championships from 1983 to 1988. Amike is now the president of the Nigerian Olympians Association. Adeyanju still holds the MU record for the outdoor 200-meter dash. In 1988, Edet held facility records for the 100-meter at both Kansas and Baylor.
Chidi Imoh, Nigeria (1963-)
1984; 100-meter, 4×100-meter relay
1992; 100-meter, 4×100-meter relay (SILVER)
Arguably the most athletically successful of Mizzou’s Nigerian athletes, Chidi Imoh owns the school’s 100-meter record and recorded back-to-back runner-up finishes in the event at the NCAA championships in 1985 and 1986. Seven All-American finishes as well as four consecutive Big Eight titles in the 100-meter added to his collegiate accolades. Imoh ran as part of two school-record relays: 4×100 (Edet-Alli-Amike-Imoh) and 4×200 (Abebaku-Edet-Amike-Imoh). He is considered one of the most recognizable athletes in Nigeria behind former NBA star and MVP Hakeem Olajuwon. The 1992 silver-medal relay set an African record. Recently, he has spoken out as part of a growing collection of athletes who have questioned their home country’s commitment to international track and field success.
Wu Dan, China (1968-)
1988; volleyball (BRONZE)
Wu Dan excelled at Columbia College in 1995; she was a conference MVP, first-team All-American and on the national tournament all-tournament team. She was no stranger to athletic success, having competed for her home country before coming to Missouri. Although China had won the 1984 Olympic gold, the team faced tough competition in 1988 from the Soviet Union and up-and-comer Peru. With Dan on the team, China secured a bronze medal behind Peru’s silver and the USSR gold.
Four years later, Dan tested positive for strychnine, typically a poison but used in small amounts as a stimulant. She had taken herbal capsules for fatigue without notifying team doctors. Per International Olympic Committee rules, Dan was only removed from the 1992 Olympics because officials ruled the misstep as unintentional.
Natasha Kaiser-Brown, a nine-time high school champion in Iowa, followed up her prep career by becoming a six-time All-American at Mizzou; she was named Big Eight female athlete of the year in 1989. Still, Olympic dreams didn’t occupy Kaiser-Brown’s mind. She lived with a more practical outlook. “The goal was to run fast, and if it turned out I made it, great.”
Even after she qualified in the trials, she refused to call herself an Olympian. “I needed to run on the Olympic track in the Olympics,” she says. Only a day prior to the 4×400-meter relay, the coach told Kaiser-Brown she would be leading off the relay in the finals. She’d never run first.
“You’re completely alone,” says Kaiser-Brown, who was used to anchoring relays. “It’s a weird, awkward moment because normally your team’s there. And they’re not. It’s just you. Once the gun goes off, and the crowd is screaming, and all you hear is clapping and screaming and flashes going off, that part is priceless. Then, you hand off, and the dream’s over.”
Rochelle Stevens anchored the relay. The runner from the Unified Team, composed of former Soviet states, passed Stevens in the homestretch, and the United States missed gold by three-quarters of a second.
“When you run track, you’re a winner or a loser, which is kind of tough,” she says, adding that the women were all exhausted so the medal itself held importance. “I don’t think anybody was really upset that it was just a silver.”
Kaiser-Brown has coached track and field for more than a decade at Drake University. “I’d rather be coaching than running,” she says. “Mentally and emotionally, it’s easier.”
Kareem Streete-Thompson, Cayman Islands (1973-)
1992; 100-meter, long jump
2000; long jump
2004; 100-meter, long jump
Former Rice University sprinter Kareem Streete-Thompson keeps rare company as the only person other than Carl Lewis to long jump farther than 28 feet and run the 100-meter dash in less than 10 seconds. He is currently an assistant track coach at Mizzou.
Teri Steer Cantwell (1975-)
2000; shot put
Teri Steer was twice an NCAA national champion at Southern Methodist University in addition to being an eight-time All-American. Prior to the Olympics, she threw for bronze in both the 1999 IAAF World Indoor Championships and the 1999 Pan American Games. Steer married fellow Olympian Christian Cantwell in 2005; the couple lives in Columbia.
Doris Wefwafwa, Kenya (1967-2007)
Jacqueline Makokha, Kenya (1974-)
Rose Obunaga, Kenya (1973-)
This trio of athletes from Kenya played for Columbia College in the mid-2000s. They raked in awards and led the Cougars to two national tournament runner-up finishes. They currently hold many of the top spots for single-season and career records All three were named first-team All-Americans in their stints at the college, with Jacqueline Makokha garnering the honor twice, in 2004 and 2005; she was a being a national all-tournament team selection in those years as well. Doris Wefwafwa died unexpectedly in 2007, a week before she was to graduate from Campbellsville University in Kentucky. Stephens College hired Rose Obunaga as the volleyball coach and assistant athletic director in March.
Derrick Peterson (1977-)
Derrick Peterson remains the American collegiate record holder for the indoor 800-meter run at 1:45:88 and is the only Big 12 athlete to sweep indoor and outdoor crowns in one event in all four years of eligibility. He is an assistant track coach at Mizzou.
Hans Uldal, Norway (1982-)
Hans Uldal holds the MU school record for the decathlon, and he is the only Mizzou multi-event athlete to break the 8,000-point barrier.
Linas Kleiza, Lithuania (1985-)
Linas Kleiza played two seasons at MU before becoming a first-round NBA draft pick in 2005. He played on Lithuania’s national team that lost to Argentina in the 2008 bronze-medal game. Kleiza now plays for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
Well-known in the wrestling world, Ben Askren compiled a 153-8 record in four years with the MU Tigers and won back-to-back NCAA championships his junior and senior years. Additionally, he balanced his studies and his takedowns as both a four-time All-American and Academic All-American. At the Beijing games, Askren won his first match and lost his second, finishing out of the medal round. He now competes in mixed martial arts and is the Bellatore welterweight champion.
Eldon native Christian Cantwell left Mizzou as a six-time Big 12 champion and tied Chidi Imoh with seven track and field All-American honors, the most in school history. He has won three gold medals in the IAAF world indoor championships in 2004, 2008 and 2010.
In 2008, he won a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics, shooting from fifth to second place on his last throw. “I am pretty easy with my medal,” he says. “For weeks, it was in my truck. My wife [Teri] has made a little mantel for it and it hangs there.”
The decorated world-class athlete is firmly planted in the heartland. “I can’t say enough how fortunate I am to say I represent the United States of America, Missouri, and more specifically Columbia. I have seen many places on earth, and this is one of the best places to call home.”
Columbia claims connections to not only athletes but also support crews that assist in the visual performances during the Olympic Games. Two Stephens College graduates have played behind-the-scenes roles. Anne-Louise Wallace served as a stage manager in 1988, 1992 and 1996. Scott LeGrandhelped in the 1996 TV special of the opening ceremonies as an assistant lightning director.
Show-Me State Games
As the world gears up for London 2012, Columbia prepares for its own Olympic-style event.
By Mattie Schuler
Does watching the Olympics make you want to sprint around the block? Attempt a backflip off the diving board? Turn cartwheels down your driveway? If your competitive juices are flowing, register for the 28th annual Show-Me State Games, an Olympic-style competition right here in Columbia.
The concept for statewide games began in New York in 1978 as a way for the Empire State’s best amateur athletes to compete in Olympic-style events; Missouri joined the movement in 1985. Today, the Show-Me State Games competition attracts 26,000 athletes of all ages, plus thousands more spectators and volunteers.
“We are the largest in the nation as far as participation of athletes for state games,” says Emily Lorenz, marketing and media coordinator, “I think that says a lot about Missourians and their emphasis on sports and physical fitness.”
On July 20, the games kick off with an opening ceremony at the Hearnes Center that includes the Parade of Athletes, the Oath of Athletes, the lighting of the torch and a special guest speaker. Past speakers have included Olympians such as decathlete Bruce Jenner, soccer player Mia Hamm and boxer George Foreman. Other Olympic traditions for the Show-Me State Games include handing out gold, bronze and silver medals to the top male and female finishers in each event.
“It is fun to see people excited about having their name announced and winning a medal,” says Lisa Wells, commissioner for the road race and race walk, which took place June 29 in Bethel Park.
Athletes of all ages can participate in more than 40 sports ranging from basketball to ballroom dancing. Lorenz says she has seen 2-year-olds run races and swimmers in their 80s compete. Participants must reside in Missouri for at least 30 days prior to the date of the competition, attend a Missouri college or be stationed on a military base in the state. Alternatively, athletes or their parents must earn a living in Missouri. Athletes register individually but must sign up as a team for team sports.
Even nonathletes have plenty of opportunities to contribute. “We try to find something to get everyone involved, whether that is participating as an athlete or as a volunteer, or simply coming out and cheering on people,” Lorenz says.
Wells says the best part about being involved in the sports festival is the opportunity to work with other people in the community — the staff, the volunteers and the athletes.
“Putting together the games is a lot of work and there are so many nice, hardworking people in Columbia that come together to make it happen,” Wells says, “I enjoy being a part of that.”
The Show-Me State Games occur throughout the year, but the majority of events take place July 20–22 and July 27–29. Check out www.smsg.org for more information on dates, locations and registration.