Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Forgotten US Olympic Hero

Have you ever heard of Ray Ewry? No? Well, I hadn't either and you won't likely hear this story on NBC/CNBC. (Well, maybe you will since I found Ray's picture on the official site of the Beijing Olympics.)

Monday morning, while we were talking about Michael Phelps' tremendous accomplishment in winning 8 gold medals in this Olympics and 14 total gold medals, my Administrative Assistant said that she had seen that Carl Lewis and company (Mark Spitz, US swimmer; Larysa Latynina, Russian gymnist; and Paavo Nurmi, Finnish track and field) had won 9 golds each but that there was someone who had won 10. Being the brilliant, gifted statistician and Olympic historian idiot that I am, I adamantly stated that she was just wrong. (Is it even possible for a man to be right?) She set out to prove herself right while I set out to prove her wrong. I was faster and proved my ... ignorance, sort of.

That's when I learned about Ray Ewry. Read his incredible story here. He contracted polio when he was 7 years old and was told he would never walk. Nobody counted on the fact that Ray WANTED to walk and had a strong enough will to make it happen. He did far more than walk.
He broke world records in standing high jump, standing long jump and standing triple jump (also known as the 'hop, step and jump'). He moved to New Jersey in '99 and joined the New York Athletic Club, whose members had watched the inaugural Athens Games in 1896 with deep interest. Back then the Olympics were no more than a fledgling sideshow. The NYAC wanted the Games to succeed. In '00, they would send their best to Paris. They would send Ray.

On July 16, 1900, Ewry entered the standing high jump competition. He took one step and bounced 5 feet, 5 inches. That's 65 inches, with no run-up. The Parisians gaped. Then, in the standing long jump, Ewry flew 10 feet, 10 inches. More gasps and claps and cheers. And in the standing triple jump, Ray covered 34 feet, 8½ inches. The American was a spectacle. He could leap feet backward from a standing start, but that was not an Olympic sport. Neither was kicking the ceiling, which Ray could also do somehow. No matter to the French. By the end of the fortnight, they had named Ewry "The Human Frog."
Ewry won 3 golds in 1900, 3 more in 1904, 2 more in 1906 (more on that later), and 2 more in 1908. He planned to participate in the 1912 Olympics but couldn't compete because of pain from an old college injury. He retired with 10 Olympic golds. More than that, he set a record that will never be broken:
He won four straight championships in each of two events -- a mark that might never fall. No other Olympian in history has won as many gold medals without losing a single competition [until Phelps].
So, what about the 1906 Olympic Games? It seems that they were the result of an attempt to create a compromise between Greece, who wanted all Olympic Games to be hosted in Greece, and the founder of the IOC, who did not. So, Intercalated Games were created for the in-between years. The 1906 IG's were a success but the 1910 IG's were not and the Intercalated Games were abandoned.

Eventually, the IOC determined to downgrade all records set and medals won at the 1906 IG's:
Since the 2nd International Olympic Games in Athens now had become an exception, the personal views of various IOC chairmen caused the IOC to retroactively downgrade the 1906 games, and the explanation for the games became that they had been a 10th anniversary celebration. As more stress was placed on the continuing sequence of four-year Olympiads, the games of 1906 did not fit in. Hence, today the IOC does not recognize Athens 1906 as Olympic Games, and does not regard any events occurring there, such as the setting of new records or the winning of medals, as official.

The success of Athens 1906, however, may have been what kept the Olympics alive. And as the next games are always built on the successes of the last, the innovations of Athens were used again in London, and eventually became Olympic tradition. In fact, the influence of the First Intercalated Games pervades the Olympics, with the holding of the Games concentrated in a small time period, at a small area, and with good organization. To a large number of people these are good enough reasons to continue pressing the IOC to recognise the 1906 games.
Michael Phelps is now the king of gold, but before last week, an unknown hero reigned. Ray Ewry was not just a hero in athletics but could easily stand as a hero to all who face unconquerable barriers with a determination to overcome those barriers.

Uwe hodari na moyo wa ushujaa -- Be strong and courageous.... (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9)

To quote Paul Harvey: And now you know the rest of the story.

Run (and jump) well, y'all,
Bob
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