Tough decisions, controversy mark Olympic Hall of Fame voting
John Thomas holds a special place in Olympic history for the bronze and silver medals he won in those memorable high-jumping duels with the Soviets in the 1960s. So does Billy Kidd, whose 1964 slalom silver was for years the brightest spot in a generally bleak US men's ski picture. Ditto for Bill Koch, whose 1976 silver is still the only cross-country medal any American skier has ever won.
Just for fun, though, let's toss out three other names: Charles Daniels, Billy Fiske, and James Brendan Connolly. I'd venture to guess that even the most ardent student of the Games might be hard-pressed to identify any of this trio.
Now suppose you could pick three of these six athletes for the US Olympic Hall of Fame. Sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? In fact, the question is ridiculous on its face - except for one thing. Such an election was just held by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, and while Daniels, Fiske, Connolly, and various other not-too-famous candidates were on the ballot, you won't find the other three no matter how hard you look.
The reason? The nominating committee, in its wisdom, decided that the one criterion for election would be a gold medal.So anyone who ever took first place for the United States in even the most insignificant event - regardless of the degree of skill required or the opposition faced - is eligible.But Thomas, Kidd, Koch - in fact all the fantastic competitors over the years who just missed against the world's best athletes in the most heavily emphasized sports - are excluded.
This is such an absurdity that one almost wants to forget the whole thing unless and until some more sensible committee changes the rules. On the other hand, even if you disagree, you have to vote to have any input at all.
All of this started a year ago, when a similar election produced the 20 charter inductees. There were the inevitable arguments then, too, of course, and probably no one agreed with all choices (I know I didn't), but by and large the result was an imposing list: Jesse Owens; Mark Spitz; Jim Thorpe; Eric Heiden; Al Oerter; Bob Mathias; Babe Didrikson Zaharias; Wilma Rudolph; John Weissmuller; the 1980 hockey team; Rafer Johnson; Don Schollander; Bob Beamon; Dick Button; Ray Ewry; Muhammad Ali; Bob Richards; Harrison Dillard; Eddie Eagan; and Peggy Fleming.
Now the 1984 balloting to elect eight more athletes has just ended, with results to be announced this weekend.
Each of us, of course, has his own idea of what constitutes a Hall of Famer. One big factor in my book is longevity: I give a lot of weight to the combination of skill, dedication, and endurance required to compete - and especially to win medals - in more than one Olympics. Secondly, since it's impossible to compare one sport or era with another, I award a lot of points to the athlete who dominated the competition in his or her particular event and time. One must also consider the quality of that competition, though, as well as the difficulty of the sport in athletic terms. Finally, I factor in such aspects as historical significance, drama, and even the athlete's general contributions to society.
It all gets pretty subjective, but here, for what they are worth, are my choices.
1. Duke Kahanomoku. This one was easy. The Hawaiian-born swimmer won four golds and a silver in three Olympics between 1912 and 1924 - an incredible feat in a sport where almost all competitors burn out much more quickly. After winning the 100 in 1912 he had to wait eight years because of World War I, but came back to win it again in 1920 - and even finished an amazing second at age 34 in 1924. The Duke was the candidate I considered most wronged a year ago, so he's my No. 1 choice this time.
2. Parry O'Brien. Equally mystifying was last year's bypassing of the man who won the 1952 and '56 shot put, finished second in '60, and fourth in '64.
3. Frank Shorter. As in the decathlon, anyone who holds his form through two Olympics in a gruelling event like the marathon (gold in 1972, silver in 1976) gets my vote.
4. Tenley Albright. The dominant female figure skater of the 1950s (silver in '52, gold in '56), she belongs on performance alone. But Dr. Albright, who is now a physician, also deserves recognition for personifying the spirit of the Olympics - competing for the love of her sport, then moving on to a career of trying to help people rather than just cashing in on her fame via the ice show route.
5. Bill Steinkraus. Winner of one individual plus several team medals from ' 52 through '72. The sport may not be as athletically demanding as some (except for the horse!), but how can you ignore anyone who competes successfully in six Olympics over a period of two decades?
6. Patty McCormick. As the only ''double-double'' diving champion (springboard and platform golds in both 1952 and '56), she deserves election.
7. Andrea Mead Lawrence. America's most successful Olympic skier, she won slalom and giant slalom gold in 1952 and competed in three Winter Games.
8. Alvin Kraenzlein. Not as well known as most of the nominees, but his feats stand the test of history. His victories in the 60-meter dash, the high and low hurdles, and the long jump in 1900 make him the lone track and field athlete to win four individual gold medals in one Olympics.
There you have it. In all there were 25 nominees, and there were some tough decisions. Indeed, you can make a case for just about any of the other candidates - track and field stars Connolly, Billy Mills, Mel Sheppard, Bill Toomey, Mal Whitfield, and Frank Wykoff; swimming champions Daniels, Debbie Meyer, and John Naber; boxers Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard; rowers Paul Costello and John B. Kelly, Sr.; bobsledder Fiske; weightlifter Tommy Kono; and the 1960 hockey and basketball teams.
And then the arguments begin about those who weren't on the list at all. Even with eligibility limited to gold medal winners, for instance, how could they have left out Willie Davenport, who won a gold and a bronze in three high hurdles appearances, then made the 1980 Winter Olympic team as a bobsledder? And what about the even more incredible omission of Milt Campbell, whose 1952 silver and 1956 gold medals in the decathlon tie him with Rafer Johnson for the second best performance in this most ''Olympic'' of all sports? Johnson and two-time champion Bob Mathias made it easily in the first election, as well they should have. But Campbell wasn't even on the 1983 ballot - and now he isn't on this one either, although Toomey, who won the decathlon in 1968 but never got any other medal, is a candidate. You figure that one out.
The whole concept is still in its infancy, though, and all who belong can't go in at once. So it will take time, but hopefully sooner or later all of those who truly deserve the honor will be enshrined.