I mentioned in an earlier blog that Milt Campbell was shown on the Olympic Trials broadcast for about two seconds in June. Milt was the Decathlon Gold Medalist in 1956 in Melbourne, defeated two of the world's best in Rafer Johnson and Vasily Kuznetzov. After Melbourne, Milt went on to play in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns. His comments in this article by Dave D'Alessandro of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey are a great tribute to Milt's achievements. ed.
Rafer Johnson, Milt Campbell, Vasily Kuznetsov at Melbourne
still a champion 55 years after he made history at the Olympics Campbell
Published: Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 4:30 AM Updated: Wednesday, November 30, 2011, 5:01 PM
To this day, one of the most vivid memories of the greatest adventure of his life involves hanging up on his mother, then snarling at the phone.
Milt Campbell — age 22, Seaman Apprentice and a world-class athlete to boot — was in San Diego, about to catch the plane to Melbourne. It was 1956, but mothers were pretty much like they are today, only more so: “Now don’t over-exert yourself,” Edith Campbell said from
“Ma,” he shouted into the phone, “let me warn you now that if I don’t win this thing, I’m coming back in a box.”
Nothing personal — he adored his mother. But this was just
It was on Nov. 30, 1956, that the man we call the greatest athlete in
It was the day
Because in many respects, the ’56 Olympics remain the games time forgot.
“It was in November, during the Australian summer, on the other side of the world, and there was hardly any media coverage at all,” recalls Elliott Denman, a
He was, at least, ahead of his time.
Today, as he recovers from the effects of cancer and diabetes at age 78 at his home in Gainesville, Ga., Campbell says he “wasn’t nasty-arrogant — it’s just that I’d have told you I was going to win if you asked me.
“I didn’t come for second or third. I honestly thought I put in more time than anyone in the world. If my head wasn’t right, how am I going to deal with the physical part of it?”
To some extent, the ’56 gold was actually won in 1952, he tells you. His stellar international debut was at the Helsinki Games, where as an 18-year-old high school senior he finished second to Bob Mathias, even though the first decathlon he had ever attempted was at the Olympic Trials just weeks earlier.
So by the time
• • •
We have cloudy mental images about November of ’56, but it was a heady time. It was the month Soviet tanks smashed
On the other side of the world, in the Olympic Village not far from the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, Campbell received a visit two days before the competition began from Rafer Johnson, the UCLA sophomore who was favored to win the gold.
“Rafer sat on the bed and said, ‘So how do you think this is going to turn out?’”
“And Rafer looked at me like I had hit him with a bat.”
“That sounds a little over the top,” Denman says, “but if anyone would say that, it would be Milt. Rafer was a great athlete. But he wasn’t going to beat Milt that year even if he was healthy.”
And the speed by which
The opening event on Nov. 29 was the 100 meters, which he ran in 10.8 seconds — one-tenth better than Johnson — to grab the lead in the standings. Then came the long jump, when Johnson reportedly suffered his stomach pull.
“I probably had the best long jump of my life (7.33 meters) and Rafer had probably the worst of his life (7.34),”
He completed the first day by finishing first in the shot put, second in the high jump to C.K. Yang of Taiwan (with Johnson placing sixth, a big slip), and second in the 400 meter. At the halfway point,
The first event on Nov. 30 was the 110-meter hurdles. Take a look on YouTube sometime:
“Well, it was always my best event,”
With Johnson finishing fifth in the high hurdles, the rout was on. There were four events left, and they hardly mattered:
• • •
In the years ahead, he would presage the civil rights movement, becoming as uncompromising and fiercely independent as he is today.
His peers became American icons: Mathias, who won the decathlon in 1948 and ’52, went to
His third act was almost preordained. He returned home to help
In the end, that might be as big a part of Milt Campbell’s legacy as the Olympic gold.
But it’s not what we commemorate today. This is the day we salute an athletic master who coaxed astral-quality bursts of speed and power from his body — the only man who is in both the Track and Field and Swimming Halls of Fame, but somehow is still absent from the New Jersey Hall of Fame, though it has taken three years to get him on the ballot.
“Someone has to explain that to me,” Denman says.
Explain Milt Campbell, and his rightful place in history?
You find that only one man can do that.
“I remember a conversation I had when I was 14 with the track coach at Plainfield High,”
“So I got a book on Jim Thorpe, we read through it and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And from that moment I was determined to be the greatest.”
Fifty-five years later, that hasn’t changed.
Dave D'Alessandro: email@example.com