|Horace Ashenfelter 1924-2018|
Olympic Steeplechase Gold Medallist 1952
We learned today of the passing of Horace Ashenfelter. His was a thundering victory of American distance running (Olympic gold, WR, only American to win that event) but it seemed to have lost significance almost as quickly as it was felt. How many young athletes in the mid to late 1950s ran inspired by Ashenfielter's win? Not many. Or for that matter how many ran inspired by Bob McMillen's silver medal in the 1500 meters in those Games? We were limited to one photo of Ashenfelter going over the last hurdle slightly ahead of Vladimir Kazantsev. There was limited media, no social media, maybe a one time shot on TV, his FBI career that kept him from becoming an American icon until much later.
I'm always drawn Ashenfelter's facial and physical similarities to those of Kazantsev, how they could have been distantly related. Could they even have been brothers? Ironically Ashenfelter's younger brother Bill made the same Olympic team in the same event although he did not advance from the heats. Horace would run the next Olympics in the steeple and though he ran a creditable 8:51 in the heats (the silver medal time in Helsinki), he did not advance to the final in Melbourne.
Ashefelter Helskinki win clik here to view race. Hope you speak Finnish
Note in the film how Ashenfelter has to chop his steps to go over the last hurdle. A disaster in the making but his strength carried him through.
It seems clear throughout the last laps that Ashenfelter was the superior athlete. His form is great, he's stable, and he appears strong even before he makes his last bid to takeover the race. Kazantsev on the other hand was all over the place in the early going. Clearly out to break the field from the start then coming back to the pack which stayed tightly bunched behind him during the middle points of the race. Had he gotten some training tips from Zatopek? He doesn't look that beaten or disappointed in the picture below. He was a war hero and not doomed to the gulags when he got home. John Disley the third place finisher would continue to be a leading light in British running and be instrumental in the promotion of Orienteering as a running sport.
|Vladamir Kaznantsev, Horace Ashenfelter, John Disley|
In the 1950s, we knew little of steeplechase as it was an event rarely seen on any American track except at Penn or at a National AAU meet where a temporary pit would be dug into the infield and the course run into that infield not designed or intended to be the approach. As noted in the articles that follow, Ashenfelter would go on to win many, many national titles, yet except for a few friends in the field, he would be as anonymous as the rest of the FBI agents in the profession to which he was drawn by Fred Wilt. I had always thought he was a lifetime employee of the agency, but the following articles note that he was only in the Bureau for seven years and became a salesman after that. Apparently, being an Olympic champion, and world record holder while training at night after a long day in the field was not enough to impress J. Edgar Hoover and help him move off the shop floor. His friends at Penn State where he attended college treated him better. Today the indoor facility at Penn State is named after him and his Olympic gold medal is proudly displayed there.
|As Ashefelter crossed the finish line in Helsinki,|
one can only wonder what this offical was thinking
on August 12, 2012 at 5:00 AM, updated August 12, 2012 at 12:36 PM
After a short stint in Boston, he was relocated to Newark in 1951, and he and Lillian settled in Glen Ridge — where they have lived since. The hours were long, often approaching 12 a day, and having to raise two children did not ease his burden of finding time to train. He would drive all over the state, investigating applicants and seeing if they were loyal Americans in the definition of the McCarthy era.
It was one of the great upsets in Olympic history and the triumph of a lifetime for Ashenfelter, whose unassuming demeanor seemed to personify the Wheaties box all-American athlete in a postwar ideological struggle with lock step Soviet Communism. The competition was heightened by fears of nuclear war, a stalemate in the Korean conflict, diatribes of propaganda from Moscow and a fever of anti-Communism in the United States.In Helsinki, the lasting imagery was Ashenfelter beaming atop the victory stand with Kazantsev shaking his hand from a step below. The gold medal draped around his neck, Ashenfelter basked in “The Star-Spangled Banner” and accepted a bouquet from a young Finn in a peasant dress. The crowd roared as he shook her hand, and there were cries of “Kiss her!” Shyly, he complied.Reporters later asked Ashenfelter if he had been sure he would win. “It would sound conceited if I said sure,” he replied. “Just say I was surprised.”There was also a telegram from the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover: “All your associates in the F.B.I. are proud of your brilliant victory and happy with you over establishment of a new record.”In the end, the United States easily beat the Soviet Union in gold medals, 40 to 22, but led by only 76 to 71 in overall medals. The leaders were far ahead of the 67 other nations attending.The New York Times called Ashenfelter “a true model for young Americans,” and he was pictured in the newspapers with sports heroes of the day: Robin Roberts, the Phillies pitcher who led the major leagues with 28 wins, and Rocky Marciano, the world heavyweight champion.From the late 1940s, when Ashenfelter ran for Penn State, until his 1957 retirement from competition, Ashenfelter won 17 national indoor and outdoor titles in a variety of races: cross-country, the two-mile, the three-mile, the 10,000 meters and the steeplechase. He won the Sullivan Award as America’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1952 and entered the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975. In 2001, Penn State’s indoor track was named for him.Horace Ashenfelter III, who was nicknamed Nip, was born in Phoenixville, Pa., on Jan. 23, 1923. He grew up on a farm in nearby Collegeville, competed on football, basketball, baseball and track teams at Collegeville High School, and graduated in 1941. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, and became a pilot and stateside gunnery instructor.He married Lillian Wright in 1945 and had four sons who survive him: Horace, James, Alan and John. Other survivors include his brother Donald; his sister, Jane; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.Discharged in 1946, he studied physical education at Penn State, joined the track team and won National Collegiate Athletic Association outdoor two-mile runs in 1948 and 1949. The Penn Relay’s four-mile event in 1949 was won by a team that included three Ashenfelter brothers: Horace, Bill and Donald.He graduated in 1949, began running for the New York Athletic Club and won 15 gold medals in Amateur Athletic Union competitions. Four years after his triumph in Helsinki, he went to the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, but did no better than sixth in a steeplechase heat.After nine years as an F.B.I. agent, investigating backgrounds of federal job applicants, Ashenfelter left in 1959 and joined Engelhard Industries as a metals salesman. He retired in 1993 but continued to run frequently in Glen Ridge, N.J., where he lived. The town’s annual Thanksgiving Day run is called the Ashenfelter eight-kilometer classic.