Searching for Gold

Like other past Olympic stars, local gold medal winners often have trouble keeping track of them

The Olympic gold medal is the ultimate badge of international athletic achievement, material proof that its owner has reached the highest rung on the sports ladder. And although the Sydney Olympic Organizing Committee will put no monetary value on the gold medal, they do admit that, in fact, precious little gold is involved. The medal that each Olympic champion is to receive will be made of 92.5 percent silver with only six grams of gold gilding.

Nevertheless, they are most often treasured by those who have claimed them. But even with all manner of care and caution, history offers a litany of incidents in which the precious prizes have been lost, stolen, passed along to family and friends, and, in one rare case, angrily discarded.

"I suppose," says marathoner Frank Shorter, who won the United States' first gold medal in 64 years in his specialty when he triumphed in Munich in 1972, "we're all a bit paranoid about the medal. You work a lifetime to get it, then you are so afraid someone is going to take it away from you that you hide it away. My medals [he also claimed the silver in the '76 Olympic marathon] are wrapped in an old athletic sock in a safety deposit box."

Dean Smith, the first athlete from the University of Texas to win an Olympic gold medal, later stored the awaard in his grandmother's cedar chest.
Dean Smith, the first athlete from the University of Texas to win an Olympic gold medal, later stored the awaard in his grandmother's cedar chest.

Sprinter Thane Baker, living in retirement in Granbury, won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash in 1952, and a silver (100 meters), a bronze (200 meters), and a gold as a member of the U.S. 400-meter relay in 1956. "I suppose there is very little cash value to them, but the thought of losing them is something everyone has to deal with. You want them to be where people who are interested can see them, but you don't want to risk losing them, either."

Baker resolved the problem with a unique solution: He sought the help of a sculptor friend who, using the same plastic material employed by dentists to mold dentures, made casts of the medals and designed identical copies. Those four replicas hang in Baker's trophy room. The originals are stored in a Dallas bank.

Even at that, Baker is not certain the lone gold medal he has is the one presented to him on the winner's stand 44 years ago in Melbourne. "The United States won the 400- and 1,600-meter relays on the same afternoon," he recalls, "and on the bus ride back to the Olympic Village, my medal and Arnie Sowell's [a member of the 1,600-meter team] were being passed around. Somehow, they got mixed up. To this day, for all I know I have Arnie's medal and he has mine."

There was a time when Olympic 100-meter champion and record holder Jim Hines would have settled for anyone's medal. Shortly after his return from Mexico City, where he won not only the 100-meter gold medal but won as a member of the winning U.S. 400-meter relay, the former Texas Southern University sprinter feared his prizes were lost forever. Returning to his Houston apartment one evening, he found burglars had taken his television, stereo, most of his wife's jewelry--and his gold medals.

In a long-shot attempt to communicate with the thieves, Hines placed an ad in one of the Houston newspapers, stating that the culprit could keep the stolen items with no questions asked. His only request was that the two gold medals be returned. Eventually they were, returned by mail in a plain brown envelope. Hines immediately hustled them to a safety deposit box where they will remain until passed to his children.

Dallas speed skater Dorothy Langkop has not enjoyed such success in recovering a lost medal. Winner of a 500-meter exhibition in the Los Angeles Winter Olympics in 1932 and the 1,500-meter event in 1936, one of her medals was the victim of her children's back yard fantasy games.

"When I was still competing," Langkop explains, "I kept all my medals in a bread box. As the children got older, they liked to get them out and play with them. They would take them out into the back yard and play soldier, pinning them on each other, that sort of thing. At some point the make-believe turned from soldier to pirates, and one of my Olympic medals became a part of someone's buried treasure. To this day, it's still buried out there somewhere, but we've never been able to locate it." The other, however, is now safely framed and hangs in her home.

"When you're still competing," she says, "the medals you win aren't nearly as important to you as they become in later years. I'm glad I still have one of mine. I guess I should worry about losing it too, but I can't stand the idea of putting it away where no one can see it."

There are a few, however, who have disdained the award. It was a young gold medal-winning boxer, then named Cassius Clay, who, according to his autobiography, found the medal a great disappointment. Entering a restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, shortly after his victorious return from the 1960 Games in Rome, Clay, now Muhammad Ali, was wearing the medal around his neck as he and friends were informed that blacks, gold medal or no, would not be served. Upset and disenchanted by the fact that winning the light-heavyweight championship had done little to alter his life at home, he walked to the nearby bank of the Ohio River and hurled his medal into the water.
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