Searching for Gold

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

Ali's story is a rarity. For most past Olympic winners, the gold medal is their Hope Diamond. Earl Young, a Dallas businessman who returned from the 1960 Olympics in Rome as a member of the winning 1,600-meter relay, is among those who strongly feels his medal should be shared. For most of the summer, it, along with those won by pole vault champion Bob Richards in the 1952 and '56 Olympics, has been on display at the Ballpark in Arlington's museum. Recently, Young took his on a business trip to Mauritius at the request of the island's prime minister.

"It's gotten a little worn and weather-beaten over the years," Young says, "so a while back I took it to a jeweler and asked what he thought about polishing it up, maybe even putting a new gold coating on it. He refused. He explained that part of the charm and attraction of the medal is its antique look. I thought about it and finally agreed with him."

Longtime Hollywood stuntman Dean Smith, a gold medal winner on the 400-meter relay in Helsinki in 1952, embraces Young's attitude toward sharing. But it took him a while to get the opportunity. Now retired and living on a ranch outside Breckenridge, Smith was the first athlete from the University of Texas to win an Olympic gold medal.

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.

"My coach, Clyde Littlefield, was really proud of that and carried the medal around in his pocket for a year, showing it off to everyone he saw. I couldn't talk him into giving it back for the longest. Then, when I finally did, I gave it to my grandmother, who kept it in her cedar chest for years."

Mothers have been favored recipients of Olympic medals. When 400-meter dash champion Lee Evans won his gold in Mexico City, he went directly from the victory stand to where his mother was seated in the stands and presented it to her. Sprinter Gerald Tinker did the same thing after the U.S. 400-meter relay team won in Munich. And just minutes after former Dallas Cowboys legend Bob Hayes had been crowned the World's Fastest Human, winning the Tokyo Olympic 100 meters by the widest margin in modern history, he kept a promise to Mary Hayes, who sat in the stadium that day.

"I had told her before the race," Hayes remembers, "that I was going to win her a gold medal. I told her to just sit tight and I'd be there shortly. As soon as I got down off the victory stand, I took it to her."

What Hayes did with a second gold he won as the anchor of the 400-meter relay might have caused another former gold medal winner, Dr. Benjamin Spock, to wonder. When Hayes' baby daughter was teething, he recalls, his wife would place the gold medal in the refrigerator, chill it, then give it to the infant to chew on. "That medal," Hayes recalls, "quieted her more quickly than anything we ever tried."

Without exception, the most controversial medals in the history of the Olympic Games are those that were revoked from the legendary Jim Thorpe following his triumphs in the decathlon and pentathlon in Stockholm in 1912. A year after his victories, it was learned that Thorpe had been paid $60 per month for playing on a semi-pro baseball team in the summers of 1909 and 1910. Upon learning the news, the International Olympic Committee declared Thorpe a professional athlete and voted to strip him of his medals and strike his name from the record books. His awards were eventually passed to runners-up in the events he'd handily won.

The furor over what many deemed the unfair treatment of the young man hailed by many as the world's greatest athlete lasted long beyond his death in 1953 as family, friends, and fans urged that his medals be returned. Finally, in 1983, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch presented Thorpe's family with newly minted replicas of the medals he had won.

Olympic officials had first attempted to locate the original medals that had been presented to Ferdihand Bie (pentathlon) of Norway and Hugh Wieslander (decathlon) of Sweden, only to find that one had been destroyed in a fire and the other stolen years earlier.

It was, says Thorpe's son, William, 74, a financial consultant in Arlington, that same concern that prompted the family to entrust the medals to the State of Oklahoma for safe-keeping. "The only time I've ever held one of Dad's medals," he says, "was on the day it was presented to me. Mr. Samaranch handed one to me and the other to my sister Gail."

Another sprinter, Lampasas High ex Johnny Jones, who won a gold medal as a 17-year-old member of the U.S. 400-meter relay in Montreal, felt others might better benefit from his prize. While a student at the University of Texas, Jones became actively involved in the Special Olympics program for handicapped children. In a gesture that stunned many of his fellow Olympians as well as Special Olympics national president Eunice Schriver, Jones donated his medal to the organization.

"At the time," the former New York Jets wide receiver says, "I didn't have any money, and I wanted to do something more than just work as a volunteer at their track meets. Watching those kids compete, disregarding their handicaps, made me realize how lucky I was."

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