Who will be the charter members of the new US Olympic Hall of Fame? The question is being answered this month in balloting by sportswriters and sportscasters across the nation, and so far only one thing is certain - no matter who gets in and who gets left out, there will be plenty of arguments.
Anytime a panel of ''experts'' tries to pick the best people in even one limited field of endeavor, there are bound to be differences of opinion. It goes without saying, therefore, that this attempt to compare male and female athletes from dozens of different sports spanning 80 years will produce even more controversy. So we're all steeling ourselves for a steady chorus of letters and phone calls beginning with the words ''How could you have...?''
The thankless task is upon us, however, so it's time to grit our teeth, establish criteria, and make our selections.
The ground rules are simple enough. The only requirement for eligibility is a gold medal, and from nearly 1,000 candidates, a committee has come up with 50 nominees. We voters now pick 20, in order, with ballots to be tallied on the basis of 20 points for a first place vote, 19 for a second, etc., and with the 20 top point-getters becoming the charter members.
Each of us, of course, has his own idea of what constitutes a Hall of Famer. One big factor in my voting was longevity; I gave 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 prefer to to consider the degree to which an athlete dominated the competition in his or her particular event and time. One must also consider the strength of that competition, though, as well as the difficulty of the sport in athletic terms. Finally, one should perhaps factor in such aspects as historical significance, drama, and general contributions to life.
It all gets pretty subjective, and we all weigh each factor differently. But here for what they are worth, after much sifting and sorting and agonizing, are my choices:
1. Al Oerter, discus winner in 1956, '60, '64, and '68. This one was easy; no other US Olympian comes close to matching his fantastic record of durability and success.
2. Bob Mathias, decathlon winner in 1948 and 1952. Winning this most ''Olympic'' of all events just once is the epitome of athletic success, so obviously the only man in history to win it twice has to rank near the top.
3. Jesse Owens, winner in the 100 and 200 meters, long jump and 4x100 meter relay in 1936. Jesse meets my domination criterion, and is high in terms of drama, historical significance, and non-athletic achievement. He only competed in one Olympics, but then there were no more Games until 1948.
4. Mark Spitz, winner of seven swimming gold medals (4 individual and 3 relay) in 1972. His domination at Munich is well-documented, but some people forget that he also competed at Mexico City in 1968, winning a silver and a bronze individually plus two relay golds. Overall, he has won the most medals of any US athlete in the Olympic Games.
5. Eric Heiden, who competed in 1976 as a teen-ager, then accomplished one of the great individual feats in the history of the Games with his five-event sweep of the men's speed skating events at Lake Placid.
6. Jim Thorpe, first in the decathlon and pentathlon, 4th in the high jump, and 7th in the long jump in 1912. Thorpe's domination and versatility plus the fact that he is generally acknowledged as the greatest American athlete of all time put him well up on my list even though he only competed that one time.
7. Babe Didrickson Zaharias, first in the 80 meter hurdles and javelin, and second in the high jump in 1932. Similarly, Babe's place in history as perhaps the greatest female athlete put her in my top 10 even though she too competed in the Games just once.
8. The 1980 hockey team (teams go in as a whole) winner of the gold medal at Lake Placid. The enormity of the upset over the Soviet Union and the way it excited an entire nation are enough to overcome both the one-Olympics factor plus my preference for individual rather than team performances.
9. Duke Kahanamoku, winner of two golds and a silver plus two relay golds in three Olympics between 1912 and 1924. Duke gets extra points partly because of his incredible staying power in sport where almost all competitors burn out after one or at most two Olympics. He won the 100 meter freestyle in 1912, had to wait eight years because of World War I, came back to win it again in 1920 and finished an amazing second at age 34 in 1924.
10. Rafer Johnson, second in the decathlon in 1956 and first in 1960. As with Mathias, the the impressiveness of performing well twice in this event ranks high in my book.
11. Harrison Dillard, winner of the 100 meters in 1948 and the high hurdles in 1952, plus 4x100 relay golds in each year. Extra points, too, for the human drama of his first triumph, when after failing to qualify in the event he normally dominated (the high hurdles) he rose to the occasion by pulling off a big upset to win his gold medal anyway in the dash.
12. Bob Richards, winner of the pole vault in 1952 and 1956. That's enough, but Richards did even more, earning a bronze in the pole vault in 1948, and also competing in the decathlon (finishing 12th) in 1956.
13. Parry O'Brien, winner of the shot put in 1952 and '56, second in '60, and fourth in '64.
14. Eddie Eagan, light-heavyweight boxing champion in 1920, he lost out in the heavyweight division in 1924, then came back to win a gold medal on the four-man bobsled team in 1932. There has to be a place for the only man in Olympic history to win gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Games.
15. Johnny Weissmuller, winner of five swimming golds (three individual, two relay) in 1924 and '28, plus a bronze in water polo, making him one of only three Americans to win medals in two different sports.
16. Ray Ewry, first in the standing high, long, and triple jumps in 1900, again in all three in 1904, and in the former two once more in 1908. It was a long time ago, but anyone who has won eight gold medals over three Olympics certainly deserves to be on the list.
17. Andrea Mead Lawrence, America's most successful Olympic skier, won the women's slalom and giant slalom in 1952 and competed in three Winter Games all-told.
18. Dick Button, men's singles figure skating winner in both 1948 and 1952.
19. Frank Shorter, winner of the marathon in 1972 and second in '76. As in the decathlon, anyone who can hold his form this long in such a gruelling event at the highest level of international competition has to make my list.
20. Bill Steinkraus, winner of an individual show jumping gold plus several team medals from 1952 through '72. The sport may not be as athletically demanding as some, but how can we ignore anyone who competes successfully in six Olympics over a period of two decades?
Now the arguments start. I wonder myself when I look at some of the names I left off: sprinters Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus; middle distance greats Mel Sheppard and Mal Whitfield; Bob Beamon with his fantastic long jump in Mexico City; figure skaters Tenley Albright, Peggy Fleming, and Dorothy Hamill; swimmer Don Schollander; boxers Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali; diver Pat McCormick; speed skater Sheila Young; oarsman Jack Kelly, Sr.; the 1960 hockey team which upset the Soviets in Squaw Valley; the 1960 basketball team which dominated so completely that its closest margin of victory was 81-57, etc. And what about some of those who weren't even nominated? Why, for example, did they leave out Milt Campbell, considering that he and Rafer Johnson did exactly the same thing and share the distinction of the second greatest decathlon performance in Olympic history with one gold and one silver each? And what about hurdler Willie Davenport, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, or the 1956 basketball team featuring Bill Russell, just to mention a few other notable omissions?
But you get the idea. There are so many deserving athletes, the committee could only nominate 50, and we could only vote for 20. So if you put any other names on a list, which ones do you take off?
In time, one hopes that all who deserve the honor will be elected, but 20 is a good number to start with, and whatever the consensus turns out to be, it's obvious that the charter members will be an impressive group indeed.