US Olympic Hall of Fame voting presents tough choices
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.