Plainfield, N.J. — When people talk about the greatest athlete of all time, the first name that comes up is usually that of Jim Thorpe, who played both baseball and football at the professional level as well as starring in the Olympics. Thorpe is certainly a reasonable choice, but there's another multisport star out there for whom a case also can be made -- or who at least is a strong candidate for the No. 2 spot. Yet when you say ``Milt Campbell,'' the result is frequently a blank stare.
Why has this combination Olympic hero, football standout, and swimming champion received so little acclaim? Campbell discussed various possible reasons during an interview in his hometown here, where he divides his time these days between a business career and volunteer work with disadvantaged children. But there is really no satisfactory explanation for the lack of recognition that has dogged him all these years.
It wasn't that long ago, after all, when Campbell was demonstrating his enormous talent and versatility -- winning both gold and silver medals in the Olympic decathlon; shining on the college football field and going on to a pro career; even picking up several state and national high school swimming titles for good measure.
Pretty strong credentials -- yet this truly phenomenal all-around athlete has never received the fame and glory accorded to so many others with nowhere near the same level of accomplishment.
And now he has been bypassed again -- for an incredible fourth consecutive year -- in the nominations for the US Olympic Hall of Fame.
From 1948 through 1960, the names Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, and Rafer Johnson were virtually synonymous with the Olympic decathlon. Mathias won an unprecedented two straight gold medals in '48 and '52. Campbell was a strong runner-up in the latter year and a convincing winner four years later over Johnson, who in turn went on to win in 1960.
When the Hall of Fame was inaugurated in 1983, Mathias was obviously one of the top choices -- and in fact was the seventh-highest vote-getter in that inaugural group of 20 illustrious electees. Johnson also made it easily, polling the 11th-highest total. But Campbell, with the same record as Rafer's (one gold, one silver), wasn't even nominated.
Then in 1984 an even greater miscarriage of justice occurred as Bill Toomey, whose only Olympic medal was the gold in 1968, was elected while Campbell was again left off the ballot altogether. Last year no decathletes were nominated, and now it is Bruce Jenner, another one-shot winner, who is on the ballot, while Campbell continues to be ignored.
Jenner's victory at Montreal in 1976 is still relatively fresh in the public's mind, so he may well be elected -- and deservedly so. Anyone who wins this grueling test of skill and stamina, this most ``Olympic'' of Olympic events, is a Hall of Famer in my book. But how can they keep on enshrining those who won a single Olympic medal while one who earned both a gold and silver never even gets his name on the ballot?
Campbell's first bad break came in the timing of his Olympic triumphs. Milt's Olympic performance in 1952 was an amazing athletic feat -- one that perhaps demonstrates better than anything else the phenomenal raw athletic ability he possessed. Only 18 at the time, and still in high school, he had no experience whatever in the decathlon up until the time of the US trials, and in fact had never even tried some of the 10 events on the program. Yet he finished second to Mathias to make the team, then did the same in Helsinki a month later to win the silver medal, only to see his feats overshadowed by Mathias's unprecedented second straight gold.
Then four years later when Campbell won his gold medal at Melbourne, everything was wrong in terms of recognition.
To begin with, the Olympics had not yet become the TV spectacular they are today. And even by '50s standards, those particular games didn't attract much attention in the United States -- held half a world away in an unusual month (November) when American interest was focused on football. Finally, the most memorable moments involved confrontations of athletes from Hungary and the Soviet Union in the wake of the former country's abortive uprising a short time earlier.
So Campbell came home with his gold medal, found out that nobody much cared, and turned to pro football. A strapping 6 ft. 3 in. 210-pounder who had starred as a running back in high school and at Indiana University, he made the National Football League's Cleveland Browns -- only to learn that another Cleveland rookie that year was a young man named Jim Brown! Milt understudied Brown at fullback that season and also played some halfback, then spent a few years in the Canadian Football League, where, once again, he was out of the spotlight as far as the US public was concerned.
But even all these circumstances, taken together, don't seem to explain fully the way Campbell has been so completely overlooked. And as he points out, it can be argued that other factors also played a part in it all.
``I don't want to sound angry, but I attribute some of the blame to the fact that I was the first black to win the decathlon,'' Campbell said. ``As far as performance, it was one of the best. But it certainly didn't get the recognition it was due.''
He also doesn't think it was a coincidence that after marrying a white woman, following his first season of pro football, he was cut by the Browns, not picked up by any other NFL team, and wound up playing the rest of his career in Canada.
``Here I was the world's greatest athlete and I couldn't get a job in the thing I do best,'' he said. ``It's different today, when you have 10 times the talent around that you did in the '50s. But an athlete like me not being able to hook on with any team back then?'' (and here he gave an eloquent shrug).
So does he feel he was ostracized?
``Call it what you want,'' he said. ``I feel it was basically prejudice because of a black man with a white wife. That was a totally different era from now. People weren't as understanding. You get burned out with that kind of thing after a while -- so we went to Canada.
``It was tough to take. I knew my athletic ability was as good as that of anybody on the face of the earth, and I was coachable. It took a long time to get past the anger.''
The memories of those days -- both good and bad -- still linger, but unless someone else brings them up, Campbell prefers not to dwell on them. For the past dozen or so years, he says, he has spent a great deal of his free time working with disadvantaged inner-city youngsters. Meanwhile, he also has carved out a post-athletic career in which he puts his own experiences to good use giving motivational speeches to employees of major corporations.
``They have themes like `Going for the Gold,' or `Reaching for all of it,' '' he said. ``I tailor my speech to the group and the situation. I've found out that the things I have to say apply to whatever a person is striving for.''
And what are some of those things?
``First, have a goal,'' he said. ``It should be a goal you have to really reach for -- not something that's attainable tomorrow. But it's not a bad idea to set little goals along the way.
``Second, once you know where it is you want to go, you have to be dedicated to the idea, and pursue it. Persistence is the antidote to failure.
``Then you have to have the discipline to do all the things you have to do to accomplish what you want to do. But this isn't something that really has to be taught. If you have a goal and are in love with the idea, you will develop the discipline.''
Just talking to Campbell, who still makes an impressive physical appearance and is very articulate, one sees that he would be perfect for such speeches. But here too, he says, lack of recognition makes it difficult for him.
One major corporation, he said, signed up the five living US Olympic decathlon champions (Mathias, Campbell, Johnson, Toomey, and Jenner) to make a series of appearances.
``Later they wrote me a letter saying I was the best speaker they had had in two years,'' he recalled. ``But at the beginning they insisted that I come in so they could talk to me because they knew the other names but they didn't know who I was.''
Then came the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where once again another old rival (Johnson) got the glory while Campbell was pretty much ignored.
``Since Rafer carried that torch, he's had all sorts of speaking engagements and appearances,'' Campbell said. ``But why didn't the Olympic Committee pick the first black to win the decathlon instead of the guy he beat? Why the second one?''
Part of the answer to this question, undoubtedly, lies in the fact that Johnson is a native and lifelong resident of the Los Angeles area. And the answer to Campbell's basic question about greater opportunities for his rivals is that -- rightly or wrongly -- these other former champions are better known to the public. But surely this same criterion shouldn't apply when it comes to something like a Hall of Fame election.
Here we are not talking about marketability, or who belongs to the right clubs, or was in Bobby Kennedy's entourage, or makes more cereal commercials. At least we're not supposed to be! This is allegedly a nomination process done by a select group of well-informed sports- writers who are choosing candidates on the basis of their Olympic accomplishments -- period.
``If you'll look at my athletic career,'' Campbell says, ``it's as great a career as that of anyone who ever came down the pike.''
He's right, too, so all one can hope is that someday the US Olympic Committee, the nation's sportswriters, and indeed the entire public, will look at that career and belatedly give one of history's greatest athletes the recognition that is so long overdue.