US Olympic Hall of Fame -- an idea whose time is here

Just about every sport has its Hall of Fame - from baseball's famous shrine in Cooperstown to similar museums honoring the greats of football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, and virtually any athletic endeavor imaginable. So why not a US Olympic Hall of Fame?

As soon as one hears the question, it sounds like something that should have happened long ago. Now at last it is an idea whose time has come - starting with a nationwide traveling exhibit designed to collect memorabilia and build interest in the concept. The long-range plan is for a permanent Hall of Fame which would ''preserve for posterity the noteworthy achievements of America's Olympians and accord lasting recognition to our greatest amateur athletes.''

Actually, the idea was initially conceived back in 1979 as a joint venture by the US Olympic Committee and the Coca-Cola Company, which is sponsoring the current exhibit. The project wound up on the back burner for a couple of years while those concerned were occupied with more important matters such as the US non-participation in Moscow and its various effects, but now it is finally getting into high gear.

''We're delighted to begin moving from the planning phases into the first executional phases of this long-awaited project,'' said Col. F. Donald Miller, executive director of the USOC, at the beginning of the tour. ''This shrine will be dedicated not only to the glories of Olympians past, but to the youth of America, today and tomorrow.''

As far as the public is concerned, of course, the principal focus of any Hall of Fame is the election of members - and that, too, will begin this year. A committee comprised of members of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and the USOC will meet next month to nominate candidates, and the entire NSSA will vote later in the year to elect the charter members. The first inductions will be held in 1983 at a site and date to be announced later.

The other main feature of any Hall of Fame is its memorabilia collection - and that's where the current traveling exhibit comes in. The tour is going to 22 cities this year and more than 30 next year for the dual purpose of publicizing the concept and collecting uniforms, photographs, equipment, pins, and other items - up to and including gold medals. The collection will be housed in a special pavilion in Los Angeles from the beginning of 1984 through the Olympics that summer, and after that at a permanent site to be determined.

The tour was launched last month at Los Angeles, where 1968 decathlon winner Bill Toomey donated the gold medal he won at Mexico City. Next it went to Indianapolis, where sprinter Wilma Rudolph, a triple gold medal winner in 1960, made an appearance along with the governor, the mayor, and numerous business leaders.

Subsequent stops have also resulted in visits by famous former Olympians as well as donations of all sorts of items.

In New York City two-time figure skating gold medalist Dick Button was on hand as were several other Olympians. Among the most interesting donations there was the 1912 team flag signed by Jim Thorpe and swimming star Duke Kahanamoku, among others.

The Boston visit was a hockey enthusiast's dream, bringing together Captains Jack Kirrane and Mike Eruzione plus two other members each from the 1960 and 1980 championship teams. Also in Boston, the exhibit received its second gold medal. This one was donated by Hilary Smart, who teamed with his father, Paul, in the star class yachting event in 1948 for what may have been the only father-son victory in Olympic history.

The Philadelphia stop brought out Joe Frazier, who won the heavyweight boxing gold medal in 1964 and of course went on to become world champion as a professional, as well as famed Olympic oarsman Jack Kelly.

The show also has made stops in Baltimore and Washington, with others to come in Columbus, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Kansas City, St. Louis, Atlanta, Miami , New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Denver, San Diego, and San Francisco. It visits more cities in 1983, then goes to L.A.

In addition to the medals, the exhibit has picked up a vast array of fascinating memorabilia. Among the items are:

Al Oerter's Olympic jersey from 1968, the year he won the last of his historic four gold medals in the discus.

Joe Frazier's boxing shoes from 1964..

Figure skating gold medalist Peggy Fleming's blades and warmup suit from 1968 .

Also in figure skating, the outfits worn by gold medalists Hayes Alan Jenkins in 1956 and Carol Heiss in 1960.

A swimsuit and two certificates from 1964 double gold medal winner Don Schollander.

The skates on which speedskater Terry McDermott won the USA's only gold medal of the 1964 Winter Games.

The uniform worn by Bill Cleary, high scorer on the victorious 1960 hockey team at Squaw Valley, and a hockey stick donated by Buzz Schneider, one of the mainstays of the 1980 champions at Lake Placid.

A basketball autographed by the 1976 gold medal-winning team, donated by Coach Dean Smith.

The running shorts worn by Wyomia Tyus in winning the 100 meter gold medal in 1968.

The bathing suit worn by 1976 springboard diving gold medalist Jennifer Chandler.

A picture of the first US basketball team in 1936.

A German oarsman's uniform from 1936 which by tradition was given to Gordon B. Adam of the victorious US eight-oared shell; Adam also donated his own jersey and numerous other mementos of that occasion.

Two rare photographs of Babe Didrikson winning gold medals in the javelin throw and the 80-meter hurdles in 1932.

An original poster from the 1932 Los Angeles Games, plus programs from the ' 32 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

The goggles worn by Barbara Ann Cochran in winning her skiing gold medal in 1972.

Also numerous other photos, posters, programs, maps, handbooks, post cards, books, medals, uniforms, badges, etc.

By the time the exhibit reaches Los Angeles, of course, it will have much, much more. By then, too, there will already be an inaugural class of inductees, and the whole concept will be well on its way to fruition.

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