Deserving candidates bypassed in Olympic Hall of Fame vote

It's mixed-emotions time once again with the announcement of this year's United States Olympic Hall of Fame electees in the athlete category - swimmers Shirley Babashoff and Donna de Varona and boxing champion Floyd Patterson. All three have excellent credentials, to be sure, and deserved to be enshrined sooner or later. But it's hard to believe that any reasonable panel of voters could have chosen them ahead of some of the other candidates who still haven't made it.

The top place on my ballot, for example, went to Milt Campbell, the great decathlete who finished second to Bob Mathias as an 18-year-old schoolboy in 1952, then defeated Rafer Johnson to win the gold medal in '56. It was bad enough that Campbell's name was left off the ballot altogether for the first four years of these elections while every other living American decathlon champion - Mathias, Johnson, Bill Toomey, and Bruce Jenner - was voted in. Now in another grave injustice he was finally put on the ballot only to fail to get in.

A strong second choice, in my view, was figure skater Tenley Albright, who, like Campbell, won silver in 1952 and gold in 1956, then passed up a lucrative ice show career to pursue her chosen profession as a physician.

Then there was Willie Davenport, who won gold in the high hurdles at Mexico City in 1968, came back with a dramatic bronze eight years later at Montreal, and even switched sports and seasons to compete as a bobsledder at Lake Placid in 1980.

And there were so many other outstanding nominees, including track and field stars Mel Sheppard and Mal Whitfield, weight lifter Tommy Kono, and skier Andrea Mead Lawrence.

As for those voted in, the best case can be made for Babashoff, who did, in fact, get the most votes. One of the world's greatest freestyle swimmers throughout the mid-'70s, Shirley competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, winning five individual silver medals, two relay golds, and a relay silver. Her five medals in one Olympics (1976) and eight overall are both records for an American woman. And the last one, when she anchored the US 4x100 relay team to a dramatic and emotional victory over East Germany in Montreal, represents one of the most memorable moments in recent Olympic history.

That's an impressive array of achievements, though one must note that she never did win an individual gold medal. This in itself isn't too important, except for the fact that a gold medal is mandatory for nomination.

Personally, I don't believe in this criterion, since it excludes too many great performers like high jumper John Thomas and skiers Billy Kidd and Bill Koch. But if it is going to be applied, the question arises whether they should count relay medals.

A relay is a team event, and should be treated as such. When basketball and hockey teams have been voted in, it has been the entire team - not just the high scorer or the goaltender. By the same token, the anchorwoman of a relay team isn't an individual gold medal winner either.

So while I agree with the choice of Babashoff, it seems clear that she really belongs in the same category as Thomas, Kidd, Koch, etc. - an individual silver medal winner. And if she was eligible, they should be too.

De Varona won the 400-meter individual medley in 1964 and picked up another gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay event. Those are nice achievements, but there are a lot of other athletes out there - including several swimmers - with more medals and with overall records as least equally impressive. One has to wonder if she didn't make it as much on her post-competitive fame and popularity as a network TV Olympic commentator since then as on her achievements in the pool.

Patterson also undoubtedly benefited from his post-Olympic success as world heavyweight champion. Indeed, the selection of boxers for this honor (Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and now Patterson) seems always to be based at least as much on their later pro careers as on what they did at the games.

But the votes are in, and these are the winners, along with the 1976 track and field coach, Dr. Leroy Walker, who was elected as a special contributor. The quartet was inducted at Durham, N.C., in conjunction with the US Olympic Festival taking place throughout that state.

So let's give them all their moment in the sun now - and just hope that in future years the voters will come to their senses and also enshrine those who were passed over despite equal or better credentials.

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