The greatest Olympic jumper you’ve never heard of

Well, PROBABLY you’ve never heard of him. But with Olympic fever at large in the world and the spotlight shining brightly on swimmer Michael Phelps, we thought we’d call your attention to a man whose record Phelps hopes to break. Part of his record was established when the Olympics were held here in Missouri.

When the Olympics were held in St. Louis in 1904, one of the big stars was an Indiana native named Ray Ewry. He had a world record long jump of 11′ 4.61.” He had a gold medal high jump of 5′ 2.99.” And he won the gold for a triple jump of 34′ 6.96.”

There are those who think that he is one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time. We’d come across his name when researching an episode of “Across Our Wide Missouri” several years ago and we were reminded of his prowess last weekend when we picked up a copy of the Indianapolis Star while we were waiting at the Speedway for the start of the Brickyard 400 and saw Bob Kravitz’s article.

It might seem that the distances of Ray Ewry’s jumps are pitifully short compared to the records established by the world-class athletes of the late 20th and early 21st century. And indeed they are until you consider this amazing fact: today’s jumpers RUN before they jump. Ray Ewry did all his jumping from a standing start.

Imagine standing next to a Chevrolet Impala, which is a tick less than 59 inches high, or next to a Ford Fusion, which measures almost 57 inches, or a Dodge Challenger, which is in at 57.1 inches. Now imagine jumping, from a flat-footed start, four inches higher than the roof of the Impala, and six inches higher than the roof of the Fusion or the Challenger.

The world record high jump today is an even eight feet with a running start and a Fosbury Flop over the bar. Ray Ewry started flat-footed, went up until he was over the bar, flung one leg over, and sissored over with his other leg.

The long jump record today (with the jumper sprinting to the line) is 29 ‘4.36 inches. The triple jump record (with the jumper sprinting to the line) is just a hair over sixty feet.
The standing jump events have not been recognized as Olympic events since 1912,and lost international certification for other events in the 1930s, one reason Ray Ewry is such a lost figure when discussions turn to Olympic greats. But surely, you might think, in today’s world of well-trained super athletes there are plenty of people who could do better.

Bob Kravitz wrote in his article, “The only place the standing long jump and standing high jump take place are at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. There, some of the greatest young athletes in the world have failed to touch the marks Ewry established at the turn of the century. According to Nick Winkelman, director of performance education at Athletes’ Performances, no football player has ever come close to Ewry’s marks, which included 11 feet, 5 inches (in the standing long jump). ‘(A few years ago) we had Julio Jones just clear 11 feet and that would be absolutely jaw dropping,’ Winkelman told ‘So to see anybody get into the high 10s–let alone break 11 feet–is absolutely phenomenal.’ ”
And Kravitz finally notes, “More than a century ago, Ewry jumped higher and longer than any NFL prospect in the history of testing. None have come close.”

The big name at the London Olympics this year is Michael Phelps, who is trying to win his tenth individual gold medal and his 20th medal overall. There is a dispute about how many gold medals Ray Ewry won early in the twentieth century. His supporters say ten. The International Olympic Committee recognizes eight because two of the medals were won in Athens in 1906, the year of the Intercalated Games.

Back in the early days of the Olympics, the International Olympics Committee scheduled the “Second International Olympic Games in Athens” for 1906. The Intercalated Games were created by the IOC to be held in the home city of the Olympics, Athens, between the quadrennial games. Olympic medals were given to Ewry for winning the standing long jump and the standing high jump (there was no standing triple jump then or in 1908, Ewry’s last Olympics). The sad thing is that today’s IOC does not recognize the games that yesteryears’ IOC created and recognized and therefore does not recognize two of Ewry’s ten medals.

But there remain some vestiges of those non-recognized 1906 games. They were the first games to have an Olympic Village where Ewry and the rest of the athletes lived during the games. Ray Ewrey likely marched in the first opening ceremonial march of national teams into the stadium as a separate event. The 1906 games also saw the first raising of national flags to celebrate the home nations of winning athletes. And they were the first to hold a closing ceremony.

None of that is good enough for the IOC of today, however. So officially, Ray Ewry had eight individual gold medals. Unofficially he had ten. Michael Phelps started the XXX Olympiad with nine individual golds.

One other thing about Ewry that makes his story especially impressive.

Ray Ewry was left an orphan when his alcoholic father took off and his mother died of tuberculosis. He was still a baby when he contracted polio that left his legs paralyzed. When he was a teenager a doctor prescribed some leg exercises for him. In time he was able to walk with crutches. But that wasn’t enough. By the time he became a college student at Purdue, Ray Ewry was walking. And jumping. He became an international star. The French called him “the frog man” because of the way he squatted before launching his six-foot-two body over high jump bars or into sand jumping pits.

He won his three standing events in the 1900 Olympics and duplicated the feat in St. Louis in 1904, picked up two more in 1906 and his final two in 1908. By then he was about 35 years old, an engineer working in New York. He was about two weeks short of his 64th birthday when he died in 1937.

A couple of tragic twists were added to the Ray Ewry story after his death. Ewry kept diaries during his childhood struggles with polio. His grandson, Tom Carson, had several of them. But they were stolen by robbers who got into Carson’s storage unit. And Ewry’s ten Olympic medals were stolen from the New York Athletic Club, where Ewry had been a member for many years. The IOC has re-done two of them. Carson holds out hope the other eight will be re-made eventually, even the two from the 1906 Athens games.

Ray Ewry was one of the great athletes of his time, a star of the St. Louis Olympics, probably the greatest Olympic jumper you never heard of. It has taken a century for someone to eclipse his individual gold medal record.

The other church and state?

A response that we got to yesterday’s post about keeping stories about sports program expansions separate from stories about academic program cutbacks at the University of Missouri challenged us (and others, perhaps) to peer over the edge of the box we’ve been thinking in and allow our thoughts to spill over to the outside.

Marc Powers, a person we sometimes cite here on political matters, also thinks about collegiate sports. He probably thinks about a lot of other things too—we have long suspected he is a multi-dimensional individual. Here is what he said about yesterday’s post:

“My reaction to the coverage of the university’s budget cuts/football stadium improvements was the exact opposite of yours, as I was quite annoyed at the news outlets that ignored what to me are the obvious links between the two.

“Although private contributions earmarked for the athletics by the donor can’t be spent elsewhere, other substantial sources or revenue generated by the athletics department, such as ticket revenue and broadcast licensing fees, get plowed back into the department only because the Board of Curators say they do.

“It was within the curators’ power to decide that the University of Missouri Press or any of the other things they cut were more important than football and to use some of the profits generated by athletics to support the UM System’s core functions. But they didn’t, and to me it’s totally legitimate to critically examine the priorities set by the curators.”

Well, now.

Is Marc the only person who has thought of that? And how should the phrase “student-athlete” enter that discussion? Note that the first half of the phrase is “student.” It’s a phrase athletic departments like to use to make sure the public knows that the men and women they see involved in athletic endeavors aren’t just there to play games. They’re there to get degrees. And the University of Missouri takes a lot of pride in the percentage of student-athletes who get degrees.

But here’s a question that pops to mind based on Marc’s response. At a time when intercollegiate athletics are becoming bigger and bigger-money operations while funding for academic programs has grown tighter and tighter, why shouldn’t schools look to the athletic department to make a contribution to the overall university budget—to the “student” half of the phrase?

It might seem to an outsider that higher education has created a structure in which athletics and academics are as separate as church and state and the separation is as devoutly maintained as the church-state separation is maintained.

It might be argued that it would be naive and impractical for higher education institutions to end the status of athletics as a kingdom. But suppose this:

Instead of increasing student fees to make up for lack of state government support, suppose an extra dollar was added to ticket prices for athletic events with that dollar going to academic programs. One dollar per ticket would be enough at the end of the football season to keep the University of Missouri Press alive. Or it might keep ten faculty members that are otherwise among the 180 people the University plans to to lay off.

The legendary bank robber Willie Sutton supposedly said that he robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Sutton denied in his autobiography ever saying that. But what he did say in that book was, “Go where the money is…and go there often.”

Marc suggests university curators go where the money is. We thought his perspective might provoke some thoughts not only as we continue covering higher education funding issues but as colleges and universities wonder how to ease their financial problems.

After all, what is a football stadium? It’s just a great big box. Marc suggests there is value in diverting our gaze from the playing field at at the Memorial Stadium box in Columbia where the student-athletes play to the land to the north, the place where the student-athletes study and to think of how the two areas are more one area than we sometimes think.

The Cleansing

It is more a ritual than a habit, I suppose, that is behind the events that have put the legislative session a distant memory even if this is Monday morning and the session ended Friday evening.  less than 62 hours before we started writing this entry.

Sixty-two hours after the devouring intensity of a legislative session’s final week, those events already are only echoes.  I suspect it is the same for the 197 people who were in the House and the Senate, too.  We awakened this morning knowing we would not be at the capitol by this afternoon watching or engaged in fierce duels of wills that would determine the directions of the lives of ourselves and six million fellow Missourians.

Casual visitors–school groups, mostly–during the session have no idea how the last days of a legislative session consume the participants and the lobbyists and the press and the legislative staffs.  At its most basic and basest level, the last days of a legislative session are focused on survival, physically, mentally, politically.  And then, suddenly, it ends.

We’ll be running stories for several more days about things that happened or didn’t happen during the session. They’re stories we didn’t have time to tell you as the session careened toward adjournment.  But already it seems those things happened more than 62 hours ago.

Others probably have their own rituals or customs that cleanse their minds of those final days of decisions.  The weekend is vital to accomplishing that so that on this Monday morning, many awaken with a sense of freedom.  There is time to appreciate the morning sunshine and the warm breezes of a May spring that we hadn’t had time to appreciate since Daylight Savings Time arrived.  This evening we all go home at a decent hour.  We don’t figure out where to find something for dinner so debate and negotiation fine tune the few bills that still have a chance or would have a chance if one side or the other hasn’t drawn a non-negotiable line that ratchets up the tension.

6 p.m.  The session ends.  In the senate, some departing members have some last things to say—we’ll have a special appreciation of Senator Jack Goodman’s thoughts in a later entry—and finally at 6:20 p.m., the gavel falls.  The legislative session is history, the past four and a half months are relegated to whatever is preserved in newspaper stories or in places like  Here and there, the voices are preserved in excerpted form on selected topics.  The daily legislative  journals preserve a sterile record of proceedings—filibusters are boiled down to single lines showing who was presiding at various times during the event but none of the debate is written or saved in print. Missouri ha nothing like the Congressional Record, which is not exactly a completely record of events anyway.

By 7 p.m., I’m on the road out of town, running 74 mph in a 70 zone and being passed by cars with license plates that begin with “R” or “S,” indicating these are Representatives or Senators fleeing from Jefferson City even faster than I am.  By 3 a.m. Eastern Daylight Tine, three associates and I are at a motel in Indianapolis.  Sixteen hours after the end of the legislative session, we park our car and step out onto the grass of the infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  It is clear. It is 80 degrees.  The grass feels good.  There are cars going frightfully fast on the track around us.  It is pole day at a place called the World’s Greatest Race Course. I have slept seven hours since 4:30 a.m. Thursday but here it is warm; the grass is green; and men and women are doing amazing things with cars.  Sixteen hours earlier, I was in a coat and tie and I was in a totally different world.

Now, with grass under my feet, a blue sky overhead, and the sounds of engines winding tighter and tighter on the backstretch, I am cleansed.  And the capitol seems to be much more than 400 miles away.