Recapping 112 years of Princetonians’ Olympic triumphs
Illustration by Steven Veach
Sitting here watching the last of the 302 gold-medal winners finish at the Olympics (no, not the 1908 Olympics, wise guy, I know we have a long lead time here at Action Central, but c’mon ...), I’m reminded – as might be the millions of Chinese staying off their own highways under duress – of the modest proposal of Olympic veteran Bill Bradley ’65 more than 30 years ago (PAW, May 23, 1977). He posited that the International Olympic Committee might want to spend a bit of its pile of billions of biennial bucks on a permanent site, ideally in Greece, where the games could be held every four years. This would prevent countries from perpetually sucking a couple of points off their GNP to support a 16-day TV show. Like some of his other ideas that seem wildly attractive in retrospect (his 2000 presidential campaign is darn fetching ex post facto, you must concede), this one went nowhere, presumably because nobody in Greece was willing to feed the IOC members dim sum, escargot, or Chateau Lafite in five-star hotels, or whatever. Ah well, sour grape leaves, I guess.
One difficulty doing a Princeton Olympics retrospective – my editors demand I look backward mostly, if you recall – is that the aforementioned Sen. Bill (in his previous life as Dollar Bill in tight shorts) sticks in many people’s minds as the be-all and end-all. Admittedly, his achievement at the 1964 Tokyo games on a team of truly amateur U.S. basketball players, whom he led as captain to the gold medal over professional Soviets while still an undergrad, is conveniently legendary. However, you might well be intrigued at the Olympic gold won by other Princetonians over an array of eras and circumstances.
It begins at the beginning, with the birth of the modern games in 1896. Wonderfully documented in these very pages (imagine this is a page), you can go dig up PAW for Dec. 17, 1979, and Stephen Dujack ’76 will intrigue you with the tale of Baron de Coubertin, Robert Garrett Jr. 1897 (after whom our indoor track is named; trivia alert!) and the loooooong boat ride to Europe – 16 days from Hoboken to Athens. That Garrett had never seen a discus until just before he won the event is the sort of feel-good stuff that usually gathers only around Bradley, Hobey Baker ’14, and Dick Kazmaier ’52, but it is true nonetheless. He also won his actual specialty, the shot put, becoming the first of only four Tigers ever to win multiple golds. By the way, Princeton was the only U.S. college to formally send a team to the 1896 Games; the Harvard undergrads who went were thrown off their track team for undertaking such a dangerous escapade. Ah, those wild and crazy Cantabs!
The other three Princeton Olympic multi-gold winners are as varied as you can get without going off-planet:
• Karl Frederick 1903 is the only Tiger to win three, all in 1920 in Antwerp. One of the better-shooting Princeton lawyers of the post-Burr era, he won an individual gold in the 50-meter pistol and team golds in the same event and the 30-meter, too. He later pulled off an unlikely double, as president in turn of the National Rifle Association and the New York State Conservation Council.
• Herman “Swede” Whiton ’26 is the only Princetonian to win in two separate games and the first American yachtsman to win a race twice – the 6-meter sailing race at both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics in London and Helsinki with different crews.
• Nelson Diebel ’96 was a badass kid who was semi-rescued from weirdness by his Peddie swimming coach, then suffered chronic rotator-cuff inflammation, but put together an annus mirabilis after his Princeton freshman year in 1992 to win both the Olympic 100-meter breaststroke and the 4x100 medley relay gold in Barcelona.
The other victorious Princetonians run (or splash, or row, or whatever) the same gamut:
• Four years after Garrett’s thrown-together triumph in Athens, Frank Jarvis 1900 (a direct descendent of George Washington) won the 100-meter dash in 1900 in Paris. The first great Princeton sprinter, he already had won the national AAU title at 100 yards and two different Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) titles.
• Bill Stevenson ’22, an Illinois cousin of his famed classmate Adlai II ’22 and a Rhodes scholar, had won the national championship AAU title in the 440 yard race in 1921. He went to Paris for the 1924 games – the Chariots of Fire Olympics™ for you film fans – and ran on the U.S. gold-medal 4x400-meter relay team. He eventually became president of Oberlin, then ambassador to the Philippines.
• Jed Graef ’64, whose high school didn’t have a swimming team, swam for the great Bob Clotworthy in Dillon Pool and went on to win the 200-yard backstroke at the NCAA and U.S. championships. Then he set a world record winning gold in the 200 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, beating two Americans who earlier had defeated him. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1988.
• Then came the rowers, products of the ever-burgeoning program down on Lake Carnegie. The first champion was Mike Evans ’81, whose gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics came, ironically, for Canada by 0.42 seconds over the United States, the first Princeton gold won for another country. It also was Canada’s first win in the featured men’s heavyweight eights, establishing a global stature that Canadians retain to this day.
• Chris Ahrens ’98 waited six years after stroking the Princeton heavyweight eight to national championships in 1996 and 1998 to win his gold in 2004 in the men’s eights in Athens (Bradley would be happy!), coming out of retirement in 2003 after a wrenching fifth-place finish in Sydney in 2000.
• And just last month (see, I told you we were up to date) the great Caroline Lind ’06, stroke and heart of the magnificent 2006 women’s undefeated – and practically unchallenged – national champion open crew, rowed the No. 7 oar for the gold-medal-winning women’s eight in Beijing, their first Olympic championship in 24 years. She’s the first alumna to grab gold for the Tigers.
Of course, while Lind is the youngest (at 25), she’s not the junior-most Princeton winner. Huh? That falls to Joey Cheek ’11 (who’s 29) admitted to the current sophomore class after his gold at Turin in the 2006 men’s 500-meter speedskate, Princeton’s first Winter Olympics champ. Although elderly for a soph, he’s still wise beyond his years, already the co-founder of Team Darfur, a group of multinational athletes intent on pressuring world governments to end the despicable genocide in the Sudan. His visa to attend the 2008 Olympics, where he intended to publicize the cause, was revoked the day he was to leave the United States for China. My suspicion is, when Bill Bradley back in 1977 criticized “the incursion of the festival into the politics of the host nation,” he wasn’t worried so much about Cheek as he was about China.
A PARTING UPDATE: Leonard Ernst ’25, five-time winner of the Class of 1923 Cane as the senior returning alumnus in the P-rade, died Aug. 10. His classmate Malcolm Warnock, a four-time winner himself and the 2008 recipient (see my most recent column), survives him at 103 years old. Together, they were Princeton’s first 80th reunion in history in 2005. They each deserve a locomotive, and then some. Dei sub numine viget.