A pair of Kansas Citians, Chris Nilsen and KC Lightfoot, are gunning for Olympic medals in the men’s pole vault this week in Tokyo. Courtney Frerichs, who attended UMKC, has qualified for the women’s steeplechase final. Former Missouri distance runner Karissa Schweizer runs the women’s 10,000 meters later in the week.
They’re writing the current chapter of Kansas and Missouri track and field athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, a story nearly as old as the modern Games and filled with legends ... and many medals.
This sparsely populated corner of the nation, without year-round favorable weather, has produced:
The first track athlete to win gold medals in four consecutive Olympics.
America’s only men’s 10,000-meter champion.
The “world’s greatest athlete,” as a decathlon winner.
The “world’s fastest man,” as 100 meter champion.
The pace of podium finishers has slowed in recent Games, but starting in 1904 and for the next six decades, rarely did an Olympics pass without a track and field Olympic star from the Heartland.
How did middle America get a jump on Olympic track and field?
The University of Kansas is a good place to start. The Jayhawks track program turned out such gold medal standouts as Jim Bausch in the 1932 decathlon, four-time discus champion Al Oerter, Bill Nieder in the 1960 shot put, Billy Mills in the 1964 10,000 meters, in addition to 1,500 legends Glenn Cunningham and Jim Ryun, who took silver medals in 1936 and 1968.
A catalyst in Kansas’ track development was the opening of Memorial Stadium, the current football structure, in 1921. Construction included a track around the field. John Outland, college football hall of fame coach and for whom the Outland Trophy is named, had coached football teams at KU, Washburn and Haskell and later served on the Kansas athletic board.
While attending medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, Outland became enamored with the Penn Relays and wanted a similar track festival for Kansas. The new football stadium and track provided that opportunity and the first Kansas Relays were held in 1923 with Outland, James Naismith, Fielding Yost and Phog Allen as the event’s officials.
“Outland brought the idea from Pennsylvania and it had a lot of support at KU,” said Bernie Kish, former sports management lecturer at Kansas and the first executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame. “Building a football stadium with a track was important to the promotion of track and field.”
The Kansas Relays became a can’t-miss event on the track circuit and for regional sports followers, influencing generations of athletes and eventually helping turn KU into a national track power.
“Track was always important here,” said Pete Enich, a local sports historian, radio personality and author. “The colleges, especially KU, had a preponderance of great track athletes.”
The Jayhawks have won three NCAA men’s basketball championships. The men’s and women’s track programs have won eight track and cross country national titles.
And just as having Naismith, basketball’s inventor, spend his final 40 years living in Lawrence and influencing basketball regionally, the same thing was happening in track and field.
“Track coaches and other coaches who ventured into track like Phog, Naismith, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Brutus Hamilton, they influenced other coaches who passed on their knowledge,” Enich said.
The Peculiar, Missouri-born Hamilton was a national decathlon champion at Missouri and won the silver medal in the event in 1920. He went on to coach Bausch and Cunningham at Kansas and became one of college track’s most prominent coaches. KU coaching legends Bill Easton and Bob Timmons oversaw all of the men’s NCAA title teams.
Relay gold medals went to Kansas’ Diamond Dixon in 2012 and Kyle Clemons in 2016.
The most recent running individual gold medalist from Kansas City, sprinter Maurice Greene, who attended Schlagle High, was shaped by one of the nation’s top sprint coaches. Al Hobson spent more than two decades as the coach at Kansas City Kansas Community College over the years and has worked with members of the Chiefs and Royals.
Greene became a world-record holder in the 100 meters in 1999, a year before winning gold medals in the 100 and the 400 relay in Sydney.
Greene summed up his desire for Olympic gold in an interview with ESPN The Magazine, just before then Olympics.
“How do people rate sprinters? By the Olympics. If you don’t win the gold, you’re not the greatest. My career without a gold will be worthless. … Hey, that’s the truth — worthless and void.”
Not all KU
KU didn’t stand alone in Olympic success, nor were the Jayhawks first to win a gold medal.
Missouri’s most decorated Olympic athlete, sprinter Jackson Scholz, took gold in the 400 relay in 1920 and in the 200 meters in 1924. He finished second in the 100 that year, an event captured in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Kansas State’s greatest track athlete, Thane Baker, won four medals over two Olympics, including a haul in 1956 when he won the gold for the 400 relay, silver in the 100 and bronze in the 200.
John Kuck, who attended Emporia State, won the 1928 shot put gold medal with a world record heave, making him the first Olympic champion from Kansas.
The gold medal rush has continued in recent Olympics. In 1996, Kenny Harrison, who had been a national champion triple jumper for Kansas State in the 1980s, won the gold in Atlanta in a distance (59 feet, 4 inches) that remains an Olympic record.
Another Kansas State jumper, Erik Knyard Jr., took the silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in the high jump. Seven years later the event winner, Ivan Ukhov, was disqualified from that competition for doping. His appeal was denied earlier this year clearing the way for Kynard to be upgraded to gold. The change hasn’t been reflected on the International Olympic Committee’s website.
More golden opportunities await regional track athletes this week in Tokyo.