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From the Olympics to Congress
After going for the gold, athletes returned home to serve as lawmakers
From Mitt Romney to President Obama to House Speaker John A. Boehner, plenty of political figures have weighed in on the Olympics the last two weeks, cheering on American athletes in public displays of patriotism. Yet, on a few rare occasions in congressional history, the Olympian and lawmaker were one in the same.
From defiantly embarrassing Hitler to beating the Russians for the gold, at least a half-dozen members of Congress from both chambers have participated in the Olympics, according to the House and Senate historian offices. There could be more, but Congress doesn’t keep an official tally.
Perhaps the most noteworthy is Ralph Metcalfe, who served in the House from Chicago’s South Side in the 1970s. In the early 1930s, he was considered the fastest man on the planet. Metcalfe burst onto the track scene while at Marquette University, winning several 100-meter and 200-meter national collegiate titles. He won a silver and a bronze medal in those events during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.
But it was at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where Mr. Metcalfe’s status as an international hero to many — and a bane to one — was solidified. Germany’s Adolf Hitler was using the games to promote his racist and fascist views, and he had boasted that German athletes would prove their self-professed superiority. Instead, black runners, including Metcalfe and Jesse Owens, dominated. The teammates won a gold medal in the 400-meter relay, and Metcalfe finished second in the 100-meter dash behind Mr. Owens.
After serving in the Chicago City Council, Metcalfe was elected to the House in 1970 as a Democrat. In 1971, he was one of several co-founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. He served in Congress until his death in 1978.
He was elected to the U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975.
“He will always be a great figure with African-Americans, and I think if more people knew him throughout the country they too would begin to see him as a major figure whose accomplishments cannot and should not be ignored,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Missouri Democrat and caucus chairman.
“Great athlete, Olympian and a great mind. And he was a man of integrity and character.”
The 10-event decathlon is one of the most difficult medals to win in the Olympics. Bob Mathias, a California Republican who served in the House from 1967 to 1975, won it twice — at the 1948 London Olympics and the 1952 games in Helsinki.
Mathias set three world decathlon records. He also starred at fullback for the Stanford University football team and played in the 1952 Rose Bowl, making him the only person ever to compete in the contest and an Olympics in the same year.
He was inducted to the U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.
One of Congress‘ best-known Olympians is former Sen. Bill Bradley, who won a gold medal in basketball at the 1964 games in Tokyo. The Americans rarely were challenged in the tournament and defeated the Soviet Union by 14 points in the gold-medal game.
Mr. Bradley, who helped Princeton University to the NCAA basketball Final Four in 1965, enjoyed a successful professional hoops career with the New York Knicks, winning NBA titles in 1970 and 1973. He also excelled as a student, graduating from Princeton before attending Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and earning a graduate degree.
But it was in politics where Mr. Bradley perhaps made his biggest mark, serving as a Democrat in the Senate from New Jersey from 1979 to 1997. He was a sponsor of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which simplified the tax-rate system and cut down on loopholes. And he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000.
After politics, Mr. Bradley turned down an invitation to become chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Former Rep. Jim Ryun is the most recent Olympian in Congress, serving Kansas as a Republican from 1996 to 2007. He is considered one of the greatest American mile runners in history, and in 1964 was the first high schooler to run the mile in under 4 minutes. A year later, he set the then-American record of 3:55 in the mile run.
While at the University of Kansas, he broke world records in the 800-yard run, the mile run and the 1,500-meter run, according to U.S.A. Track and Field. In all, he set six world records and held the world mile record for nine years and U.S. mile record for 14 years.
Mr. Ryun won the silver medal in the 1,500-meter race at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He also qualified for the 1,500-meter run for the 1972 games in Munich but failed to medal. He was inducted into the U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980.
Wendell Anderson of Minnesota, who was appointed to the Senate in 1976 as a Democrat to fill the vacancy caused by Walter F. Mondale — who resigned after being elected vice president — won a silver medal in ice hockey at the 1956 Olympics at Cortina, Italy. He served in the chamber for two years.
While serving as the Gopher State’s governor in 1972, the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association drafted Mr. Anderson as a publicity stunt. He declined and remained as governor.
And Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Democrat who served in the House from 1987 to 1993 and in the Senate from 1993 to 2005, competed in judo at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. An injury kept him from earning a medal.
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About the Author
Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at email@example.com.
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