Pulse: Olympics: A Century of Champions

Why bring the Olympics to Philly? Our long legacy of medal-winning heroes is a pretty good start

The current buzz about bringing the Olympics to Philadelphia may sound novel, but it’s not the first time we’ve gone for the gold. The city fathers also vied for the games in 1948, 1952 and 1956. Though we lost out to London (’48), Helsinki (’52) and Melbourne (’56), we’ve produced plenty of Olympic winners. Here’s a sampling of locals who’ve left their mark on the games.

1908: John “Doc” Baxter Taylor

A product of Central High, Baxter went to the 1908 London Olympics a month after graduating from Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. He entered American Olympic history when his 1600-meter relay team took gold, making him the first African-American gold medalist.
1920 & 1924: John B. Kelly Sr.

Long before his movie-star daughter Grace became a princess, Kelly cast the family name in Olympic gold. In 1920 he went to the Antwerp Olympics, where he won gold in single sculls and in double sculls with his cousin, Paul V. Costello. Four years later, the duo took gold again at the 1924 Paris games.

1924 & 1928: Betty Becker

After a severe case of diphtheria when she was eight, Philadelphia-born Becker followed her doctor’s orders and began swimming. Seven years later, after being crowned Middle Atlantic State Conference champion, she set her sights on diving, and brought home gold medals in 1924 and 1928.

1936: Ed Sabol

What distinguishes Sabol’s Olympic swimming career isn’t what he did—it’s what he wouldn’t do. As a member of the 1936 U.S. swim team, Sabol publicly declined to participate in the Berlin games, saying he would not swim in a pool built by Adolf Hitler. Sabol, of course, later went on to found the South Jersey-based, Emmy Award-winning NFL Films.

1956: John B. Kelly Jr.

A four-time Olympian, John B. Kelly Jr. never matched his father’s rowing feats, winning a lone bronze medal in single sculls at the 1956 games. But the younger Kelly built his Olympic legacy after he stopped competing, holding several posts with the U.S. Olympic Committee, including president in 1985. The Kellys are the only father-son tandem in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

1968 & 1972: Ellie Daniel

IvyLeagueSports.com calls swimmer and Penn grad Ellie Daniel “one of the Ivy League’s winningest Olympians.” In 1968, the Abington native collected gold, silver and bronze medals, and she added a bronze at the 1972 games. An attorney, she served on the USOC from 1977 through 1980.

1996, 2000 & 2004: Dawn Staley

Standing all of five-foot-six, basketball star and three-time gold medal winner Dawn Staley is a giant among Philadelphia Olympians. That her peers agreed was evident when they chose her to carry the flag and lead the U.S. delegation into the 2004 Athens Olympics.

1984, 1988, 1992 & 1996: Carl Lewis

Lewis is arguably the best damn track-and-field Olympian, period. His four-gold-medal performance at the 1984 Los Angeles games matched Jesse Owens’s 1936 record. And the nine pieces of gold he earned by the end of his Olympic career in 1996 equaled swimmer Mark Spitz. Yet for all his success, the former Willingboro, New Jersey resident’s aloofness, arrogance, abrasiveness and attitude (chose one or all) kept him from being a crowd favorite. —Bob Calandra