Jim Ryun gets another medal

Few achievements are so unequivocal or visible as those in sport.  A few months ago President Trump honored one of these achievements at the White House, along with the life of service that accompanied it.

In 1964, seventeen-year-old JIM RYUN became the first high schooler to run a mile under 4 minutes. That year he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics as America’s youngest male track athlete, and went on to represent the United States at Mexico City in 1968 and at Munich in 1972.  Throughout this time Ryun set world records in the mile (e.g., 3:51.3 in 1966; 3:51.1 in 1967), and 880-yard runs (1:44.9, 1966); and regularly broke his and other men’s records year after year !

Though great success would come, the Wichita native had a rocky start in his early teens, failing to make several team sports before finding his bliss in running.  By his own account, Ryun was cut from his church baseball team and neither his junior high basketball coach or track team could find room for him.  In the end, by sheer grit or by his strong Presbyterian faith, Ryan tried out for cross country only as a last resort.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

The discipline and sweat of 100 miles each week for years, and excellent training at the University of Kansas under such coaches as Bob Timmons turned Ryan into America’s premier middle-distance runner, feted for his top-tier accomplishments for over a decade to 1974 by Sports Illustrated, Track and Field News, and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. ESPN even ranked him the greatest high school athlete ever.

Interestingly, Ryun did all of his record-setting between Olympics.  His only medal at an Olympiad, in fact, was a silver one in the high altitudes of Mexico City for the 1500 meters where he actually exceeded his own expectations for victory at under 3:39 but lost that day in 1968 to the superb Kenyan runner, Kip Keino.  No, most of Ryan’s medals and acclaim came outside the limelight of the Olympics in less public venues in the U.S. and around the world.  That is, until now.

On July 24, 2020, Ryun received the nation’s highest civilian award: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  It was for running, of course, but also because after he hung up his track shoes in the mid-1970s, Ryun went into business as an entrepreneur, onto the inspirational public speaking circuit, and for a decade after 1996, represented Kansas’ 2nd district as a Republican in Congress.

“Jim has personified the greatness of this country throughout his life,” the President said at the award ceremony in Washington. “Principled, committed, tough, beloved, a giant of American athletics, a dedicated public servant and a man of charity, generosity, and faith.”

For his part, the 73-year-old Ryan thanked Mr. Trump for championing the freedoms and traditions of the United States, and looked back to his running days as an honor and privilege “to represent this amazing country and represent the stars and stripes on my chest while racing in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Academic fields like geology, physics, or oceanography have their virtues, of course, but can take years and decades to realize and appreciate.  By contrast, who can’t relate to the immediacy of baseball, basketball, or football right away – watching it, feeling it, smelling it, even trying it yourself in real time?  The concrete measurable RBIs, rebounds, and touchdowns are the very “stuff” that bring fans to their feet to cheer and follow their teams devotedly season after season.

And it’s easy to name many excellent athletes of excellent 1960s teams – even those who excelled in sport and contributed to other areas of American life after ending their athletic careers – such as basketball’s Bill Bradley and football’s Roger Staubach.

Still. nothing quite exemplifies athletic achievement in such undiluted, solitary, and accountable form as do the various events of track and field.  And for these factors, Ryun represents these qualities in sport, and translated them into positive contributions in civic life, faith, and family.

For our project, Ryun stands as a counterpoint to the loud, anti-establishment, psychedelic ’60s known by so many.  Perhaps President Trump – so different in style from Ryun, yet similar in values – recognized the qualities of modesty and quiet achievement in a man who was almost his exact contemporary, and admired them. Perhaps it was simply an example of an achiever in one field recognizing an achiever in another field, and finding it good.

Another medal for James Ronald Ryun is a fitting and interesting connection binding the era of the 1960s to our own day.

(credit: Jack Ryan Morris)

Until next time,

October 29, 2020


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