Horace Ashenfelter, an American runner who set a world record in the steeplechase at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, beating an overwhelmingly favored Soviet champion in what was billed as a test of Cold War supremacy, died on Saturday morning in a nursing home in West Orange, N.J. He was 94.
His wife, Lillian, confirmed the death.
Nearly a generation after Jesse Owens shattered the myth of Aryan invincibility by sweeping four gold medals in Hitler’s Swastika-draped Olympic Stadium in Berlin in 1936, United States athletes faced another challenge on the world stage. For the first time since 1912, when the Czars ruled in St. Petersburg, Russians were competing in the Olympics. This time it was American Democracy vs. Soviet Communism.
Ashenfelter’s event was the 3,000-meter steeplechase — a punishing obstacle course of nearly two miles with 35 waist-high hurdles that do not topple, seven of them followed by water pits almost 12 feet long. Runners leap most of the fixed hurdles, but at the water jumps they use it as a step to bound toward the shallower end; after splashing down, they scamper out to continue the race.
There were a dozen runners in the steeplechase final in Helsinki. But all eyes were on two athletes: Ashenfelter, a clean-cut F.B.I. agent with the rawboned frame of a Pennsylvania farmer, and Vladimir Kazantsev, a Red Army hero of World War II and the pride of Dynamo Moscow, where elite state-supported Soviet athletes were trained. Ashenfelter had run the steeplechase only six times, while Kazantsev was the unofficial world-record holder.
To the untutored eye, the runners seemed to be jogging most of the way. But the race is deceptively grueling, requiring the gritty strength of a cross-country runner, the tenacity of an all-weather athlete and the speed of a miler who pounds out the meters with great galloping strides.
Kazantsev was far ahead on the last lap, seemingly destined for an easy victory. But then Ashenfelter pulled away from the pack and moved behind the leader. Even as they splashed down in the final water pit, Kazantsev was slightly ahead.
But then, with a surprising burst of stamina, Ashenfelter rose out of the water as if propelled by a rocket. The exhausted Russian, grimacing in pain, stumbled momentarily, struggling to regain his footing, and churned mechanically forward on hopeless legs of iron as the American shot ahead.
Down the 200-yard stretch, as 65,000 people shrieked from the stands, Ashenfelter’s powerful sprint widened his lead with every stride. He crossed the finish line 30 meters in front of the broken Kazantsev, who staggered home just ahead of John Disley of Britain. Ashenfelter’s time, 8 minutes 45.4 seconds, smashed the official record, the 1936 Olympic mark of 9:03.8 set by Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland.
It was one of the great upsets in Olympic history and the triumph of a lifetime for Ashenfelter, whose unassuming demeanor seemed to personify the Wheaties box all-American athlete in a postwar ideological struggle with lock step Soviet Communism. The competition was heightened by fears of nuclear war, a stalemate in the Korean conflict, diatribes of propaganda from Moscow and a fever of anti-Communism in the United States.
In Helsinki, the lasting imagery was Ashenfelter beaming atop the victory stand with Kazantsev shaking his hand from a step below. The gold medal draped around his neck, Ashenfelter basked in “The Star-Spangled Banner” and accepted a bouquet from a young Finn in a peasant dress. The crowd roared as he shook her hand, and there were cries of “Kiss her!” Shyly, he complied.
Reporters later asked Ashenfelter if he had been sure he would win. “It would sound conceited if I said sure,” he replied. “Just say I was surprised.”
There was also a telegram from the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover: “All your associates in the F.B.I. are proud of your brilliant victory and happy with you over establishment of a new record.”
In the end, the United States easily beat the Soviet Union in gold medals, 40 to 22, but led by only 76 to 71 in overall medals. The leaders were far ahead of the 67 other nations attending.
The New York Times called Ashenfelter “a true model for young Americans,” and he was pictured in the newspapers with sports heroes of the day: Robin Roberts, the Phillies pitcher who led the major leagues with 28 wins, and Rocky Marciano, the world heavyweight champion.
From the late 1940s, when Ashenfelter ran for Penn State, until his 1957 retirement from competition, Ashenfelter won 17 national indoor and outdoor titles in a variety of races: cross-country, the two-mile, the three-mile, the 10,000 meters and the steeplechase. He won the Sullivan Award as America’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1952 and entered the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975. In 2001, Penn State’s indoor track was named for him.
Horace Ashenfelter III, who was nicknamed Nip, was born in Phoenixville, Pa., on Jan. 23, 1923. He grew up on a farm in nearby Collegeville, competed on football, basketball, baseball and track teams at Collegeville High School, and graduated in 1941. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, and became a pilot and stateside gunnery instructor.
He married Lillian Wright in 1945 and had four sons who survive him: Horace, James, Alan and John. Other survivors include his brother Donald; his sister, Jane; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Discharged in 1946, he studied physical education at Penn State, joined the track team and won National Collegiate Athletic Association outdoor two-mile runs in 1948 and 1949. The Penn Relay’s four-mile event in 1949 was won by a team that included three Ashenfelter brothers: Horace, Bill and Donald.
He graduated in 1949, began running for the New York Athletic Club and won 15 gold medals in Amateur Athletic Union competitions. Four years after his triumph in Helsinki, he went to the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, but did no better than sixth in a steeplechase heat.
After nine years as an F.B.I. agent, investigating backgrounds of federal job applicants, Ashenfelter left in 1959 and joined Engelhard Industries as a metals salesman. He retired in 1993 but continued to run frequently in Glen Ridge, N.J., where he lived. The town’s annual Thanksgiving Day run is called the Ashenfelter eight-kilometer classic.
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