Tom Courtney, sprinter who lunged to grab Olympic gold, dies at 90
By Frank Litsky
Tom Courtney, a Fordham University graduate who with a homestretch surge and a lunge at the tape won a furious 800-meter run by inches in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, capturing the gold medal for the United States, died Tuesday at an assisted living facility in Naples, Florida. He was 90.
The cause was amyloidosis, said his son, Tom Jr.
Courtney, a 23-year-old Army private at the time, was not the favorite going into the 1956 Games; that distinction belonged to a fellow American, Arnie Sowell, a University of Pittsburgh senior who had repeatedly defeated Courtney throughout their college careers, even though Courtney had a string of triumphs of his own at Fordham.
But if Sowell was quicker, Courtney, at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 179 pounds, was recognized as the stronger of the two. Both made the U.S. Olympic team and advanced to the eight-man 800-meter final.
When the moment arrived, however, on a narrow and spongy dirt track, Courtney was overwhelmed.
“As I stepped onto the track,” he once wrote, “I felt my legs go rubbery. I saw over a hundred thousand people in the stands, and before I knew it I had collapsed onto the infield grass. ‘Can it be,’ I remember thinking, as I lay there gazing up at the sky, ‘that I am so nervous I’m not going to be able to run?’
“Then I realized how ridiculous I would look, flat on my back on the grass as they started the race. I guess the humor of that image made me lose my nervousness. I was able to recover, get up and jog to the starting line.”
At the final turn of the two-lap race, Sowell led and Courtney was second. Then Sowell started to sprint, and Courtney followed suit, swinging to the outside. He caught Sowell on the turn and passed him. But coming up from behind, Derek Johnson of Britain was also surging, and with only 40 meters to go, he sneaked between the two Americans and seemed about to win.
“It was a new kind of agony for me,” Courtney said of the moment in an interview with Runner’s World magazine in 2001. “My head was exploding, my stomach ripping. Even the tips of my fingers ached. The only thought in my mind was, ‘If I live, I’ll never run again.’ I felt it all slipping away, but then I looked at the tape and realized that this was the only chance I would ever have.”
Courtney caught Johnson in the final strides and threw himself at the tape, winning the gold medal by one-tenth of a second, in 1 minute, 47.7 seconds. (The record at the time, set in 1955, was 1:46.6. The record today, set in 2012 by David Rudisha of Kenya, is 1:40.91.)
Courtney collapsed after the finish, and when he came around, he asked Johnson, “Who won?”
“You did,” the Englishman said.
Courtney and Johnson were so exhausted that the medal ceremony was delayed for an hour. Courtney remembered it well. “As I listened to the national anthem,” he said, “all I could think of was how thankful I was that the year was right and the day was right and I was right.”
Five days after that race, Courtney won a second gold medal by anchoring the United States to victory in the 4x400-meter relay.
Thomas William Courtney was born Aug. 17, 1933, in South Orange, New Jersey, and he grew up nearby in Livingston. His father, Jim, played baseball for the Newark Bears, the top minor league team of the New York Yankees, before becoming a railroad worker. His wife, Dolores (Goerdes) Courtney, was a homemaker who was born into a German-speaking family.
Courtney initially played baseball at Livingston High School, gave it up for tennis and then took up the pole vault. After the track coach had him try the half-mile, Courtney became state champion a year later.
Entering Fordham, he anchored its team to a world record in the 2-mile relay in 1954. In college and after, he won national titles every year from 1954 to 1958. In 1957 alone, he set a world record of 1:46.8 for 880 yards outdoors and equaled the world record of 1:09.5 for 600 yards indoors. In May 1955, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated running in his Fordham reds.
That spring, Courtney graduated from Fordham with a bachelor’s degree, and that summer, he participated in track meets in Europe. In Germany, he sought out the family home of Rudolf Harbig, a German track athlete of the 1930s who was killed during World War II. He found Harbig’s mother there and asked to see her son’s training notebooks. Able to read in German thanks to his own mother, Courtney gleaned a crucial tip: Harbig had trained running downhill to increase his pace.
Courtney adopted the technique. He later considered it one crucial factor in his ability to beat Sowell and win the Olympic gold.
Drafted into the Army after his college graduation, Courtney was allowed to spend his time on duty focusing on track. He was honorably discharged in 1957.
He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard in 1959. In later years he worked as an investor at firms in New York, Boston and Pittsburgh. He married Posy L’Hommedieu in 1963.
In addition to Tom Jr., he is survived by his wife; a brother, Kevin; two more sons, Peter and Frank; and nine grandchildren. He had a home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, from 1975 until his death, and in 1993 he began splitting his time between Sewickley and Naples.
When Courtney ended his racing career at age 25, he promised he would run a sub-5-minute mile every year. He succeeded through his 50th birthday, when he ran a 4:36 mile against high schoolers in Sewickley. Then he quit, saying, “I’ve done enough.”
In an interview for this obituary in 2013, he recalled that last mile:
“After the first lap, the coach said to his kids, ‘Don’t let that old guy beat you.’ After the second lap, he said, ‘Don’t let that old guy catch you.’ After the third lap, the coach screamed, ‘Catch that old guy!’”