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Harold Osborn at the 1924 Olympics
Harold Osborn at the 1924 Olympics

Harold Marion Osborn D.O. (April 13, 1899 – April 5, 1975) was a U.S. track athlete. He won a gold medal in Olympic decathlon and high jump in 1924. The apex of the athletic career of Harold M. Osborn occurred at the 1924 Olympic games in Paris, France (the games of the VIII Olympiad, featured in the popular film, Chariots of Fire). Osborn was the first and, to this day, the only athlete ever to win gold in both the decathlon and an individual event.[1]

Early life

Harold Marion Osborn was born April 13, 1899, the fourth child and third son of Jesse Ware Osborn and Emma Ware, whose parents and grandparents were settled in central Illinois in the early 19th century. Osborn grew up on the family farm in Butler Grove Township in Montgomery County.

Family lore tells us that Harold and his brothers, Wesley, Clarence, and Loren, were encouraged to run and practice jumping hurdles on the farm. Their father, Jesse, built a track and hurdles on the farm so that the boys could practice. After team practices in football, basketball, and track at Hillsboro High School, Harold had to walk or run the five and a half miles home to the farm. Throughout Osborn's long athletic career, few people were aware that he had lost most of his vision in one eye due to an injury during his teenage years. As a result, he had very little depth perception, making it difficult to know when to jump as he approached the cross bar. He compensated by carefully measuring from the take-off point to a point where he began his running approach.

After high school

After high school, Osborn attended the University of Illinois, from 1919 through 1922,[3] majoring in agriculture. While at Illinois, he was a founding member of the Eta chapter of Kappa Delta Rho fraternity. He then accepted a high school teaching job at Lewistown Illinois, where, sponsored by the Illinois Athletic Club of Chicago, he continued to train and to compete in track and field events in preparation for the upcoming 1924 Olympic games. Osborn left Lewiston after a couple of years to take a job at Champaign High School, where he would be closer to the University as he continued his training.

Osborn did not, however, forget one of the students he met at Lewistown. He stayed in touch with Margaret Bordner, a striking brunette, and after the 1924 Olympic games, Osborn began a serious long-distance courtship of Margaret by mail while he was competing in Europe. Osborn prevailed in love as well as in track and married Margaret in 1928.

1924 Olympics

Osborn won gold medals and set Olympic records in both the high jump and the decathlon at the 1924 Olympics. His 6'6" high jump remained the Olympic record for 12 years, while his decathlon score of 7,710.775 points also set a new world record,[1] and resulted in worldwide press coverage calling him the "world's greatest athlete." The decathlon competition was especially grueling, conducted just four days after the high jump competition, and consisting of ten events run in extremely hot and humid weather conditions over two days at the end of the games.

Other achievements

Although the 1924 Olympic games were a high point in Osborn's career, there were many others. While competing for the University of Illinois in 1920, 1921, and 1922, Osborn helped Illinois win both the indoor and outdoor Big Ten titles all three years. He tied for the NCAA and AAU outdoor high jump championships in 1922.

On May 27, 1924, Osborn's 6' 8-¼" high jump set a world record at an AAU meet held at the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.[3] He won the AAU outdoor title in 1925 and 1926, the indoor title four years in a row, 1923‑26, and he was the AAU decathlon champion in 1923, 1925, and 1926. He also achieved prominence in several events which have since been discontinued, winning the AAU indoor 70‑yard hurdles in 1925, and the AAU indoor standing high jump from 1929 through 1931, and taking second place in the standing broad jump in 1930.

1924 to 1928

Osborn spent much of the year after the 1924 Olympics traveling and competing in European games with a small group of other track and field athletes who had competed in the Olympics. As a result of the Olympic gold medals and the many meets in Europe, he became well known in Europe and acquired fans there who followed his career.

A month after the 1924 Olympics he competed in Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, in the Tailteann Games. His major competitor in those games was Larry Stanley, a native of Kildare, Ireland, and Ireland's entrant in the 1924 Olympics. Stanley was a celebrated Gaelic footballer and the Irish emotions ran high at the Tailteann games, but Osborn defeated Stanley, jumping 6' 4½" to Stanley's 6' 3½".

Osborn returned from Europe to compete in track meets in the United States. In 1925, Clyde Littlefield, an outstanding track and field athlete from Texas, became the coach at the University of Texas. Littlefield started an event known as the Texas Relays, a showcase for track and field athletes, which continues today. Osborn competed in the first of the Texas Relays, along with the 1924 Olympic 200‑meter champion, Jackson Scholz. Both did well. Scholz won a special 100 meters, and Osborn cleared 6' 8-15/16" (2.05 m), higher than his earlier world record set in 1924. This jump, however, was never ratified as an official world record.[4]

1928 Olympics and after

Osborn competed in the Olympics again in 1928. In the high jump, four competitors tied for second place. In the runoff jumps, Osborn was not able to jump high enough to win the bronze medal and had to settle for a participant medal. The initial tying jumps for second place were 6' 3- ½", just an inch behind gold medalist, Bob King, who jumped 6' 4½". No one was able to match or better Osborn's 1924 jump.[1]

After the 1928 games Osborn returned home, married Margaret Bordner, and continued to teach and coach at Champaign High School until 1933, when he returned to school. He received his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1937. He credited a share of success as an athlete to osteopathy, especially after a Paris practitioner helped him with a pulled muscle at the 1924 games. In 1937, the Osborns, by then the parents of two daughters, returned to Champaign, Illinois, where he practiced osteopathic medicine, continued to compete in athletics, and assisted the University of Illinois track coach in the 1940s.

Even with his busy life of coaching, practicing osteopathic medicine, and raising a family, Osborn never lost interest in staying physically fit, active, and healthy. At the age of 40, he could jump 6'3". At the age of 50, he could clear his own body height of 5' 10½". In his later years he also competed in the field of archery.

Two more daughters were born in Champaign, where Harold and Margaret Osborn continued to reside until his death on April 5, 1975.

Titles and records

Altogether Osborn won 17 national titles and set six world records during his career. He held world indoor records in the standing hop, step, and jump; the 60-yard high hurdles; and the running high jump. His world record in the standing high jump of 5' 5¾" still stands today (and will continue to stand as this event is no longer part of track contests). He achieved that record at the age of 37.[1]

Near the end of his life Osborn enjoyed new honors and a chance to revisit Europe and some of the sites of his earlier competitions. Osborn was enshrined as a charter member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974,[3] along with such other track greats as Jesse Owens, Babe Didriksen Zaharias, Bob Mathias, and Wilma Rudolph. In 1974, he was also invited to return to Dublin for the Golden Jubilee commemoration of the Tailteann Games, where he met and reminisced with Larry Stanley.

The coach at Hillsboro High School summed up his career quite aptly at Osborn's induction into the high school Hall of Fame: "As a world class athlete, Osborn is one of the greatest. As an individual competing for the sheer joy of sport and dedicated to the highest ideals of amateur sport, he has few equals. Osborn died at the age of 75 after a long life of service to his community and inspiration to all who knew him."

Olympic Athlete Harold Abrahams, who also competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics, and who later wrote and published about the Olympiads of his era, wrote in 1950, "After Nurmi, I think the outstanding performer was the American, Harold Osborn, who won both the high jump and the decathlon".

High jumping styles

Harold M. Osborn developed a unique variation of the Western roll style of high jumping. While Osborn was practicing his hurdles and jumping in the field at his farm home in Illinois, the Western roll was gradually replacing an earlier jumping style called the scissors-jump. In the Western roll, the bar was approached on a diagonal—the inner leg used for the take‑off, while the outer leg was thrust up to lead the body sideways over the bar. Using the Western roll, George Horine first took the world high jump standard to 6 ft 7 in (2.01 m) in 1912. Horine is sometimes cited as the originator of the style.

Osborn worked on his own form and obviously paid attention to the style that was developing as he competed in high school and at the University of Illinois. He modified the Western roll technique by developing an efficient side‑to‑the‑bar clearance, which resulted in more height and consistency.[3] His jumping style was sometimes referred to as the Osborn roll, but is also often lumped together with other variations of the style of jumping that is generally referred to as the Western roll. By 1924 he was using the style to attain new heights.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Osborn corresponded from time to time with Volker Kluge of Altenburg, Germany, a journalist who published a sports magazine, and who had a passionate interest in the Olympics and the changes in track and field over the years. Volker asked Osborn many questions about his participation in the 1924 Olympics and published articles about Osborn and other athletes who competed in Europe. In a letter to Volker dated January 31, 1969, Osborn described how he developed his style of jumping: "I more or less found my style of high jumping by accident, as I was trying to imitate Ed Beeson's style, and what developed was natural to me, and as I became more proficient and with much practice, I utilized leg and arm lift and body ‛kip' and then slid across the bar more or less on my back, and as I got to the far side of the bar then started to uncoil and dropped my take-off leg and arms for landing."

Ed Beeson was a Berkeley student and track competitor who also used the Western roll style. In the same letter to Volker, Osborn commented on Dick Fosbury's jumping style—the Fosbury Flop. Osborn wrote that Fosbury's style would have been illegal when he was competing in 1924 because the rules did not allow the head to cross the bar first. The flop was an innovation in the high jump that attracted a lot of attention when Fosbury introduced it at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City. Fosbury jumped with his back to the bar and went over head first. It required much more cushioning on the landing side, also a dramatic change from the days when Osborn jumped into sand.

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