The Pains of Amateur Purity in America Part 1: Two-time Gold Medalist Hurdler Lee Calhoun

Lee Calhoun in 1960
The finish of the 100m hurdles at the Olympic games in Rome in 1960, just won by Lee Calhoun from the USA ahead of Willie Mae also from the USA.

Lee Calhoun was the 110-meter hurdles champion at the 1956 Melbourne Games. And like many other athletes in the post-war years, he was not financially well off. He was about to get married, but he wanted to keep his dream alive of repeating his gold-medal success at the 1960 Rome Games.

For many athletes in America up until about the 1980s, this meant sacrifice, scrimping and saving to maintain just enough to get by and be able to train. In 1958, Calhoun intended to marry his college sweetheart, but was under no illusion of being able to afford anything special.

His fiancé, Gwen Bannister, had an idea. Based on a tip from Calhoun’s college coach, LeRoy T. Walker, Bannister would apply for participation on the popular game show, “Bride and Groom”. On this program from the 1950s, couples would actually get married, revel in their wedding gifts presented on the show, and then be sent off on an all-expenses paid honeymoon.

Bride and Groom_NBC title screenshot

As she explained to David Maraniss in his wonderful book Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World, Bannister said that Calhoun was not a party to the idea, but was all for it when he heard about it. “If they enjoyed your letter, they would put you on the show. Mine must have been a humdinger,” Gwen told Maraniss. “I didn’t tell Lee about it until I knew for sure. He thought it was wonderful. We knew we didn’t have anything; didn’t even have a job. [But] it was my choice. Lee didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Lee Calhoun cardThen fell the heavy hand of the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union, which was the overarching governing body for sports in America recognized by the IOC. Only a week before Lee Calhoun and Gwen Bannister were to be married on television, Dan Ferris of the AAU informed the couple that Calhoun would no longer be considered an amateur if he appeared on “Bride and Groom”. As Maraniss explained, “Calhoun was unduly benefiting from his status as an athlete and that the couple would not have been invited on Bride and Groom had he not been a track star.”

Calhoun thought the judgment was unfair, “that anyone could be on the TV show, not just athletes.” So Lee and Gwen rolled the dice and got married on Bride and Groom.

Calhoun was suspended from competing in track and field for a year. Fortunately, he was able to continue his Olympic journey after the suspension, go to Rome, and win gold in 110-meter hurdles.