It was 1952 at the Helsinki Olympics, and the Cold War was heating up.
Making their first appearance at the Olympics were the Soviet Union. And in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the favorites were Russians Vladimir Kazantsev, and Mikhail Saltykov, both world record holders with times under 9 minutes. Horace Ashenfelter, an American whose best at the time was nearly 18 seconds slower than Kazantsev’s best, was not given a chance to win the steeplechase competition.
And yet the American press played up the geo-political theme, particularly since Ashenfelter was an FBI agent in the US government. As Red Smith wrote in his column on July 26, 1952,
It was evident at Wednesday’s steeplechase heats that the final would bring about the carnival’s first head-on, man to man clash between an American and a Russian. A lot of people had been waiting for such a match ever since it became apparent, long before the games opened, that the 15th Olympics would be chiefly a Russian-American struggle. Before the heats, however, nobody had dreamt that the match might come about in the steeplechase. All the tall tales about a generation of supermen rehearsing behind the iron curtain had made special mention of Vladimir Kazantsev of Kiev, who had been charging over the obstacles at speeds the outside world had never seen.
With such a foe looming, Ashenfelter was given little chance. In the book, The Heart of a Champion, he was teased about his likely fate at the hand of the Russians:
“Horace, how is it going to feel to be out there running on the track when Kazantsev is in taking a shower and on his way home?” Another team-mate said, “I’ll bet Horace will have only three laps to go when Kazantsev is getting his gold medal.”
And yet, Ashenfelter was never fazed by the challenge. As stated in this interview, Ashenfelter was in prime shape and had nothing to lose.
I’m a pretty confident guy, actually and – put it this way – he had to beat me. It was the first time and only time where I had about three weeks of controlled training and rest. I had fine tuned my weight and weighed 128 pounds which I carried on five feet nine frame as compared to my normal weight of 140. I was in outstanding shape and had no bad luck occur. I was just going to stay with the pace as long as I could and to make the pace if I had to – I didn’t mind that.
He got suckered by his coaches as his plan they had was for him to stay with me. That meant that he was running on my right shoulder the whole race and adding three or four yards to each lap. I ran him a little bit wide on the corners and we bumped several times as he was running that close to me. That didn’t bother me but it may have bothered him – I don’t know. I knew I had a lot left at the end.
The American press lapped up the victory. As Smith wrote in his column, “The G man, reluctant to keep his back turned on a Commie, trotted back and slapped Kazantsev on the blouse of his britches.”
It was not known at that time that Kazantsev was also a KGB Agent, but one could imagine that Red Smith’s rhetoric would have been even more provocative.
As for Ashenfelter, he could care less about the Cold War drama on the track. “He was just an opponent. The media writes what they think and what they believe will attract readers.”
On January 6, 2018, Horace Ashenfelter passed away at the age of 94.