August 2016 | Nate Pedersen

Spiked Shoes and Cinder Paths: The Last American to Win Gold in the 1500m Run

On Saturday at the Olympic Games in Rio, Matthew Centrowitz Jr won the first American gold in the 1500m since 1908.  Centrowitz's major accomplishment led me to wonder who was the last American to win that medal.  The answer to that bit of Olympic trivia, as it turns out, was Melvin W. Sheppard, a rough-and-ready Irish-American runner who grew up as a member of a street gang in late 19th century Philadelphia, before dominating middle distance running between 1908 and 1912. Sheppard won four Olympic gold medals spread across two Olympic Games.

Sport_Story_cover.gifSheppard, it turns out, later wrote an autobiography that was published in serial form in the magazine Sport Story, which had a 20 year run between 1923 and 1943. Copies are now scarce on the ground.  In fact, a search in all the usual places failed to reveal a single online copy of the May 6th, 1924 issue that includes the first installment in Sheppard's autobiography, entitled Spiked Shoes and Cinder Paths.

Happily, for folks less interested in finding or collecting old magazines, the Sheppard autobiography was digitized and is accessible online here.  If you're interested in Olympic competition in the early 20th century, when American Olympians traveled to London via ocean liner for the 1908 games, an episode, by the way, that included javelin throwers practicing their sport on the sharks that approached the ship, it's fascinating reading.

And for the collectors out there, it's a scarce piece of "Olympiciana" to keep an eye on for your collections.