From producing the first gold-winning Asian American to serving as a practice facility for the Games, Occidental College shares a rich history with the Olympics. Since its inception, the college has sent 21 athletes to the Olympics across eight different sports, with seven representatives combining for nine total medals.
“For a small school, we have an unusually special tradition of Olympic participation and excellence,” Occidental Sports Information Director Mike Wells said. “It’s really remarkable.”
Sammy Lee ‘43 won the 10-meter dive in the 1948 London Olympics and took home gold again in the same event at the 1952 Helsinki Games, the latter in which he also won a bronze in the 3-meter springboard dive.
Outside of the swimming pool, Lee also has built a legacy for his reputation within the college’s community.
“Sammy Lee was influential beyond just his sport,” Athletics Director Jamie Hoffman said. “He did so much for the Korean American community.”
And while Lee is the most decorated Tiger Olympian and the first Asian American to win a gold medal, Alphonzo Bell 1895 was the first Occidental athlete to medal at an Olympic event, winning silver in men’s tennis at St. Louis in 1904.
Other notable medalists include Bob McMillen ‘53 and Bob Gutowski ‘58, who won silver in the 1500-meter and in pole vaulting, respectively.
Beyond the playing field, Occidental’s Olympic presence also extends into the coaching and administrative sides of the Games.
Dean Cromwell 1902 is widely considered by the track community to be one of the greatest track and field coaches ever, inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame’s inaugural class under the nickname “Maker of Champions” in 1974.
Cromwell produced 36 athletes who went on to compete in the Olympics, with at least one in every Olympics from 1912 to 1948. At Occidental, Cromwell was a three-sport athlete in track and field, football and baseball. He then became head track and field coach at the University of Southern California (USC), where he was at the helm for 39 years.
“Cromwell is often regarded as the greatest track and field coach of all time,” Wells said. “He is like the Phil Jackson of Olympic track and field.”
Cromwell served as the head coach of the United States men’s track and field team in 1948, taking the squad to the London Olympics. To this day, USC’s track and field stadium is named after Cromwell.
Likewise, Bill Henry 1914 is the namesake of Occidental’s track, one of its major selling points to prospective student-athletes. Henry played football and ran track for the Tigers, and later went on to serve as the sports technical director and an announcer at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (“The Coliseum”) during the 1932 Games. The track was installed in 1983 as a practice facility for the 1984 Olympics, mirroring that of The Coliseum.
Henry was a leading civic figure in bringing the 1932 Olympics to Los Angeles and 52 years later, another Occidental alumnus followed in his footsteps. John Argue ‘53, founding chairman of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, was instrumental in the city becoming host of the Games in 1984. He also advocated — and subsequently succeeded — in convincing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to implement a privately-funded Games.
In honor of his contributions and the massive success of the Games, the IOC honored Argue in 1994 with the Olympic Order, the highest Olympic recognition possible.
Argue’s father, Cliff Argue ‘24, is also an Occidental alumnus with Olympic ties. He competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics and later served as a member of the Southern California Committee for the Olympics.
Although Occidental will not have any representatives at Sochi this month, the legacy of the school at the event is cemented through past Olympic success, both athletically and administratively.
“You’d be hard pressed to find similar success at a Division-I school, no less a Division-III school,” Hoffman said. “It says a lot about the liberal arts experience Occidental provides; it shows you can be phenomenal at multiple things.”