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BackTrack: Appalachia's Cassell was influential on and off the track

Tanner Cook • Apr 6, 2020 at 12:00 AM

The following is part of a special series looking at past outstanding performers called “BackTrack: Exploring Lost Track and Field Legends of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.”

One of the most influential figures in the history of track and field in both the United States and the world graduated from Appalachia High School in 1956.

Ollan Cassell was born in Nickelsville in 1937, lived in the tiny coal camp of Pardee in Appalachia and is arguably still the greatest athlete to come out of Southwest Virginia.

“I would like to think that I had a pretty successful career athletically and on the administration side,” Cassell said. “Southwest Virginia is a special place to me and it is home.”

CASSELL AT APPALACHIA

“We had a small farm down in Scott County where I was born. My dad worked in Pardee on the tipple at the coal mine and later became the town carpenter,” Cassell said. “Getting home in the evenings was not easy when you did athletics. The school provided transportation in the mornings and immediately after school let out, but athletes were on their own to get back after practice let out. I didn’t get home some nights until after nine o’clock because Pardee was about 15 miles from the high school on winding back roads through valleys, over hills and bridges that were constantly flooded.

“I played football for Sam Dixon and he helped start a track program at Appalachia. None of the schools around us in Norton, Big Stone Gap or Coeburn (Virginia) had a track program back then.

“Coach Dixon arranged a meet at Gate City (Virginia) on the football field my senior year and I did the 100-yard dash against some guy from Gate City with ‘legitimate’ speed.”

Cassell writes in his book that the football field did not have yard markers at the time and the actual distance was more like 105 yards. His announced time was 9.7 seconds after some head scratching by the timers because they couldn't believe what the stopwatches read.

Well, Cassell went to challenge the big boys in Charlottesville and showed them how it was done.

He won the VHSL Group A state championship in the 220-yard straightaway dash in a state record of 21.5 seconds and finished fourth in the 100-yard dash. His record still stands to this day since the VHSL does not run the event anymore, but — for comparison purposes — the Group A state record that had stood in the 200 meters before reclassification in 2013 was 21.77 (Terry Gordon, Northumberland). The 220 is about one and quarter yards longer than the current-day 200 meters. 

COLLEGE YEARS

Cassell attended East Tennessee State College for two years on a football scholarship beginning in 1957 and played wide receiver.

“They didn’t have track scholarships back in those days and the track coach at the time was Julian Crocker,” he said. “He also was a football coach and he saw my potential because I was out-running everyone in the sprints at football practice. In college, I still did the 100 and 220, but I pulled a muscle in my leg in my sophomore year. Crocker was the head of the physical education department, but he really wasn’t a pure track coach.”

Under advice and suggestion from Crocker, Cassell transferred to the University of Houston and later picked up the 440-yard dash to help ease the strain on his still-sore muscle.

Cassell, while at ETSC, set the existing school records in the 100-yard dash at 9.4 seconds and 21.1 220. He was inducted into the ETSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.

TRAINING FOR TOKYO

Cassell went on to have a successful career outside of college, winning two gold medals at the 1963 Pan American Games in São Paulo, Brazil, as part of both the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relay teams.

He also won an individual silver medal in the 200 meters, finishing in a dead heat with Venezuela’s Rafael Romero before filing a protest. Cassell’s final time was 21.23 seconds.

“By that time, I was in the Army and they placed me in a special unit to where I could train for the Olympics,” Cassell said. “A couple of years before that, I competed at the world military games and won the 220 and 440 in that, too.

“I remember two things from those Pan Am Games. The first was that I had a really bad start in the 100 because the blocks were bad and the race wasn’t called back. I went up to the starter after and told him I slipped and he told me that he saw it, but didn’t do anything about it.

“The other was that after we had filed a protest in the 200, there was an incident in the 1,600 relay. I was on the team, got the handoff and accidentally stepped on the inside of the rail, but we went on to win the event. Venezuela filed a protest and we agreed that we would drop our protest in the 200 if they did the same in 4x4.”

MAKING HISTORY

Cassell was the opening leg of the 4x400 relay in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that pushed the United States into the lead from the gun.

“I was a little nervous, but I think the nerves really went away after getting to the final round of competition,” Cassell said. “They knew I was a reliable opening leg that could go 45.6. I took a lot of pride in being reliable.”

Cassell’s teammates on the 1964 1600-meter relay team were Mike Larrabee, Ulis Williams and Henry Carr.

The USA would go on to win the gold medal in a world record of 3:00.7. For comparison, the current world record is 2:54.29 set by the United States in 1993 in Germany. That team consisted of Andrew Valmon, Quincy Watts, Butch Reynolds and Michael Johnson.

It’s only a 10.2% progression over a period of 29 years, and some national teams have trouble breaking three minutes at global competitions in general.

And just for good measure, Cassell was one of the fastest men in the world for four years.

“It was a good, satisfied feeling knowing that all of my work had paid off and knowing that I belonged,” Cassell said. “My Olympic experience was extraordinary. Walking around the Olympic village and seeing all of the other athletes and realizing that they are just people like everyone else is a humbling experience.”

Cassell’s personal bests across all sprinting events were 9.4 in the 100-yard dash (equivalent to 10.28 for 100 meters), 20.8 in the 200 meters and 45.6 in the 400 in 1964. He was a US national champion in the 200 in 1957 and in the 400 in 1964.

OLLAN, THE ADMINISTRATOR

His résumé on the track is lengthy, but Cassell’s list of positions in administration after his track career is unmatched.

In 1965, Cassell was appointed as the administrator for AAU track and field and became the executive director, a position he held for 10 years, in 1970.

During this time, there was a strong pushback from American athletes not getting to race top competition — a setup that preserved their amateurism status and maintain eligibility for the Olympic Games.

“There was a lot of pushback during that time and most of those athletes running in Europe at the time were considered professionals,” Cassell said. “So if amateur US athletes raced against them, they would be tainted and could not be eligible for the Olympics.”

“As the executive director, it was my job to protect the eligibility of the athletes and I tried to do my best — but I knew it wasn’t best for the athletes. I knew the kind of money that was being passed around in those races in Europe.”

Fast forward to 1978 and Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act, which established the United States Olympic Committee as the governing body for all Olympic sports. Prior to 1978, the AAU had the all-governing power for the United States in 17 sports and deemed whether athletes were “amateur” or not. This act essentially stripped the AAU of those powers and redistributed them to the individual sports.

Cassell played a large role in helping get the act passed, and when President Jimmy Carter signed it into existence, Cassell became one of the founding members of USA Track & Field. The USATF is the national governing body of track and field, cross country, road running and race walking.

“I basically started the USATF,” Cassell said. “I was the executive director until 1997 and I also served as the vice-president for the IAAF beginning in 1976 until 1999.”

Cassell was a founding member of the current IAAF that was created in 1988. He helped bring all sports in the Olympics into the modern day.

IN HIS RETIREMENT

Cassell wrote and published a book in 2015 titled “Inside The Five Ring Circus,” where he goes into detail about some of the most iconic and horrendous acts that have ever occured in Olympic history.

From Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved fists on the victory stand in the 1968 Mexico City Games to the vicious murders of Israeli athletes in the village of the 1972 Munich Games, Cassell was there for all of it.

He also speaks of battling the pressures of President Carter to keep the Americans out of the 1980 Moscow Games and how he was threatened to be investigated because of organizing an international competition with the USSR, Cuba and other Eastern bloc countries.

He is now retired from his administrative positions, but does serve as an adjunct professor at the University of Indianapolis. He teaches Olympic Sports History.

“I consider myself a student of the Olympics these days because I have lived through a lot of history and want to pass on my knowledge to others,” he said. “I was pleased to see that the IOC did not cancel the 2020 Tokyo Games, but instead postpone them. Every Olympic experience that I ever had was positive at the end of the day and I would not have agreed had the Games been canceled.

“It would have taken away not only the athletic moments, but it would have taken away the interactions people have with others all over the world, and that is really what the Olympics are about.”

Cassell was inducted into the United States National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2006 as a contributor and was recognized in February at the Virginia Capitol building commending his achievements in the Olympics and contributions to the state. 

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