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Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Eric Poole is a reporter and columnist for the Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger, a small newspaper nestled near the Ohio state line in the heart of Steelers Country. He has a wife, a son and a daughter (so there will be some daddy stuff on this blog). A former steelworker and retired rugby player, Poole has a wide range of interests, which was reflected in the 2008 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association awards, when Poole won first-prize honors for best columns and best special project. His upcoming book, "Company of Heroes," due out March 17, 2015, from Osprey Publishing, tells the story of Vietnam War hero Leslie Sabo and his comrades. Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor May 16, 2012, in a White House ceremony.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The REST of the Olympic story I: Row, Row, Row your boat

Back in my pizza delivery days, I'd usually be out on the roads between noon and 12:20 p.m., when one of the local radio stations would air the Paul Harvey radio program. Now, Paul and I didn't have much in common politically, but credit where credit, the guy was one hell of a storyteller. The highlight of his show was always the "Rest of the Story" segment, in which Harvey presented a little known tale, often about a famous person, with some key element left concealed until the very end, punctuated with the sign-off, "And now you know ... the REST of the story."

Harvey might not have influenced me politically, but "Rest of the Story" definitely has an impact on my storytelling style. As proof of that, I'm going to dedicate some upcoming electrons to presenting some of my favorite stories from the Olympic Games, told in the style of Paul Harvey.

Early in the last century, Jack was the world's best individual rower, and second place wasn't close. He made off with mighty some pretty neckwear in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and might have bagged some more medals had the 1916 Olympics not been preempted for World War I.

At the time, however, sports was undergoing something of a revolution. Over the previous 50 years, elite athletes were beginning to earn handsome salaries for playing kids' games - baseball in the United States, soccer in Europe, and boxing and horse racing on both sides of the Atlantic. The Olympic Games themselves were a pushback against the pay-for-play phenomenon.

As with all amateur athletics, the Olympics began as a class warfare weapon. By restricting the event to amateurs - even coaches and gym teachers were considered professional athletes at the time and thus ineligible for the Olympics - organizers were trying to limit participation to the upper crust, because those were the only people who could put in the training time necessary without the prospect of a payday.

And competing for money was considered decidedly declasse.

Founders of the modern Olympics would have regarded Jack, who worked as a bricklayer, as at least a quasi-professional because of his vocation. And the amateur standard for the Diamond Sculls, one of the world's top rowing competitions, was even more stringent. Amid accusations of professionalism against Jack's rowing club, he was prohibited from taking part in the Diamond Sculls.

Jack would ultimately have his revenge. More accurately, his children would have it on his behalf. His son and namesake won the Diamond Sculls twice in the 1940s. But his daughter would top even that.

Because some of the same European nobility who decided that the hue of Jack's blood wasn't sufficiently indigo would one day bow before Her Most Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco, whose father was Jack Kelly, the greatest rower of his age.

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