One of the most influential figures in the history of track and field — both nationally and internationally — graduated from Appalachia in 1956.
Ollan Cassell was born in Nickelsville in 1937 and lived in the tiny coal camp of Pardee in Appalachia. He is overwhelmingly considered the greatest athlete to come out of Southwest Virginia.
After all, it’s hard to argue with an Olympic gold medal.
“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 9 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 had a track program back then.
“Coach Dixon arranged a meet at Gate City on the football field my senior year and I did the 100-yard dash against some guy from Gate City with ‘legitimate’ speed.”
In his book, “Inside The Five Ring Circus,” Cassell writes 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.
Cassell went on to challenge the big boys in Charlottesville and showed them how it was done.
He won the VHSL Group A championship in the 220-yard straightaway dash in a state-record 21.5 seconds and finished fourth in the 100-yard dash. His record still stands — the VHSL does not run the event anymore — but for comparison purposes, the Group A 200-meter record prior to reclassification in 2013 was 21.77 (Terry Gordon, Northumberland).
In other words, Cassell ran a faster time in an event that’s about 1¼ yards longer.
Beginning in 1957, Cassell attended then-East Tennessee State College for two years on a football scholarship, playing wide receiver.
“They didn’t have track scholarships back in those days and the track coach at the time was Julian Crocker. He also was a football coach and he saw my potential because I was outrunning everyone in the sprints at football practice,” he said. “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 Houston and later picked up the 440-yard dash to help ease the strain on his still sore muscle.
At ETSC, Cassell set the existing school records in the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and 220 (21.1). He was inducted into the ETSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1980.
TRAINING FOR TOKYO
Cassell had a successful career outside college, winning two gold medals at the 1963 Pan American Games in São Paulo, Brazil, as part of the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relay teams.
He won a silver medal in the 200 meters in a time of 21.23. He finished in a dead heat with Venezuela’s Rafael Romero and afterward filed a protest.
“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.”
In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Cassell ran the opening leg of the 4x400 relay and 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,” he 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 relay team were Mike Larrabee, Ulis Williams and Henry Carr. The Americans won the gold medal in a then-world-record 3:00.7.
The current world record is 2:54.29, which the U.S. team of Andrew Valmon, Quincy Watts, Butch Reynolds and Michael Johnson set in Germany in 1993. That’s only a 10.2% progression over a 29-year period, and some national teams have trouble breaking 3 minutes at global competitions in general.
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,” he 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 the U.S. national champion in the 200 in 1957 and the 400 in 1964.
OLLAN, THE ADMINISTRATOR
His résumé on the track is lengthy, but Cassell’s list of administrative positions after his track career is unmatched.
In 1965, Cassell was appointed the administrator for AAU track and field. He became the executive director in 1970 and served the position for 10 years.
At the time there was a strong pushback from American athletes not getting to race the best competition they could because they had to preserve their amateurism status to maintain Olympic eligibility.
“There was a lot of pushback during that time and most of those athletes running in Europe at the time were considered professionals. So if amateur U.S. athletes raced against them, they would be tainted and could not be eligible for the Olympics,” Cassell said. “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 establishing the U.S. Olympic Committee as the governing body for all Olympic sports. Prior to 1978, the AAU had the 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. When President Jimmy Carter signed it into existence, Cassell became one of the founding members of USA Track & Field — 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 helped bring Olympic sports into the modern day.
IN HIS RETIREMENT
In 2015, Cassell wrote and published a book titled “Inside The Five Ring Circus” in which he details some of the most iconic as well as horrendous acts to occur 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 speaks of battling pressure from President Carter to keep the Americans out of the 1980 Moscow Games and how he was threatened with investigation after organizing an international competition with the Soviet Union, Cuba and other Eastern bloc countries.
Cassell has retired from his administrative positions but serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Indianapolis, where he lives. 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.”
In 2006, Cassell was inducted into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame as a contributor. In February, he was recognized at the Virginia Capitol for his achievements in the Olympics and for his contributions to the state.