While America’s top athletes strive to carve out a piece of Olympic history in Vancouver this month, Gloria Corl of Fort Wayne is keeping hers in an antique wooden trunk.
The 62-year-old retired schoolteacher wasn’t an Olympian. But her grandfather was – and family stories say he took the trunk with him when he sailed by steamship to Stockholm for the Summer Olympics in 1912 as a member of America’s powerhouse track and field team.
Today, those Olympics, the sixth in modern history, are often called the Jim Thorpe Olympics. The games were marked by a scandal in which Thorpe became the phenom of the decathlon and pentathlon only to have his gold medals stripped later. Officials determined he had played baseball for money before the Games and therefore had forfeited his amateur status.
But at the time, Corl’s grandfather, Thorpe teammate Frank Vern Belote, was part of two lesser-known scandals of the Games – the details of which had eluded Corl and her family until recently.
Born in Burr Oak, Mich., near Sturgis in 1883, Belote was a farm boy who became a sprinter for Chicago-area track clubs around 1909. The Chicago Sunday Examiner in 1910 called him the fastest sprinter in the Middle West and claimed by many who have seen him run to be the equal if not the superior of any in the country.
The article reported that Belote started sprinting competitively barely a year earlier at age 26. He had come in second in a race and began to pursue the sport seriously.
By 1912, Belote had run the 100-yard and 100-meter dashes in 10 to 11 seconds – times that verged on world records for his day, according to newspaper accounts.
Corl’s grandmother, Helen Tyler Belote, collected and scrupulously preserved the clippings in scrapbooks now stored in the recently restored trunk, along with the running shoes and white shorts with red and blue stripes down the sides that Belote wore in the Olympics.
There’s also a program from the 1912 Central Olympics qualifying trials at Northwestern University, in which Belote won a spot on the team, with his handwritten notations of winners and times.
During the Stockholm Games, Corl’s grandfather ran the 100-meter sprint and the 400-meter relay and competed in the standing high jump. The family knew he didn’t win a medal – he’d failed to reach the finals in the jump, took fifth in the 100 meters and was disqualified with the U.S. team in the semifinals of the relay.
But the scrapbooks and family lore were strangely silent on exactly what had happened. Corl attributed that to her grandfather’s death when her father, Richard Belote, born in 1913, was only 14 years old. She and her sister, Glenda Belote, never knew their grandfather, though they both remember their grandmother, who lived to be more than 90 years old.
We all talked about his running in the Olympics in the family, Corl says. It’s something that my dad just raised us with when he talked about him, and we had pictures of him running.
But no one pressed their curiosity about the Olympics story, and the scrapbooks stop before the Olympics, she says, adding with a sly smile: Maybe we don’t want to know.
The public record of Belote also went dark after 1912. A New York Times reporter who tried to round up what had happened to members of the 1912 track team in 1916 listed Belote among those who could not be found.
Marred by mishaps
As it turns out, Belote may have come home from the Olympics feeling a bit tarnished. According to news accounts in the New York Times, both of his running events were marred by mishaps that may have tainted results.
The Times reporter wrote that the Americans, led by Ralph Craig, had swept the medals in the 100 meters.
Barely a yard separated the first and the fifth man at the finish, and none of the 20,000 present except the judges knew who had won, the reporter wrote.
But, according to the reporter, the race was run only after several false starts, including one in which Craig and another American runner, Donald Lippincott, ran the whole distance after the starting pistol sounded – something that must have tired the runners.
Belote had won his qualifying heat in 11 seconds, according to an online Olympics history, and finished the finals in the same time, not quite two-tenths of a second behind Craig.
But that dispute paled compared with what happened in the 400-meter relay, the first time the race was ever run internationally.
The Times reported that the disqualification happened, owing to Belote passing the billet, as required in this race, to Wilson out of bounds. The billet is now known as the baton, and it must be passed within a marked zone; Wilson was Clement Wilson, an Iowan affiliated with Coe College.
Then, for Corl, came the crucial detail in the story: a quote from American Olympic commissioner James Sullivan, saying that had he been the referee, he would have disqualified the British team, for their second man bumped Belote, but the officials did not see it.
The British went on to win the relay, with only two medals being awarded when the German team succumbed to another faulty baton pass in the final.
The event might not have gone down even as a footnote in Olympic running history except that the Americans, who have dominated the 400 relay, have been plagued by faulty passes in the event since. That includes the 1988 Olympics and the 2008 Games, when both the men’s and women’s teams failed to pass the baton successfully. Sportswriters in 2008 cited 1912 as the beginning of the jinx and lamented the fact that the pass had not been standardized.
Source of pride
Before learning of her grandfather’s running fate, Corl says she had found it interesting in Belote’s Olympic history that he was on the same team with Thorpe and Avery Brundage, who chaired the International Olympic Committee from 1945 to 1972.
She has a photo of the team that includes her grandfather, Brundage and Thorpe that her parents had Thorpe sign and date at a sports show in 1952. She also has a photo of Brundage lined up next to Belote for a race.
She says her grandfather and Brundage were friends but doesn’t know whether any correspondence between them survived.
According to historical accounts, Brundage was instrumental in having Thorpe’s medals stripped by reporting Thorpe’s semipro baseball-playing to officials. Brundage stood against the restoration of the medals throughout his IOC tenure, and they were not restored and presented to Thorpe’s family until 1982.
As for her grandfather’s history after the Olympics, Corl has one photo of him sprinting – in his Olympic shorts and T-shirt in a meet she believes was in Chicago.
His running career came to an end shortly after that, as he approached age 30 and had a second child, her father, who was born in Coldwater, Mich., she says.
Believed to have been a schoolteacher in Chicago before the Games, Belote became a government inspector in Michigan after the Olympics, she says. He died of meningitis in the Detroit area in 1928, only 16 years after the Olympics.
Corl says she has no idea whether her memorabilia has monetary value – Thorpe signatures alone can bring thousands, according to online sports memorabilia and auction sites. But she plans to pass them on through the family.
Through restoration of her grandfather’s trunk last year, she says, she learned that it dates to between 1860 and 1880 and is of a style given to brides.
Today, Corl laughs as she says that her grandfather’s athletic genes apparently skipped her. Every time I look at those shoes, I think I couldn’t walk a block in them, let alone run a 100-yard dash, she says.
It’s too bad they didn’t have the technology then like they have now, so that they could do an instant replay on some of these events to see what really happened, Corl adds.
But it doesn’t change how I feel about my grandfather. I’m still proud he went and accomplished what he wanted to do, which was to compete in the Olympics. Just to go to the Olympics – to me, that is an honor.