Greg Bell carries his Olympic gold medal from the 1956 Melbourne Games wherever he goes.
“People are surprised when I tell them I have it with me,” he said Friday shortly after beginning a visit to the Penn Relays, where he captured four individual titles -- three in his specialty, the long jump -- from 1956 through 1958.
“I don’t know how many thousands of hands have touched my gold medal. If I am the person who believes in the Olympic movement and the integrity of that, then not only does it please me to be able to share, I feel that is my obligation.”
Still a practicing dentist after 59 years, Bell, 88, of Logansport, Ind., was one of the top athletes of his era. Competing for Indiana, he broke the Penn Relays record with an effort of 25 feet, 6 ¾ inches in 1956, then went to Australia seven months later for the Olympics and captured the gold there with a leap of 25-8 ¼.
He returned to Franklin Field in 1957 and extended his own record to 26-1 ½, a mark that stood until a future Olympic gold medalist, Carl Lewis, jumped 26-9 in 1981. Bell also won the 100-yard dash at Penn in 9.7 seconds, and became the first athlete in carnival history to win three consecutive long jump championships, leaping 25-8 ¼ in 1958.
After sitting out the 1955 season because freshmen in those days were not eligible to compete, Bell couldn’t wait to get to the Penn Relays.
“That was the worst year of my life because when I looked at results, I was outjumping everybody in the Big Ten by two feet,” he said. “The first year I competed at Penn, I was overwhelmed, but I finally got to compete big-time. I had heard of the Penn Relays and I thought it would be great to contend. This is one of my favorite meets, probably the most favorite meet.”
Bell grew up the seventh of nine children on a 36-acre farm in western Indiana. The family house burned to the ground when he was an infant, and he spent his early years living in a converted chicken house without electricity where he and his siblings slept three to a bed.
The family moved to Terre Haute when he was 12, but it wasn’t until high school that he discovered track and field.
“I didn’t know there was such a sport,” he said. “I had enjoyed outrunning my siblings and friends, so it was a natural for me. I wanted to be a pole vaulter because I was a Tarzan fan, and I thought the closest I’m going to get to Tarzan, swinging through the trees, is pole vaulting.”
He tried the event for a while but because he could run faster than anyone on the team, he was persuaded to move to the sprints and eventually, the long jump.
After high school, Bell was drafted into the Army. It was then, undergoing basic training right across the Indiana border in Breckenridge, Ky., that he discovered the ugly landscape of discrimination.
“If I got a pass for the weekend, there was no place for me to eat, no hotel I could stay in,” he said. “If I went to a movie, there were three or four seats designated in an area they called the crows’ roost. I had my share of animosity.”
Bell served two years in Germany and France and competed successfully in a few track and field events with the Armed Forces. When he returned, he focused on finding a job and felt his competitive days were over.
That’s when a university trustee at Indiana, William Bannon, met Bell and convinced him to attend college.
“Everything that I am today I owe to Dr. Bannon,” he said. “He was white, a local physician. He thought I had some talent. He really had nothing to gain but he decided, ‘I’m going to make a success of this young man.’ He saw how I had begun to improve after my freshman year and he told me, ‘Greg, make that Olympic team, and I’ll see you in Melbourne.’”
Bell met another influence of his at those Olympics, Jesse Owens, who had won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler and refuted the Nazi leader’s claims that white Germans were the superior race. Bell had followed Owens from the time he was a child.
“I remember watching him win his many races and I didn’t realize until much later how demeaning this might have been,” Bell said. “He was an international hero at the time when somebody needed to slap Hitler down, but he couldn’t go to movie houses. He had a hell of a time getting into a university.
”Jesse and I discussed this and other things. I wrote a piece of poetry called ‘The Inimitable.’ After Jesse died, I sent a copy of it to his wife and she answered me with a letter. She thanked me so much because these are exactly the things that she would have said about him.”
The defining moment in Bell’s career came in Melbourne. He said he entered the Olympic Stadium as a “little green country boy with cow manure still between my toes." He left as a gold medalist.