By Chance Chamberlain
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the opening ceremony for the 1920 Summer Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium. It was at that event the greatest athlete in the history of Harrisonville High School competed and medaled for the United States.
Brutus Hamilton earned a silver medal in the decathalon and also competed in the pentathalon, the events normally are considered the tests of the greatest athletes because they require skills in a number of events, including running, throwing and jumping.
Hamilton was born July 19, 1900 in Peculiar. He was raised in the surrounding area and competed in track and field events at Harrisonville High School. In 1918, Hamilton won the high jump, pole vault, broad jump and shot-put events at the Missouri State High School Championship meet, leading the Wildcats to their only state championship for nearly 80 years. He graduated from Harrisonville High School that same year.
Just two years later, Hamilton won the national championship at the University of Missouri in both the pentathlon and decathlon events. It was this championship run that qualified him for the 1920 United States Olympic Athletics Team at the 1920 Summer Olympic games.
The 1920 Mizzou track and field team made history by sending three athletes to the summer games. Hamilton was joined by sprinters Jackson Scholz and George Massengale. Scholz won the gold as part of the men’s 4x100m relay and Massengale did not compete due to injury.
While modern Olympic teams are treated with great travel and facilities, such was not the case a century ago. The United States Olympic Team included 288 competitors, 108 of which competed in the athletics category. In the summer of 1920, the 108 athletic competitors boarded the “Princess Matoika,” a recently retired WWI steamboat, for the 13-day voyage overseas.
Robert Massengale, son of Olympian George Massengale, said, “Dad said it smelled terribly of formaldehyde and training was difficult.”
In fact, the 1920 Olympic Games were the first to be held in eight years due to the interruption of “The Great War” in the typical Olympic schedule. The Great War caused many issues for the 1920 Olympic Games. The city of Antwerp had only one year to prepare for the games, a process that typically required four to five years of work.
As a result, athletes were housed in any free space that they could be placed in. Athletes bedded in an old schoolhouse on star mattresses and the bathing situation was limited to cold showers.
Additionally, meals were eaten with no milk, butter or sugar, unheard of in the United States. Due to harsh circumstances, American Olympians created a petition, dubbed “The Mutiny of the Matoika” by the press, that called for boarding improvements.
The petition had mixed reviews by the public as it made the American athletes seem indifferent to the harsh realities of war. To make matters worse, it also made the team look insensitive in the eyes of the public.
According to an article of text from a newspaper dated 1920, many members of the team were still in their teenage years, in a world that had little connection. This was the first time many of the young men and women on the United States Olympic Team had ever experienced the world outside their own region or state, let alone the entire country.
Aug. 14, 1920, marked the beginning of the games. Hamilton began his Olympic career by competing in the pentathlon, where he finished in sixth place overall after finishing first in long jump with a distance of 6.86m, 10th in javelin throw, fourth in the 200m race, fifth in discus throw and seventh in the 1500m race.
Hamilton demonstrated his excellence in his final event, the decathlon where he placed second overall to bring home the silver medal for the United States. In the decathlon competition, Hamilton never won a single event, but placed high enough in each category to win a podium spot. Overall, Hamilton scored 6771.085 points for all events combined, only out-scored by Helge Lovland of Norway, who scored 6803.335 total points for the gold medal.
The United States Olympic Athletic Team amassed nine gold medals, their fewest since 1896, 12 silver medals and eight bronze medals. The United States earned a medal in each of the 29 athletic events held at the games. Overall, the team collected 41 gold, 27 silver and 27 bronze medals to win the 1920 Summer Olympic Games.
After the conclusion of the games in 1920, Hamilton continued his track and field career at the University of Missouri, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1922. Hamilton once again competed in the Olympic Games in the summer of 1924, where he finished seventh in the pentathlon, the only event that he participated in.
Following the 1924 Summer Olympic Games, Hamilton was hired as the track and field coach at Westminster College in Fulton. At Westminster College, Hamilton’s teams won the conference championship each year from 1926 to 1929.
After his championship run in Fulton, Hamilton accepted the head track and field coaching job at the University of Kansas, where his teams won the Big Six title in 1930 and 1931. He couldn’t round out the three peat as his team finished second in 1932.
During his tenure at KU, Hamilton coached Olympic greats, Glenn Cunningham, who ran the mile, and decathlon world record holder Jim Bausch. The two athletes were also members of the 1932 Summer Olympic Team that competed in Los Angeles, California. Hamilton was the U.S. decathlon coach for the games and Bausch took home the gold medal in the event.
When the 1932 Summer Olympics came to a close, Hamilton was offered the head coaching position for the University of California track and field team. At Cal, Hamilton’s legacy grew as he coached many championship teams as well as the first American to break the four-minute mile barrier, Don Bowden.
Bowden was quoted as saying Hamilton was a humble man, who never bragged about his successes as a runner.
“He never talked about his Olympic accomplishments as an athlete at all. I never realized it until people told me,” he said. “We respected him so much as a person that his accomplishments did not have a bearing on our relationship.”
Hamilton ascended to the athletic director position at the university as well as the assistant dean of students position at Cal. He retired from the University of California in 1965.
Hamilton also coached the United States decathlon team in 1936 at the Olympic Games in Berlin. His decathlon team swept the event and his studentathlete, Archie Williams, from Cal, won the gold in the 400m race. Hamilton finished his career by coaching the 1952 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team in Helsinki, Finland, where his team brought home 31 total medals.
Hamilton died Dec. 28, 1970, but he amassed a career to be celebrated for years to come. In 1950, he was selected as Missouri’s greatest amateur athlete and was later inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 1956 and the Mizzou Hall of Fame in 1990. Hamilton was also inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974 as both an athlete and coach.
Hamilton’s legacy is remembered through the Brutus Hamilton Invitational held each spring at the University of California. Harrisonville High School commemorates him with an invitational held each spring semester by the same name.
Harrisonville Athletic Director Brent Maxwell said, “The track meet has been named the Brutus K. Hamilton Invitational for as long as our records show, so I’m not completely certain about when it was first named. Brutus’ legacy is one of importance because he had the mentality to do what’s right and he had total self-discipline to be great in every aspect of his life.
“He was a great competitor that worked hard toward his goals and was fortunate enough to compete at the Olympic level and those are the things that we place importance on when we teach our track and field athletes about the legacy of the man who our event is named after,” he said.
Memorial Stadium in Harrisonville is also home to Brutus K. Hamilton Track, dedicated in April 1988. The track was completed with a memorial installed in stone, adorned with Hamilton’s most-famous quote.
“Never underestimate your opponent, honor him with your best performance,” he said.