Retro: Hometown champions

Sixty years ago, Durham was the training ground for two Olympic medalists in the same event.
June 6, 2016
Sprinter Dave Sime, left, and hurdler Joel Shankle both won Olympic events.

In 1956, the man to watch at the Olympic trials was sprinter Dave Sime, Duke sophomore and athletic wonder. He arrived at Duke on a baseball, not a track, scholarship; he had been offered twenty-two college scholarships but chose Duke with an eye toward a medical degree. Known as the “blue streak from Duke,” he was clocked during a casual track practice his freshman year at 9.7 seconds in the 100-yard dash, fourth-tenths of a second shy of the world record set eight years earlier. During his sophomore year, he focused on track rather than baseball and was named the ACC Athlete of the Year. He joined teammate Joel Shankle, who for years had been known as the “one-man track team.” Shankle had been named the very first ACC Athlete of the Year in 1954. The two were expected to be serious Olympic contenders.

However, Sime suffered a pulled muscle during the 200-yard dash at the NCAA finals. He attempted to return, but had to sit out and miss the opportunity to represent the U.S. at the Olympic games in Melbourne. This was especially disappointing, as he recently had set or tied several world records and even appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated that summer.

Sime’s teammate Shankle, however, did qualify for the 110-meter hurdles, as did North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University) student Lee Calhoun. Since the location for the 1956 Olympics was Australia, the games were not held until November, when it was summer in the Southern Hemisphere. In the months between qualifying and the Olympics, Shankle and Calhoun practiced together at the Duke University track, under coaches Bob Chambers, Red Lewis, and Leroy Walker. The collaboration between black and white athletes and coaches was unusual during this time period, but it seemed to happen without any particular notice being taken. Shankle and Calhoun were to run an exhibition race at halftime of the Duke-Tennessee football game that fall, but rain prevented what would have been an extraordinary display.

At the Olympics, both men ran well, and Calhoun ultimately took the gold in the 110-meter hurdles, while Shankle took the bronze (a third American, Jack Davis, won silver). Duke cross-country coach Al Buehler was in the stands to cheer them on. Durham proudly honored their two champions upon Calhoun’s return on Monday, December 17. Shankle met Calhoun at the airport and, accompanied by a motorcade, the two men traveled to Durham to be feted by a parade on Main Street. Bands from Duke, North Carolina College, and the local high schools marched in the parade that ended at City Hall, where Mayor E.J. Evans awarded each man a “key to the city.” Evans remarked, “Here in Durham they trained together and became fellow athletes and close friends. This is the peak of experience that few athletes can achieve.”

Dave Sime’s story was not over, either. He returned to track and received his bachelor’s degree, competing in baseball, track, and football during his undergraduate Duke career. Between his second and third years of Duke medical school, he competed in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, where he won silver in the 100-meter dash. Sime could have chosen a career in football, but devoted his life to medicine, specializing in ophthalmology. Shankle served as a pilot in the Navy and later for American Airlines. Calhoun repeated his gold-winning performance in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1960 Olympics and spent his career as a college track coach.

Shankle died in April 2015 and Sime in January 2016; Calhoun died in 1989. All three represent a remarkable period in Durham’s and Duke’s athletic history, in which Durham was home to three of the fastest men on the planet.

A closer look at Dave Sime

Before sprinter Dave Sime headed to the 1960 Olympics, a government agent called. The CIA wanted him to approach a Soviet long jumper and persuade him to defect. Sime would wine and dine the athlete, then a veteran agent would close the deal.

At the end of the second dinner, things went awry. The agent spoke to the long jumper in his regional dialect, which made the Soviet athlete think the man might be a double agent. He left the restaurant and never defected.

Sime’s later efforts were more successful. He was a renowned eye doctor and worked as the Miami Dolphins’ team physician during the team’s 1972 perfect season. A committed adrenalin junkie, he did everything from helicopter skiing to kayaking between glaciers in the Chilean Strait of Magellan.