100 days of Kansas City-area Olympians: Glenn Cunningham, track and field

Glenn Cunningham
Glenn Cunningham
Glenn Cunningham, Bill Bonthron, Gene Venzke
Glenn Cunningham
1936 Summer Olympics
Glenn Cunningham
Posted at 8:00 AM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 09:00:45-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — "The Iron Man of Kansas," Glenn Cunningham, nearly had his legs amputated when he was a child but went on to become one of the greatest milers in U.S. history and an Olympic medalist.

Cunningham was born in Atlanta, Kansas — a small town in Cowley County, which has never had a population greater than 379 in any U.S. Census.

A delivery mix up led to tragedy when Cunningham was 8 years old.

Gasoline instead of kerosene was left at a schoolhouse and exploded when Cunningham’s older brother, Floyd, put it in the stove and ignited it.

Floyd died from injuries suffered in the explosion and Glenn Cunningham was severely burned, spending six weeks in critical condition.

Doctors considered amputating Cunningham’s legs, believing he’d never walk again, but his parents wouldn’t allow it.

Eventually, Cunningham — who suffered severe burns to his knees, shins and feet — discovered it was actually less painful to run than to walk and he seldom stopped running from there.

Glenn Cunningham, Bill Bonthron, Gene Venzke
Glenn Cunningham of Kansas, leads his two rivals, Bill Bonthron, second, of Princeton and Gene Venzke, third, of Pennsylvania, on the first lap of the mile race at the Princeton Invitational Meet at Princeton, N.J., June 16, 1934. Cunningham smashed the mile record, clocking in at the amazing time of 4:06.7. He beat his nearest rival, Bonthron, by 40 yards.

By the time Cunningham arrived in Lawrence, he owned the world prep record in the mile (4:24.7) and was poised for one of the greatest track careers in Jayhawks history.

Cunningham, who grew up in Elkhart, Kansas, ran cross country and track for KU, becoming the first NCAA track champion in program history. He won the mile in 1932 and 1933.

From 1932 to 1936, Cunningham set and broke his own U.S. record in the 1,500 meters three times. That’s also when he realized his Olympic dream.

Cunningham debuted at the 1932 Los Angeles Games — finishing fourth in the 1,500 meters, a little more than a half-second from earning a medal.

The next year, Cunningham repeated as the national AAU 1,500 champion and added a title in the 800 as well. He toured Europe, going unbeaten in 20 races that season.

Cunningham broke the world record in the mile twice in 1934, and the second mark (4:06.8) would stand for three years.

During the 1936 Berlin Games, Cunningham led midway through the 1,500 before getting nipped by 0.6 seconds and settling for the silver medal in the second-fastest time in world history to that point.

1936 Summer Olympics
2nd placed U.S athlete Glenn Cunningham congratulates New Zealand's Jack Lovelock on winning the 1500 metre Olympic race in the record time of 3:47.8 at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, Germany, Aug. 6, 1936.

Two weeks after finishing second at the Olympics, Cunningham set a world record in the 800 (1:49.7).

He was arguably even better indoors, “winning six Wanamaker Miles at the Millrose Games and being named the outstanding track and field performer in the history of Madison Square Garden,” according to his USA Track and Field Hall of Fame biography.

He set the world indoor record seven times in the 1,500 or mile — including a world-best 4:04.4 in 1938 at Dartmouth College — smashing even the outdoor record by 2 seconds.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Cunningham, who was inducted in the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, became a rancher and started the Glenn Cunningham Youth Ranch.

He and his wife helped thousands of needy, abused and orphaned children at the ranch.

Among other honors, Cunningham won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete in 1933 and was chosen as the most outstanding track athlete in the first 100 years of Madison Square Garden.

1936 Summer Olympics
The U.S. Olympic 1,500-meter team pose on board the U.S, liner "Manhattan," on July. 22, 1936, en route to the Olympics in Berlin, Germany. From left, Glenn Cunningham, Archie San Romani, Gene Venzke.

He also was chosen by his fellow Olympians as the “Most Popular Athlete” on the voyage by ship across the Atlantic Ocean for the 1936 Berlin Games.

KU continues to stage the Glenn Cunningham Invitational Mile during the annual Kansas Relays.

The Kansas City region has a deep, rich history with respect to the Olympic Games. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games approach with the Opening Ceremony scheduled for July 23, we will profile an athlete with ties to Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas each day.

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