100 days of Kansas City-area Olympians: Jim Ryun, track

1968 Summer Olympics
Donald Trump, Jim Ryun
Posted at 8:00 AM, Jun 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-10 09:00:14-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The list of accolades for Jim Ryun, the first high school runner to crack 4 minutes in the mile is long as you’d expect, though his Olympic record isn’t as burnished.

Ryun qualified for the Olympics three times, winning a silver medal in 1968 for his only Olympic hardware.

But that doesn’t dim his tremendous Hall of Fame track record — pun intended.

Ryun, a Wichita native and University of Kansas graduate, was widely regarded as the greatest middle-distance runner in the world during the late 1960s.

1968 Summer Olympics
President Donald Trump speaks presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Jim Ryun, in the Blue Room of the White House, Friday, July 24, 2020, in Washington.

He burst into the national conscience in 1964.

Still a junior at Wichita East High School, Ryan finished the mile in 3 minutes, 59 seconds at the 1964 California Relays, becoming the first high school runner to break the 4-minute barrier.

He reached the semifinals in the 1,500 meters later that summer during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

One year later, Ryun set the U.S. record (3:55.3) in winning the first of three straight AAU national championships in the mile — one of five times he broke the 4-minute mark while still in high school.

That includes the 3:59.3 he ran in winning a state title at the 1965 Kansas Class AA state meet, the first sub-4-minute mile at a high school event.

Ryun’s high school record stood for 36 years.

He was the Track and Field News’ High School Athlete of the Year in 1965; Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, Track and Field News’ Athlete of the Year, and the James E. Sullivan Award winner as the nation’s top amateur athlete in 1966; and was chosen by ESPN as the greatest high school athlete ever in 2003.

Ryun became the world record holder in the mile (3:51.3) and 880-yard race (1:44.9) in 1966. He added world records in the indoor 880 yards (11:48.3) as well as the 1,500 meters (3:33.1) during 1967.

That year, Ryun also broke his own world record in the mile (3:51.1).

He set another world record in the indoor mile in 1971 (3:56.4), giving him five world records during his track career.

Ryan — who won NCAA titles in the indoor mile three times (1967-69) and the outdoor mile once (1967) — still owns the U.S. junior record in the mile.

During his junior season at KU, Ryun won a silver medal in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He had the fastest time in the first round and semifinals, but Kenya’s Kip Keino won the medal race with help from a teammate who set a blistering pace.

Ryun qualified for the 1972 Munich Olympics as well, but he got tripped in his heat race and failed to make the semifinals.

Keino, who won the heat, consoled Ryun at the finish line.

Kip Keino
Jim Ryun of the U.S. is consoled by 1,500-meter heat winner Kipchoge Keino of Kenya after the race in 4th heat of 1,500-meter. Ryun fell and finished 9th.

The U.S. team lost its appeal to have him advanced after the on-track contact, leaving Ryun with one Olympic medal in three appearances.

Ryun, who was known for his furious finishing kick, was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last summer.

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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