Winter Olympics

The Greatest Olympian You've Never Heard of: Eddie Eagan and an Unlikely Double

Eddie Eagan won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. Here in a Yale sweater, Eagan displays one of his trophies in the undated photo. (AP Photo)
Associated Press
Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 17, 2014

Eddie Eagan did a lot with his 69 years.

Starting life as the poor son of a railroad worker, he served with honor in World War I, put himself through Yale and then Harvard Law, became a Rhodes scholar and married into the ludicrously wealthy Colgate family. He then volunteered for service again during World War II and, upon his return, served six years as the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. 

It's a lot to take in, and it's just skimming the surface. Along the way he improbably also won not one, but two Olympic gold medals.

In 1920, still a senior at Yale, he ran through the light heavyweight division, dispatching South Africa's Thomas Holdstock and Britain's Harold Franks before beating Sverre Sorsdal of Norway in the finals. 

Not quite done with boxing, he continued testing himself while in Oxford, earning his Blue and the British amateur heavyweight title, dropping his opponent with a vicious body blow (subscription required) to take the crown.

In the process, he completely changed the nature of European amateur boxing, especially in England. Thomas J. Schaeper and Kathleen Schaeper detailed as much in Rhodes Scholars, Oxford, and the Creation of an American Elite. Once a gentleman's game, Eagan turned it into a rough-and-tumble affair, leaving a path of destruction behind him and drawing a number of admirers and students into his orbit. 

Eddie Eagan (center) and Floyd Patterson listen to Jesse Owens at a restaurant in Rome, 1960.
Eddie Eagan (center) and Floyd Patterson listen to Jesse Owens at a restaurant in Rome, 1960.Jim Pringle/Associated Press

Most important among them was Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the Marquess of Clydesdale. The Scottish royal, who would eventually become the Duke of Hamilton, was himself a cracking boxer.

Together the two traveled throughout Europe looking to test themselves against some of the best amateurs in the world. Eventually their tour went worldwide, including stops, and bouts, in India, Australia and New Zealand.

"He was really a world champion," his wife Peggy explained, per Sports Illustrated's Brad Herzog. "He and a friend took a trip around the world, and in every country Eddie challenged the amateur champion. He finished the tour undefeated. So when you talk about undefeated champions, my husband was one of them."

Eventually, as happens to all athletes, his boxing days became just a memory. He focused on his law career, but that itch to compete remained. Sparring regularly with Gene Tunney in preparation for his fight with Jack Dempsey didn't do it. Big-game hunting in Africa didn't suffice.

Thanks to his friend Jay O'Brien, who happened to be the head of the Olympic Bobsled Committee and in need of a strong body when one of his teammates dropped from the competition, Eagan finally found his outlet, surprising his wife with a strange announcement.

The dangerous bobsled track in 1932
The dangerous bobsled track in 1932Associated Press

"Eddie came back from dinner with Jay and said, 'Guess what. I'm on the United States bobsled team.'"

Before he arrived in Lake Placid in 1932, Eagan had never been on a bobsled. But, like with everything else he tried, he was a natural.

It was a brutal year for the bobsled, with six men going to the hospital thanks to treacherous conditions at the Mount Van Hoevenberg run. Two German sleds were so out of control that they catapulted right off the track and down the mountain during practice runs (subscription required).

That didn't stop Eagan's team, led by O'Brien and the dashing Billy Fiske. Fabulously wealthy and well-connected, Fiske was a daredevil at heart who would later become the first American pilot shot down in World War II. 

He fearlessly pursued the gold, Eagan and company in tow.

"That run will always be vivid in my memory," Eagan had remembered. "It took only about two minutes to make, but to me it seemed like an eon. I remember the snow-covered ground flashing by like a motion picture out of focus. Speeding only a few inches from the ground without any sense of security, I hung on to the straps. My hands seemed to be slipping, but still I clung."

With the win, Eagan became the first, and the last, person to ever win gold in different sports at both the Summer and Winter Olympics. It was a feat that seemed unlikely to be matched in modern times—until now.

Lauryn Williams, a 2012 Summer Olympic gold medalist in the 4x100 relay, has a chance to match Eagan's feat.

Like Eagan, her second sport is the bobsled. And based on everything we know about the gentleman, Eagan would have been cheering for her the whole way. 

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