To the untutored eye, the runners seemed to be jogging most of the way. But the race is deceptively grueling, requiring the gritty strength of a cross-country runner, the tenacity of an all-weather athlete and the speed of a miler who pounds out the meters with great galloping strides.
For most of the race, Kazantsev was far ahead, seemingly destined for an easy victory. But on the last of seven laps Ashenfelter pulled away from the pack and moved behind the leader. Even as they splashed down in the final water pit, Kazantsev was slightly ahead.
But then, with a surprising burst of stamina, Ashenfelter rose out of the water as if propelled by a rocket. The exhausted Russian, grimacing in pain, stumbled momentarily, struggling to regain his footing, and churned mechanically forward on hopeless legs of iron as the American shot ahead.
Down the 200-yard stretch, as 65,000 people shrieked from the stands, Ashenfelter’s powerful sprint widened his lead with every stride. He crossed the finish line 30 meters in front of the broken Kazantsev, who staggered home just ahead of John Disley of Britain. Ashenfelter’s time, 8 minutes 45.4 seconds, smashed the official record, the 1936 Olympic mark of 9:03.8 set by Volmari Iso-Hollo of Finland.
It was one of the great upsets in Olympic history and the triumph of a lifetime for Ashenfelter, whose unassuming demeanor seemed to personify the Wheaties box all-American athlete in a postwar ideological struggle with lockstep Soviet Communism. The competition was heightened by fears of nuclear war, a stalemate in the Korean conflict, diatribes of propaganda from Moscow and a fever of anti-Communism in the United States.
In Helsinki, the lasting imagery was Ashenfelter beaming atop the victory stand with Kazantsev shaking his hand from a step below. The gold medal draped around his neck, Ashenfelter basked in “The Star-Spangled Banner” and accepted a bouquet from a young Finn in a peasant dress. The crowd roared as he shook her hand, and there were cries of “Kiss her!” Shyly, he complied.
Reporters later asked Ashenfelter if he had been sure he would win. “It would sound conceited if I said sure,” he replied. “Just say I was surprised.”
There was also a telegram from the F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover: “All your associates in the F.B.I. are proud of your brilliant victory and happy with you over establishment of a new record.”
In the end, the United States…