Bob Schul, America’s Only Olympic 5,000m Champion, Dies at 86

Schul used a big kick to win gold on a wet track in Tokyo in 1964

Bob Schul, the only American to win the Olympic 5,000-meter gold medal, died on Sunday in an assisted living facility in Middletown, Ohio. Schul’s daughter Robin Thurber, who confirmed his death to, said he had battled dementia in his final years. He was 86 years old.

Schul’s most famous running accomplishment was his victory in the Tokyo Olympic 5,000-meter final in October 1964. Trained by the legendary Hungarian coach Mihály Iglói, Schul entered the race among the favorites but was only fifth with 300 meters to go as France’s Michel Jazy, the 1960 Olympic 1500m silver medalist, opened up a five-meter lead on the back straight. But Schul then opened his stride and ripped the final 300 in 38.7 — an impressive split even by today’s standards and a truly remarkable split on a rain-soaked cinder track in 1960s spikes. Schul passed a dying Jazy with 70 meters to run and won going away in 13:48.8, nearly a second up on silver medalist Harald Norpoth of Germany (13:49.6). Schul’s American teammate Bill Dellinger got the bronze in 13:49.8.

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The race marked the first American medals in the event in 32 years, and another 52 would pass until Paul Chelimo won the US’s next Olympic 5,000 medal in 2016. Schul remains the only American, male or female, to win Olympic gold in the 5,000.

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Dellinger and Schul at the 2016 Olympic Trials (Courtesy Tim Chapman)

Born and raised on a farm in West Milton, Ohio, on the outskirts of Dayton, Schul ran collegiately at Miami University of Ohio both before and after a stint in the US Air Force. Schul was posted at Oxnard Air Force Base in California in the early 1960s as part of a group of Air Force athletes training for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where his commanding officer, 1956 Olympian Max Truex, introduced him to Iglói. Schul would spend the next few years as part of Iglói’s famous training group in Southern California that also featured 1500m world record holder László Tábori, Jim Grelle (American record in the mile), and Jim Beatty (first person to break 4:00 indoors). Schul would move back to Ohio in 1963 but Iglói’s principles would stick with him for the rest of his life.

1964 was the year that would come to define Schul’s career. In June, he ran the fastest time in the world that year, 13:38.0, to break the American record for 5,000 meters in Compton, then won the Olympic Trials in New York in July. He tuned up for the Olympics by winning the 5,000 at the USA-USSR track meet at the Los Angeles Coliseum and setting a world record of 8:26.4 for two miles at a meet held at Pierce College in California on August 30.

Schul visiting the Michael Johnson track at Nike’s campus in Beaverton (Courtesy Tim Chapman)

The men’s 5,000 at the Olympics in Tokyo was one of the greatest distance fields of the 1960s. The heavyweights included Jazy, the 3,000-meter world record holder who would break the mile world record a year later; Ron Clarke of Australia, the 10,000-meter world record holder who would break the 5,000 world record a year later; and Kipchoge Keino of Kenya, who would go on to set the 5,000 world record in 1965 in addition to winning Olympic golds in the 1500 (1968) and steeplechase (1972).

Yet on a rainy day in the Japanese capital, Schul topped them all in front of a crowd of 50,000 that included his own parents, farmers who had never before left Ohio, let alone the United States.

“If you look at who was in that race, it was a who’s who of running at the time,” said Tim Chapman, a longtime friend of Schul’s who later trained under him as part of the Athens Athletic Club in Oakland. “…The thing about Bob is that he was quite cocky. He had no doubt when he stepped on that track, he was going to win.”

Schul would continue running after Tokyo but was hampered by a persistent knee injury and missed out on the 1968 Olympic 5,000 team after finishing 6th at the Trials. He settled near Dayton where he ran a number of businesses, including a tennis club and a running store, before teaching history in the Dayton Public Schools system. Schul also coached athletes of all ages throughout much of his adult life, including at Wright State University, using the same training methods he had learned under Iglói.

But the Olympic gold in Tokyo was Schul’s crowning achievement, and one of which he was immensely proud.

“We’d go to the Olympic Trials and somebody would say, Oh you’re Bob Schul, and he would then sit and go over that race with them,” Chapman said. “They would be sitting there listening and he would recount all about the race to this perfect stranger. He liked to be acknowledged.”

Schul was immensely proud of his Olympic gold — as shown by his license plate (Courtesy Tim Chapman)

Schul also took pride in getting to train with the likes of Tábori, Beatty, and Grelle, as well as compete against the great runners of his time such as Clarke, Jazy, Keino, and fellow 1964 Olympic champion Billy Mills.

He was very proud of the long-distance running community, which would include his opponents at that time,” Thurber said. “He would talk a lot about being part of that specific group of long-distance runners.”

Unfortunately, Schul’s Olympic medal was stolen only a few years after he won it. In 1971, Schul spent a year living in Malaysia coaching the national team there. At the time, Schul had a house in Oakland, Calif., where he kept his gold medal in a locked cabinet. While he was gone, Schul rented his house out to a UC Berkeley professor, but the professor subsequently sublet it and when Schul returned, the cabinet had been pried open and the medal was nowhere to be found.

While his prize was gone, Schul’s place in American distance running lore will live forever: the first and only man to win Olympic 5,000m gold.

Robert Keyser Schul was born on September 28, 1937, in West Milton, Ohio, and died on June 16, 2024, in Middletown, Ohio. He is survived by his one daughter, Robin Thurber and husband Eric in Idaho, and two grandchildren, Liam and Lane. He is also survived by his older brother Norman and wife Marianne in North Carolina and his younger brother David and wife Carole in Ohio.

Talk about Schul on our messageboard: MB: RIP: Bob Schul – America’s only Olympic 5000m gold medallist – has died at age 86.

Watch the final three laps of Schul’s Olympic 5,000m win

Local news story from 2021 Schul was honored with a ceremony at his assisted living facility during the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.

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