UB’s Olympic Presence: Former UB Chancellor, President Competed in 1920 Games in Antwerp

Release Date: September 28, 2000

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A scrapbook of memorabilia from the 1920 Olympics that was kept by Clifford Furnas, former UB chancellor and a competitor in those Games, includes the program from the Seventh Olympiad.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Eighty years ago, a young collegian from Indiana was settling back into campus life after spending the summer as an Olympic athlete and competitor in post-Olympic events overseas.

The 19-year-old Purdue undergraduate was Clifford C. Furnas (1900-1969), who went on to a distinguished career as scientist, author and chancellor of the University of Buffalo from 1954-62, and from 1962-66, as the first president of the State University of New York at Buffalo, following UB's merger with SUNY. Furnas was among the finalists to run the 5,000-meters in the 1920 Olympics--or the Seventh Olympiad--which took place in Antwerp, Belgium. His Olympic run followed successes at intercollegiate competitions throughout the Midwest, and impressive showings in the Olympic tryouts in Chicago and a final meet at Harvard University.

Olympic memorabilia, including a photograph album, scrapbook, track uniform, insignia and ribbons, are on display as part of the Clifford C. Furnas Memorial Collection, established by Furnas's wife, the late Sparkle M. Furnas. The Furnas Collection is housed in the University Archives, 420 Capen Hall. The photo album and scrapbook, in particular, bring to life the spirit and drive of a young runner preparing to take on the world.

Furnas's Olympic scrapbook contains a newspaper photograph of him and other Olympic-bound U.S. athletes cheering as they pass the Statue of Liberty aboard the "Princess Matoika" en route for Antwerp. A souvenir ship program reveals that the American Olympians were entertained during their voyage and treated to a farewell dinner, but athletic preparation wasn't neglected. "We trained daily on board ship," Furnas later wrote in The Purdue Alumnus, "the sprinters on the promenade deck, the other track men on the deck below…the wrestlers, boxers and weight men on the forward well deck and the swimmers in a temporary tank on the aft well deck.…Altogether, three 16-pound shots, two medicine balls and one discus were contributed to the fish during the voyage."

After landing in Antwerp on Aug. 8, 1920, the Americans were escorted to their quarters, which Furnas described as "far from the best." Belgium had been devastated in World War I, and Antwerp, with economic woes of its own, had had insufficient time to clear wartime rubble and construct new facilities for the Games. The stadium was unfinished at the start of the Olympics; athletes were housed in crowded rooms furnished with folded cots. But Furnas and his compatriots cheerfully overcame these difficulties, although Furnas later wrote that the poor accommodations adversely affected their conditioning.

More than 2,500 athletes participated in the Antwerp Games. The field represented 29 countries. However, the defeated nations of World War I-Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey-were not invited, and the new Soviet Union chose not to attend. The Olympic flag, with its intersecting rings, was introduced during these games.

On Aug. 14, the American athletes took part in ceremonies formally opening the stadium. "It gave me quite a thrill to stand there among the ranks of athletes and see the line of 26 flags," Furnas wrote, "each backed by personal representatives of the nation it represented. It was a congress of nations which I am sure exerted considerable influence in bringing about good feeling among the nations of the world."

In carefully preserved correspondence with his parents, Furnas voiced keen disappointment at the Americans' showing in the distance runs, yet he expressed pride at having been among the best in the world in his event. In the 5,000-meters, Paavo Nurmi of Finland-who won the 10,000-meters and two other gold medals at these Olympics-finished second to Joseph Guillemot of France, a war veteran who had taken up running as therapy for lungs damaged by mustard gas. Erik Backman of Sweden took third place. The Americans turned in the best overall team performance, however, winning a total of 41 gold medals, including nine for track and field.

Before Furnas returned home, he enjoyed a kind of European athletic tour, participating in several post-Olympic meets. At the Championships of Northern France, held Aug. 29 in Lille, Furnas won the 1,500-meters. "We were there as an added attraction to the meet," Furnas recalled, "for the American shield on a track suit attracted the admiration and respect of every Frenchman." The French also admired traditional American good-naturedness, especially the ability to lose graciously during that summer of competition. "You Americans are good sports," a Frenchman told Furnas. "You laugh if you win and you laugh if you lose."

Furnas and other American athletes then traveled to London to compete against a specially selected British team in a meet held Sept. 4 at the Queen's Club, where the future UB president captured first place in the two-mile run. "Wonderful sportsmanship was displayed by the members of the teams," Furnas wrote, "and when we finally parted for the various parts of the globe, we all felt that we were leaving a fine bunch of sportsmen and true friends."

On Sept. 9, 1920, Furnas set sail from Southampton on "the Lapland," arriving in the United States on Sept. 18. "I received a little thrill when I again set foot on American soil, but I had a feeling of regret when I realized that the most worthwhile athletic trip which a person can ever hope to take was almost at an end."

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