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25 Jul 1952
Helsinki 1952

FBI agent Ashenfelter breaks cover to win the steeplechase

Agents from America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, normally keep a low profile. But in Helsinki agent Horace Ashenfelter broke cover and grabbed the attention of the world.

An unassuming 3,000m steeplechaser, Ashenfelter, known commonly as “Nip”, trained using benches in local parks and in his own back garden. He was seen as a decent competitor, but not a likely winner. For although his personal best of nine minutes 6.4 seconds was an American record, it was still some way short of the times being recorded by the world’s best steeplechasers.

Such preconceptions quickly disappeared in the heats, when Ashenfelter ran eight minutes 51 seconds, making him the fastest qualifier for the final. While few still expected him to challenge for gold, he was all of a sudden very much in the mix for a medal.

The undisputed favourite was the Soviet Union’s world record holder Vladimir Kazantsev, considered by many to be unbeatable. Back in the USA, the contest between the two was being billed as the FBI agent versus his Soviet foe.

Ashenfelter took the lead on the third lap, with Kazantsev content to run in his wake. They stayed like that for lap after lap, the Soviet runner remaining just behind his American rival, watching his every move. Ashenfelter retained the lead as they entered the final lap but, with half a circuit left, the Soviet favourite surged ahead.

He looked set for a narrow victory until he stumbled at the final water jump, which Ashenfleter cleared with ease. The American reclaimed the lead and, now revived, kicked on to win in a new world record time of eight minutes 45.4 seconds, leaving a dejected Kazantsev six seconds adrift in second.

Ashenfelter had run more than 20 seconds quicker than his pre-Games personal best and he celebrated his momentous victory by putting on one final burst of speed to climb 30 rows into the stand to kiss his wife.

Meanwhile the American press jested that the race had been the first time an FBI agent had happily allowed himself to be followed home by a Russian.

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