Every four years, the world turns its attention to the Olympics as the best athletes gather from all corners of the globe to compete. Thousands of men and women match their abilities in thrilling contests that become sources of pride for their home countries and often turn ordinary athletes into legends. Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, fourteen Arkansans have won the gold medal. The first of these Arkansas Olympic gold medalists was Eddie Hamm.
Edward Barton Hamm was born in 1906 in Lonoke, just east of Little Rock. His father, Charles Hamm, was a plumber and electrician and provided a modest living for his wife and six children. Eddie Hamm attended local schools as a child and showed tremendous talent as an athlete. And he loved to compete.
Hamm was a star on the high school football team as well as the track and field team. In his first state competition in 1923, as a high school sophomore, he set a record long jump at 23 feet, 2 inches. In 1924, he set a world record for high school students with a long jump of 24 feet, 2 inches. He tried out for the US Olympic team that year but came up short.
Hamm faced another obstacle in 1924 when he suffered a debilitating bout of malaria. However, he soon rallied back. The next year, he went on to win the high school competitions yet again. He ended up winning both the state high school long jump and the 220-yard dash three years in a row.
Colleges took an interest in him. Hamm enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, hoping to play football. Coaches, however, steered him toward the track and field teams. Hamm excelled again, winning conference and national championships. In 1928, he again tried out for the Olympic team. He won the qualifying match for the long jump when he leapt an incredible 25 feet, 11.5 inches, setting a world record.
The Ninth Summer Olympiad was held in Amsterdam, the capital of The Netherlands, in late July through early August. It was a memorable age for the Olympics. Earlier that year, the first winter Olympics were held in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as its own set of events. The 1928 Amsterdam games were the first to feature the lighting of the Olympic torch, now an indelible symbol of the Olympics. It was also the first Olympics to feature women athletes. More than 2,800 athletes from 46 nations competed, including Hamm and the American team.
Jumpers were given three rounds of jumps in the qualifying rounds. Hamm’s jump was 25 feet, 4.75 inches. This set an Olympic record. The final round included Hamm and another American, Al Bates. They competed against four other men. Hamm easily outpaced all the others with two jumps of 25 feet, 8 inches, securing the gold medal.
The United States won 22 gold medals and 56 medals overall, the most of any nation competing that year. Hamm would hold the Olympic long jump record until Jesse Owens’s dramatic win in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Hamm returned to great fame and graduated from Georgia Tech in 1928. He never competed in another Olympics. He served for a few years as a track coach before becoming a business executive in Oregon.
In 1970, he donated his college track and field trophies to Georgia Tech for public display. In 1971, Hamm was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in North Little Rock for his athletic achievements in college and at the Olympics. Hamm spent most of his later years quietly out of the limelight, spending time with his family. He died at his home in Oregon in 1982 at the age of 76.