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Remembering the Olympic Triumphs of Northern Lake George’s Ralph C. Craig

By James H. Miller

Thursday, August 9, 2012

In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, Ralph Cook Craig won the gold medal for both the 100-meter and 200-meter race events, finishing them in 10.8 and 21.7 seconds, respectively (the latter time was only 1/10 of a second short of the world record). In honor of that outstanding feat, the King of Sweden, Gustav V, decorated him with two Olympian laurels.

Then, surprisingly, Craig quit.

“And I never ran again. It was a nice note for the end of my track career,” Craig told The New York Times in 1955. The reporter agreed, “It was perfect.”

Ralph Craig died 40 years ago in Hague. While he did conclude what looked like the mere beginning of a brilliant track career at age 23, it wouldn’t be his last Olympic contest. In 1948, at the age of 59, he made it as an alternate on the U.S. Yachting Team for the London Olympics (the 36-year break since his first Olympic contest marked a world record). He was, moreover, elected by his teammates to be the U.S. flag bearer that year; and in the opening day ceremonies, Craig ushered the whole American team into Wimberley Stadium.

“He was very impressed and honored. It’s quite an honor to represent your country,” says Alison Craig, Ralph Craig’s daughter-in-law. She and her husband, Ralph’s son Bruce Craig, and their son, Dean, still live on Lake George where they operate a real estate company, Alison V. Craig Realty.

Despite his first-rate athleticism, Ralph Craig nearly didn’t try out for the 1912 Olympic games. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, Craig had built a stunning track record in college at the University of Michigan, Anne Arbor. On the track and field squad, he had won two intercollegiate sprint championships, and had set the world record at 21 1/5 seconds for the 220-yard straight in 1910, matching it again in 1912. Yet when the time came to tryout for the U.S. athletic team, Craig, already out of college, had other responsibilities: he was engaged to be married, had lately started a new job, and, therefore, didn’t have the time to train.

As luck would have it, though, Craig had an encouraging friend who persuaded his boss to allow him some time off, which enabled Craig to train and try out. On learning that he would, The New York Times, fully convinced he would make the team, wrote: “It is conceded that with Craig a member of the American team the chances of American success in the sprinting events have been increased materially.”

The U.S. team departed for Europe on a steamer called the Finland, which also served as the athletes’ living quarters in Stockholm. The team in 1912 looked decidedly different from those of previous years. For one, it was the first time that women had been allowed to compete. Men on the team, meanwhile, were predominantly college-age boys, and relative to former U.S. teams, came from varying ethnic and class backgrounds. Pat Macdonald, for instance, was a Times Square traffic policeman; while the preeminent Jim Thorpe, dubbed “the greatest athlete in the world” by King Gustav, was of Native-American descent.

In the 100-meter race, the contestants, including Craig, were an edgy group, to say the least. The runners false started a total of seven times, three of which were led by Craig. During one, he and another athlete ran the whole 100 meters, not once looking back. On the eighth try, he took first place by 60 centimeters.

“As I remember it, Patching of South Africa was in the lead at 50 meters,” Craig told the New York Times. “If I wasn’t last, I must have been next to last. But then I started to come—maybe that extra 100 meters [during the false start] was a needed warm up for me—and I won.”

With regards to the 200-meter race, Craig said it was much easier since “my bad starting was not as much of a disadvantage.”

Craig first came to Lake George sometime between 1920-1931 (when it must have seemed his Olympic days were finished). Willy Cook, a distant relative of his, had lived on a large tract of land in the northern lake basin, which included what is today the Rogers Rock Park. It had been in the Cook family since the early 1800s, conferred on to one of the Cooks for his service in the War of 1812. Willy Cook was a hermit who had spent much of his life penniless. So when he died, there was a heap of unpaid taxes on the land.

Bruce Craig says that the Cooks didn’t want to get embroiled in straightening out the back taxes. “They were looking for heirs,” he says. “And they found Ralph. That’s how we first came to Lake George, to find out what the project consisted of.”

Employed at the time with a cigar manufacturer in Albany, Craig was appealed to by the Cooks to take control of it. To appease the state, Craig divided up the land and provided New York with what is today Rogers Rock Park. He saved a slab of French Point for himself, where he and his family would spend summers and eventually permanently relocate.

Before and after the 1948 Olympics, when he participated on the U.S. Yachting Team, Craig had other eclectic interests, and accomplishments to boot. He was, for instance, instrumental in the establishment of the Northern Lake George Yacht Club and was chiefly responsible for procuring the land for the first clubhouse. He also trained Cocker Spaniels and judged the breed numerous times in the Westminster Kennel Dog Show.

He also became a photographer of some note. The United States Olympic Committee showed an exhibition of his prints in a one-man show at the Olympic House on Park Avenue. Four years after the 1948 Olympics, two of Craig’s photographs of Lake George and Hague were featured in The Salon Internacional de Arte Fotographico in Valparaiso, Chile.

In 2010, Craig was inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame for his “unique and indelible” contribution to sport. He may have bee an early quitter of track, but Craig never quit being a genuine sportsman, and a winner.

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