Jamaica's Morgan ties to Olympics run deep

July 23, 1992|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Staff Writer

Forty years ago, Morgan State had a Jamaican connection that stretched from here to the Olympics.

Three runners -- George Rhoden and Sam and Byron La Beach -- were raised in Jamaica, wooed to Morgan by track coach Eddie Hurt and qualified for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

Rhoden, now a podiatrist in San Francisco who runs in the Senior Olympics, won the 400-meter run in 45.9 seconds, one-tenth of a second slower than his world record, and anchored Jamaica's gold medal 1,600-meter relay team.

Sam La Beach, the University of District of Columbia's track coach, never got to Helsinki. Because he was born in Panama, he had to compete for that country. He won Panama's 400-meter trials, but pulled a hamstring muscle while training two weeks before the Games and was scratched from the trip.

His younger brother, Byron La Beach, who also went to Morgan and now owns a food import and export business in New York City, was in the sprints for Jamaica in 1952 but didn't place.

Morgan's Jamaican connection exists to this day.

Andrea Thomas, a Morgan senior, ran for Jamaica in the 400 in 1988 and hoped to go to Barcelona this time, but didn't make the team.

A former Morgan runner, Ethlyn Tate, was on Jamaica's 400 relay team that qualified for the Olympic final in 1988. The relay was forced to withdraw because of an injury to anchor Merlene Ottey.

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In his home in a quiet, attractive neighborhood in Washington, just over the D.C.-Maryland line, the man who was the first link in Morgan's Jamaican connection serves as its unofficial historian.

Sam La Beach has scrapbooks with newspaper clippings dating to the 1940s, when another brother, Lloyd (who did not go to Morgan), earned bronze medals in the 100 and 200 --es in the 1948 Olympics.

Sam La Beach was in high school when he almost beat a Morgan runner who was visiting Jamaica. Word of that reached Hurt, who told La Beach if he could pay his way to Baltimore, he would have a scholarship. The year was 1947.

In turn, La Beach told Hurt about another runner in Jamaica, Rhoden, "who's faster than I am." Rhoden came to Morgan, too.

Morgan's mile relay of La Beach, Bob Tyler, Bill Brown and Rhoden began to run wild. In 1950 it won the Penn Relays' Championship of America race by 50 yards in record time.

The same year the same four equaled the world record for the 400-meter relay at the Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles.

La Beach won the 400-meter run in the 1951 Pan Am Games and, entering the Olympics the following year, was ranked No. 5 in the world in the event behind Rhoden, Herb McKenley, Arthur Wint and Mal Whitfield. The pulled hamstring while training in Panama denied him the opportunity to race against the elite.

"I was so despondent," he said. "I was treated and then returned to Baltimore."

Rhoden, meanwhile, was the Olympic favorite in the 400. He had been eliminated in the semifinals of the 400 in the 1948 Olympics, but went into the 1952 Games as the world record-holder.

His chief rival figured to be a fellow Jamaican, the 30-year-old McKenley, whose world mark Rhoden had broken.

"McKenley was the first to run the 400 like a sprint," La Beach said. "The old way was sprint at the start, float, then close fast. Rhoden and the rest of us followed the way McKenley did it."

Sure enough, it was Rhoden and McKenley down the stretch at Helsinki. From four yards back, McKenley almost drew even.

"About 20 meters from home I heard the roar of the crowd and with split vision saw someone coming up," Rhoden said. "Somehow, I summoned the necessary strength and held him off. I surely was glad to see that tape."

It was Rhoden, by 18 inches.

While Rhoden has continued to run, competing in Senior Olympics events, La Beach stopped soon after the 1952 Olympics, in part because of the injury he suffered in Panama.

In 1988, La Beach retired as a deputy director after 37 years with the D.C. Department of Recreation. A year ago, he was persuaded to coach the UDC cross country and indoor and outdoor track teams.

"I admire Rhoden for continuing to run," said La Beach, 66, "but I'd rather stay active this way, by imparting what I know about running to young people."

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