Raised in Gary, Indiana, Lee Calhoun became the pride of the city when he won Olympic gold in the 110-m hurdles in 1956. Calhoun went on to break a world record and earn a second gold medal before retiring from the sport in 1960. Long before he was an Olympic star, however, Calhoun was just an average Hoosier boy.
Calhoun was born on February 23, 1933, in Laurel, Mississippi. When he was a toddler, Calhoun moved with his mother and stepfather to Gary. His stepfather, Rev. Cory Calhoun, served as pastor of the Evening Star Baptist Church. Eventually, the couple had fourteen children together.
Calhoun attended Roosevelt High School. A talented athlete, he was awarded a scholarship to North Carolina Central University in 1951. There, he was coached by Dr. Levy Walker, who later served as president of the U.S. Olympic committee. Calhoun attended college for two years, but left in 1953 to join the U.S. Army. He returned to the school two years later with a focused ambition to become a star athlete.
In 1956, Calhoun won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) 120-yard hurdles championship. He also won the Amateur Athletic Association (AAU) 110-m hurdles championship that year. On the heels of these victories, Calhoun competed in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. Competing in the 110-m hurdles, Calhoun beat his personal best by a full second to win gold. Such was the excitement in Gary, Indiana, that Calhoun returned to a huge parade in his honor.
Calhoun earned his bachelor’s degree in 1957 but continued to compete in amateur track and field competitions. He achieved additional NCAA and AAU Championship titles in 1957 and 1959.
Calhoun’s career as an amateur athlete hit a roadblock in 1957 after he appeared on the game show, Bride and Groom. During the show, Calhoun and his fiancé were married by Calhoun’s stepfather. Although producers were unaware that Calhoun was an Olympic star, the AAU accused him of financially benefitting from his status and suspended him from competition. The AAU lifted the ban in 1959, just in time for the lead-up to the 1960 summer Olympics.
On August 21, 1960, Calhoun tied the world record in the 110-m hurdles in Bern, Switzerland. Thereafter, he was favored to win an Olympic gold medal. At the Rome Olympics one month later, Calhoun won gold. He became the first athlete to win gold in that event at two consecutive Olympic games.
Following his second Olympic victory, Calhoun retired from competition. After completing a master’s degree, he accepted a position as track coach at Grambling State University (1967-70). He later coached track at Yale (1971-80) and Western Illinois University (1980-89). During those years, Calhoun twice served as an assistant Olympic coach. He was respected for his integrity and tireless commitment to his athletes.
Calhoun died in 1989 at the age of 56. Following his death, the Lee Calhoun Memorial Invitational was established at Western Illinois University. Calhoun is remembered as one of several famed athletes to have graduated from Gary’s Roosevelt High School, often mentioned alongside Charles Adkins, (Olympic boxer), Dick Barnett (pro-basketball star), Lloyd McClendon (pro-baseball player), and Willie Williams (Olympic track star).