The Blackballing of Phil Shinnick


Young Phil Shinnick wasn’t supposed to smash a world record. On May 25th 1963, the 20 year old University of Washington unknown landed 27’4″ long jump at the California Relays in Modesto, besting the previous mark held by the USSR’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan. It is undisputed that Shinnick soared this unmatched distance. Yet his name graces no book of records.

Meet officials disqualified the jump because they assumed it was wind aided even though no wind gauge was on hand for the leap. The one wind gauge present in Modesto, in use for the 220 low hurdles, read 1.6 meters per second, under the limit of 2 meters per second (about 4.8 miles per hour) during Shinnick’s jump.

Shinnick had bested a hallowed mark once held for twenty five years by Jesse Owens and being stalked that very day in Modesto by the great Ralph Boston. But his anonymity spurred meet organizers to presume an illegitimate jump. As Shinnick remembers, “They didn’t know who I was. Ralph [Boston] told me later ‘when I saw that jump, I went into shock. I just was absolutely in shock.’ And I think that the track world never recovered from that shock. They couldn’t believe the unbelievable. How could a guy who’s just twenty-years-old, and jumped in only four or five college meets in his life, break the world record?”

The meet officials voted the next day to accept his World Record but in an extraordinary move never submitted the mark to the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) for consideration.

A brief storm of outrage erupted at their actions. Arthur Robinson of the Sacramento Bee wrote in June 1963, “First of all it wasn’t a wind. It wasn’t even a breeze… Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to blow out a match…even a hummingbird’s feather would have dropped to the ground without drifting in its descent at the moment young Shinnick made his phenomenal jump.”

By Sept. 12, 1964, Boston flew past Shinnick’s Modesto jump, reaching 27-4 1/2. Shinnick’s phantom leap would have lasted just 16 months and the hue and cry receded into the background for everyone. Everyone except Phil Shinnick. Even though he went on to make the 1964 Olympic team and competed in four other World Record breaking competitions in the next five years, the still day in Modesto never left his mind.

Now 40 years later Dr. Phil Shinnick, a 60-year-old Manhattan Acupuncturist and research scientist is attempting to shatter another record by getting his name in the books, four decades after the fact. Over the last ten years, in an at time grueling effort he has likened to writing his doctorate dissertation, Dr. Shinnick has pleaded his case to the highest levels of track and field. Active supporters include Gold Medallists Lee Evans, Tommie Smith, Harold Connolly, and recently, Bob Beamon. Former world record holder Ralph Boston, the man Shinnick beat 40 years ago has signed an affidavit stating, “I saw the attempt and it was real.”

Other affidavits signed on Shinnick’s behalf come from the Modesto Meet Director, the late Dr. Tom Moore who wrote in 1995 before his death, “I have regretted this happening all these years, also as I have always felt that the wind was under the allowable and you should have a world record.” Even the actual wind gauge officials present that day have sworn statements that Shinnick’s jump was true. Last year the United States Track and Field Association retroactively recognized Shinnick’s mark. Shinnick has now turned his dogged attention to the final authority on the matter, the IAAF. Shinnick knows that many in the track world wonder why he can’t let this go.

“People project on me a lot of why I’m doing this and say I want to be more recognized. I’m doing this because of truth and justice. I want to be happy in my life and I don’t want to die while thinking about this. I don’t want to have regrets. When you get older that’s what happens to you. Things that were bad start to come back. So I don’t want that. I’m in medicine; I see a lot of people dying and I see how, if they don’t deal with things in their life, it bites them in the end and it makes them bitter. You’ve got to have peace and I want peace in my soul. That’s what I really want.”

While the 40 year gap has raised eyebrows, changing records after the fact is actually quite common in track and field. From 1901 to 1935 the IAAF on the basis of signed affidavits ratified five long jump records, in 1936 a wind gauge was added as an option. So Shinnick’s mark can be accepted by the IAAF under that rule. More recently, Carl Lewis was named the Olympic Champion and world record holder in the 100-meter dash world record in 1988, after losing to Ben Johnson who was later disqualified for steroid use. Retroactive evaluation of records and titles, according to tests for performance enhancing drugs, and other circumstances, has been set as a precedent. Shinnick’s mark could likewise be accepted according to this principle. Yet, the IAAF, the world governing body for amateur athletics, remains steadfast in its view that Shinnick is easier to ignore than address. This is partly due, Shinnick believes, to his radical past. After his athletic career ended, Shinnick was a political activist throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He fought to get China invited to the Olympics. When nuclear weapon proliferation heightened between the US and USSR he organized peace delegations of athletes and scholars to travel behind the iron curtain to study how sports and competition were organized. Shinnick estimates that he must have brought “200-300 people” into the USSR for “friendly sport competition”. At the heights of the Cold War he helped found the Moscow Peace marathon. With age, Shinnick’s activism never waned and in the early 1980s, he founded Athlete’s United for Peace.

The IAAF declined to comment on Shinnick’s case or whether his political history has played any role in this process.

In 1985 Shinnick went into medicine and today has a client list that includes singer Roberta Flack and he used to treat, fittingly enough, current long jump record holder Michael Powell. Yet through it all, he never forgot that day in Modesto. After almost thirty years, Shinnick finally felt compelled to act in 1992 when he was elected to the University of Washington sports Hall of Fame. .

“I was there being honored and my dad look looked over to me and said, ‘Why are so unhappy? I mean here you all in the Hall of Fame at the University of Washington, 80,000 people honoring you. I said I was miserable because my jump was never recognized and I will never be happy about that.’ I realized that it had gotten down deep and under my skin, it really bothered me…My Dad gave me the push to actually do something about it.”

Now that the record has been recognized by the USTFA, the IAAF is next in his sites. But Shinnick says that this quest is not for validation “I knew the record was okay from the very beginning and there has never been a doubt in my mind that it wasn’t a world record. Others say, “Oh this is going to be so good, you’ll get recognized. It’s so good because you’ll get what you deserve.” I already got what I deserved, a great world record jump beating the Olympic Champion because of my hard training and talent. In my mind it happened, I broke the record. In my mind, it was unjust that it didn’t get recognized officially, and that’s my driving force.”

DAVE ZIRIN is the News Editor for the Prince George’s Post. His sports writing can be read at www.edgeofsports.com. He can be reached at: editor@pgpost.com.


DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

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