James F. Quinn

Inducted: 2004
Born: 1907
Died: 2004

During the 2000 Summer Games, James F. Quinn, then ninety-four and living in Cranston, Rhode Island, was listed by the U.S. Olympic Committee as the nation’s oldest gold medal recipient. His neighbors were amazed, not knowing this quiet, unassuming man had once won Olympic gold. When the story broke, Quinn told Providence Journal editor Bill Reynolds that he kept the Olympic story to himself because he did not want to be prominent. His wife Katherine was married to him for 20 years before learning about his gold medal.

Quinn won the gold medal in the 400-meter relay at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928. He attended Holy Cross College (Class of 1928), where he was dominant in the sprints, equaling the world record for the indoor 60-yard dash in the New York Athletic Games of 1928. He qualified for the Olympics by winning the 100-yard dash in the IC4A championship meet at Harvard Stadium, running it in 9.9 seconds. His crowning moment came in July 1928 at The IX Olympiad when he ran the second leg of the 400-meter – in what turned out to be the fastest leg of the race. His team set a new world record of 41.0 seconds. The U.S. team beat Germany and England to take the gold.

Years later, Quinn still cherished his moment in the Olympic Sun. “We won by a good margin, and when Henry Russell crossed the finish line, that was such a great feeling. We hardly practiced at all for the relay. We worked at it (passing the baton) for maybe half an hour or so.” His teammates were Charles Borah, Henry Russell, and Frank Wykoff.

When Quinn returned home, he did not go into training for the 1932 Olympics. Back then, being an Olympic athlete was not a full-time job. There was no Olympic Training Center. No sponsors. No money. In Quinn’s era, the Olympics were still what they originally had been intended to be: a showcase for amateur athletics. Athletes worked all day to make a living, then trained at night. How times have changed? Bruce Jenner parlayed winning the decathlon in the 1976 Olympics into a lucrative endorsement career. Mary Lou Retton turned her Olympic gold into a career as a motivational speaker. James Quinn put his gold medal in a closet and forgot about it. He did not attend New York Mayor Jimmy Walker’s parade for the Olympians in Manhattan in 1928. Instead, he went to work for his family’s jewelry company in New York.

During World War II, Quinn served in the Army Air Force. He moved to Rhode Island in the late 1950s as national sales manager for Dieges & Clust jewelry company in Providence. Quinn took as much pride in the medals his company produced as he did in the Olympic medal he won. “We made beautiful, classic medals, nothing like the ones out there today.”

He did not know where his gold medal was for years until he found it one day in a closet. The only other mementos of his running career are a few old clippings and a lamp made out of a silver cup he got from the New York Athletic Club when he broke the world record in the 60-yard dash. He remained active in the Holy Cross Alumni Association and was inducted into the Holy Cross Hall of Fame in 1962.

James F. Quinn was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2004.

For additional reading:
The Olympics: A History of the Games, by William Johnson, Sports Illustrated, 1992.

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