On this, the second night of Hanukkah, OHA is reminded of Syracuse’s Myer Prinstein, the most decorated Olympian in our region’s history. Myer won four gold medals, and was “robbed” of another gold in a controversial incident that forced him to settle for silver, resulting in a five-medal Olympic hardware collection from a career spanning three Olympic games. In the process, he set one Olympic record that stood for 80 years and two Olympic records that have still not been broken.
Myer was the fourth of nine children in a family of Polish-Russian Jewish immigrants, who came to Syracuse in 1883 when Myer was five years old. They settled into a home at 724 Orange Street (now McBride St.) in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of the 7th Ward (later known as the 15th Ward) on the east side of downtown. The city directory of the time lists his father Jacob’s occupation as grocer and baker, and records show that the family regularly attended religious services at the Society of Concord synagogue.
In the late 1800’s, Syracuse was fast becoming a major powerhouse among the cities of New York State. The tight-knit Jewish community members of the 7th Ward supported each other as many became leading citizens, distinguishing themselves at everything from furniture making to foundries and from retail to real estate. The neighborhood residents provided the financial backing and much of the expertise that helped the young Shubert brothers build the largest theatrical empire our world has ever known. There is no doubt that these same people also supported Myer as he distinguished himself with his athletic, and academic, abilities and accomplishments.
Myer began competing in track and field while he attended the public Syracuse High School, which later became Central High, and he was a member of the local YMCA team until he enrolled at Syracuse University in 1897 to study law. At S.U. he was the captain of the track team, where he excelled at the long jump and the triple jump (known then, respectively, as the broad jump and the hop, step and jump). He also represented the team in the pole vault, the high jump, and the 60, 100, and 400-meter running events. Actually, to say that he excelled at jumping is a major understatement. Though he stood less than 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed only 145 pounds, Myer was a giant among jumpers.
In 1896, Myer won the first of many national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) long-jump titles and, as a Syracuse University freshman, he set his first American and Intercollegiate (today’s equivalent of the NCAA) records with a long jump of 23 feet 8 inches. Just three months later, at nineteen years old, he captured his first world record with a long jump measured at 23 feet 8 7/8 inches during the New York Athletic Club Games.
Prinstein’s arch-rival was Alvin Kraenzlein, from the University of Pennsylvania, and the two jumpers went head-to-head, trading titles throughout their college careers. Kraenzlein set a new long jump world record in 1899 of 24 feet 4 ½ inches but, in Philadelphia on April 28, 1900, as the New York Times reported, “Prinstein… the versatile Syracuse athlete won the world’s, American, and Intercollegiate championships from A.C. Kraenzlein of Pennsylvania, by one magnificent leap” measuring in at 24 feet 7 ¼ inches. This new record put Myer in good stead as both he and Kraenzlein headed to Paris that summer for a showdown at the 1900 Olympic games.
The track and field events were to take place at the beautiful Racing Club de Paris. The final for Myer’s first event, the long jump, was scheduled for a Sunday, which posed a problem for Prinstein. As a strict Methodist-affiliated private school, Syracuse University did not allow its athletes to compete on Sundays, the Christian sabbath. Though Prinstein was Jewish and was officially competing for America, S.U. was his sponsor and it forbade him from competing in the long jump final on Sunday. At the time, however, Olympic rules allowed the results of qualifying rounds, which were held on Saturday that year, to count in the finals. As the top medal candidates in the long jump were all American, the team, including the Christian Kraenzlein, agreed in solidarity to refrain from competing on Sunday and vowed to treat Saturday’s qualifying round as the final. By the close of competition on Saturday, Myer was in the top spot with a new Olympic record jump of 23 feet 6 ½ inches.
On that Sunday, while attending religious services with the American team, Myer was unaware of the fact that a few of his teammates were inconspicuously absent from those services. Among those missing was Alvin Kraenzlein. He was at the Racing Club de Paris, breaking his vow in the long jump final, where he was treated to six uncontested jumps, ultimately beating Prinstein’s qualifying mark by only one centimeter and setting a new Olympic record. Kraenzlein received the gold medal and a punch in the nose from Prinstein, who was reportedly held back by teammates before he could inflict any further damage. Kraenzlein’s tarnished victory brought his total individual shiny gold medal count, in those games, to four – an Olympic track and field record for one edition of the games that has been equaled but never beaten. Silver medalist Myer challenged Alvin to an on-the-spot rematch jump but Kraenzlein refused and promptly announced his retirement from the sport.
In the triple jump on the following day, Prinstein, perhaps fueled by angry adrenaline, captured his first gold medal, and the first for any Jewish Polish-American. In the process, he set a new Olympic record, beating teammate Connolly’s previous historic Olympic record jump by a whopping 5 ¾ inches. Prinstein returned to Syracuse University where, before graduating with a law degree in 1902, he set a new University long jump record that lasted 88 years.
Upon graduation, Myer practiced law in Syracuse before moving to Jamaica, Queens, outside of New York City, where his athletic pursuits were sponsored by the Irish American Athletic Association (IAAC). In 1904, the 25 year-old Prinstein headed to the St. Louis Olympics, again scheduled to coincide with the World’s Fair being held simultaneously in that city to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. In St. Louis, Prinstein proved he was at his peak by winning gold in the triple jump and the long jump on the same day. His “sweet revenge” long jump performance not only topped Kraenzlein’s record jump from 1900, it set a new Olympic record of 24 feet 1 inch that lasted for 80 years until it was finally broken by American Al Joyner in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Myer’s amazing feats in the 1904 Olympics have kept him in the record books to the current day as the only athlete ever to win both events in the same Olympics and the only athlete to win both events in the same day. He also came in fifth in the 60 and 400-meter dashes. Returning to New York, Myer added a stationery business and a real estate company to his successful law practice while continuing to compete for the IAAC.
In 1906, the International Olympic Committee decided to stage an “interim” Olympic games in Athens. Eventually, these games were declared “unofficial” due to the fact that they did not adhere to the four-year competition cycle. Myer was, again, on the American team roster and was, again, slated to compete and defend his Olympic titles in both jumping events. The long jump competition pitted Prinstein against the world record holder, Peter O’Connor, an Irishman competing for England. In a stunning victory, Myer won gold again, with a jump of 23 feet 7 ½ inches, beating silver medalist O’Connor by a comfortable margin. Plagued by an injury, Prinstein did not medal in the triple jump.
The local Jewish community was certainly proud of Myer and a review of the minutes of the March 13, 1912 Trustee meeting of the Society of Concord shows that a seat in the honored “first part of the Temple” was temporarily “reserved for M. Prinstein” while Myer was in town to visit his family.
Ending his Olympic career with an impressive four gold medals and one silver medal, Myer Prinstein is still, over 106 years later, the most decorated Olympic athlete from central New York. Unfortunately, he is also perhaps the most forgotten and unheralded American Olympian in our history. Even as early as 1908, though generally considered at the time as “the greatest jumper the world has ever seen,” a Syracuse newspaper column lamented the fact that Prinstein was not properly recognized for his amazing athletic accomplishments.
Myer Prinstein died of a heart ailment at only 46 years of age, leaving his widow, Henrietta, and a young son, Elsner, to survive him. He was buried in the Union Field Cemetery in Queens on March 10, 1925. For most of the next 75 years, however, Myer did not really reappear much in
American print and was, strangely, omitted from many historical Olympic reviews, including those published in our local press. In 1939, to commemorate its 100th anniversary, the Syracuse Herald-Journal published a special 14-page sports history section that omitted any mention of quadruple gold medalist Prinstein and erroneously named 1912 400-meter winner Charles Reidpath as Syracuse’s first gold medal recipient. This omission was repeated as late as 1972 in the Herald-Journal, which reviewed previous medalists in an article on the impending Olympics of that year. In Israel, he was posthumously inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1982. In 2000, he became a member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, and in 2008 he was finally inducted into the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame.
Myer Prinstein is worth remembering. He was the real deal, an Olympic hero for the ages, a role model worth emulating, and a great part of our local, and national, history of which we can all be very proud.