Milt Campbell was 22 years old when he won the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics, in Melbourne. He returned home to Plain-field, N.J., as the greatest all-around athlete in the world, only to discover that his achievements meant very little to his fellow countrymen.
No one signed Campbell up as a product or corporate spokesman; no one offered to put him on a cereal box. Indeed, in sharp contrast to Dan O'Brien, whose endorsement income will soar if, as expected, he wins the '96 Olympic decathlon in Atlanta on Aug. 1, Campbell didn't earn a penny from his gold medal. "I've always said—and I'm very adamant, whether people want to hear it or not—that America wasn't ready for a black man to be the best athlete in the world," Campbell says. "Bob Mathias and Bob Richards would come down off the podium, and Wheaties would endorse them," he continues, referring to the white Olympic champions in the decathlon and pole vault, respectively, at the 1952 Olympics (Richards won again in '56). "I got absolutely nothing."
What rankles Campbell even more is that as the years have passed, his achievements have been forgotten. In 1991 Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote that winning the Olympic decathlon between 1952, when the gold medalist was Mathias, a future member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and 1960, when the winner was Rafer Johnson, the handsome future confidant of the Kennedy family, was like "playing a scene with a baby and a dog." Cute line, but it doesn't explain the continued slighting of Campbell. In 1983, when the U.S. Olympic Committee started its Hall of Fame, Mathias and Johnson were among the 20 inaugural members. Campbell was not even on the ballot, nor would he be for the next four years. It was 1992 before he was elected to the Hall.
"Not only would people leave me off the list [of great decathletes]," says Campbell, "but they claimed they couldn't find me for special occasions, like celebrity golf outings."
There are a number of possible reasons for Campbell's anonymity. The Melbourne Games took place on the far side of the world and in November—spring in the Southern Hemisphere but the height of the fall football season in the U.S. Those were the last Games not to be beamed around the world on television (although the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games weren't televised in the U.S.).
Having heard this before, Campbell listens with an air of polite impatience. "But you know who the 100-meter-dash winner was," he says, referring to Bobby Morrow of the U.S. "No, I think it had to do with the fact that America was not ready for a black man to be the best athlete in the world. And now the press refuses to go back and do the research. I see things on television about Rafer Johnson that say, 'Winner of the decathlon. First black decathlete.' Then they say, 'Oh, he got beat in 1956.' But they never say who beat him."
"Milt's always been bitter that Rafer gets more attention," says O'Brien. "But Rafer went to the  Olympics when he was in high school."
Wrong. The two champions were born less than two years apart, Campbell on Dec. 9, 1933, and Johnson on Aug. 18, 1935. Johnson was 21 and a sophomore at UCLA when he competed at the Melbourne Games and won a silver medal to Campbell's gold. It was Campbell who won the silver medal as a high schooler, at Helsinki in 1952, when he was an 18-year-old senior-to-be. Until the '52 U.S. Olympic Trials, Campbell had never competed in a decathlon and had never pole-vaulted, thrown the discus or javelin, or run the 1,500 meters in competition.
Make no mistake: Johnson was a prodigy, too. He set the world decathlon record in 1955, at the age of 19, and qualified for the '56 U.S. Olympic team in both the decathlon and the broad jump. He beat Campbell in the '56 trials and might have given him a battle in Melbourne but for an injured knee and torn stomach muscles. Campbell insists that he and Johnson were good friends back then and remain so today. It's not that he wants to tear Johnson down. He just wants people to know that his Olympic record is identical to Johnson's. They each won one gold medal, one silver.
Opinion about Campbell in the track and field world is divided. Mention his name to some people, and you'll get a roll of the eyes: "Ah, Milt. Great athlete. Thinks the world owes him something." Mind you, no one says that to Campbell's face. Even though some of his once extraordinary musculature has slipped from his shoulders to his belly, he is an imposing figure, with his huge head shaved clean. He is a man of strong opinions, and he voices them. To some people that makes him a know-it-all.