If you look up a list of any UNC athletes to have taken part in the Olympics, it’s a pretty decently long list.
For one, UNC is good at a lot of sports, so it makes sense that a bunch have broken through over the years. You’ll also notice that most come from three sports: men’s basketball, women’s soccer and field hockey. That’s also not exactly surprising considering those teams account for 33 of the 43 team national championships won by the school.
However, before Michael Jordan or Mia Hamm or any other Tar Heel in any other sport made it, Harry Williamson was the first.
Williamson was a star in track and field at UNC, having won conference championships in multiple mid-distance running events.
He took part in the 800 meters at the 1936 US Olympic Trials against a stacked field. Then world record holder Ben Eastman was the headliner of the event, but 1932 Olympian Chuck Hornbostel and NCAA champion Charles Beetham were also there.
In the event final, Beetham collided with another runner, taking himself out of contention, and seemingly leaving an Olympic berth up for grabs. On the final stretch of the race, Williamson managed to surpass a runner right towards the end of the race to just get into third. That meant he, along with John Woodruff and Hornbostel would be the member of the 1936 US 800 meters Olympic team.
Williamson easily won his heat in round one of the event to move on to the semifinals. He again won his race in the semifinals, edging out Canadian and 1932 bronze medalist Phil Edwards by a tenth of a second. That put Williamson into the Olympic final.
Unfortunately, the final did not go as well for him as Williamson finished in sixth place. Edwards got his revenge, finishing in the bronze spot for the second consecutive Olympics. Williamson finished two seconds back of him, and about three behind the gold medalist Woodruff of the US.
No other Tar Heel would make an Olympic team until fellow track and field athletes Bill Albans and Floyd “Chunk” Simmons made it in 1948. Simmons would be the first medalist, winning bronze in the decathlon in ‘48 and ‘52.
When the Olympics go to Tokyo in two years time, there will probably be Tar Heels in some events sometime during the two weeks. Some of them may even win medals, a lot have. However none of of will ever quite get the lore of being the first. Harry Williamson has that.