Collector preserves Olympic glory
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2000
CLEARWATER -- Mounted over the television in his three-bedroom Countryside home, John Selleh displays what is considered the world's largest collection of athletic equipment used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games.
"Any collection bigger than his will be the one they put together for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne (Switzerland)," said Bruce Caldwell, who was in charge of equipment logistics at the Atlanta games for PORTaPiT, the Dallas company that donated $1.8-million in equipment for 15 Olympic sports in 1996.
"He has the biggest collection of implements actually used in the games from the 1996 Olympics," said Caldwell, who has since left PORTaPiT and started an athletic equipment company in Dallas. "He's quite a collector."
The focus of Selleh's collecting efforts has been track and field, the sport that captivated him at age 15 while he attended Oak Ridge High in Tennessee. Selleh, 52, attended the Atlanta games and has since purchased from PORTaPiT 13 javelins, four discuses, a hammer, shot put, high jump bar and a shot put toe board.
He also has markers that were used to measure distances during track and field events and an orange banner that belonged to Russian athletes.
"You have to have athletic skills for other sports but sometimes you're lucky or unlucky," Selleh said. "In track and field, it's you as one person."
A gentle man with graying temples and white sneakers, Selleh proudly talked about his collection. Selleh, a Clearwater business owner, would not say how much he paid for the collection. Caldwell estimated the collection is worth $150,000. He rattled off names and records of track and field athletes easily, and when he isn't sure he finds the answers in a stack of sports magazines and reference materials he keeps near his collection.
"I will keep these forever and eventually everything in here will go in a museum of some kind," Selleh said. "These were the centennial games. It's a once-in-a-lifetime collection."
His collection was authenticated by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and by PORTaPiT, whose employees worked at the games and collected all the equipment after the Olympics. Along with the certificates of authenticity, Selleh has the history of which athlete used the items and other details, such as how far a javelin or discus was thrown. Each item has a story that Selleh loves to tell.
He has the discus, javelin and shot put thrown by American decathlete Dan O'Brien to win the gold medal. A yellow javelin on his wall was thrown by Steve Backley of Britain to win a silver medal.
The collection includes a red shot put and yellow javelin used by Syrian heptathlete Ghada Shouaa to win a gold medal. And Lance Deal autographed the 16-pound hammer he threw 266 feet, 2 inches to win a silver medal four years ago.
As a young man, Selleh excelled at shot put and says he still holds Oak Ridge High School's record for shot put, a throw of 57 feet, 5 inches he set in 1966 at a state track meet in Nashville, Tenn. But it was his skill with the javelin that won him a scholarship to Tennessee Technological University.
Track and field sports, he notes, were among the original events of the Greek Olympiad.
"They used to claim the discus thrower was the greatest athlete because of the complexity of the event," Selleh said.
After the Atlanta games, Selleh picked up a javelin again at age 49 and started competing in a national track and field athletic league for people aged 30 and older. In doing so, he has found new joy in the sport.
"It's not like we're competing to beat someone," Selleh said. "You're competing with yourself. You throw for your personal best."
PORTaPiT still has a few javelins and shot puts left from Atlanta, said Gordon Klunkert, the company's general manager of the track and field division.
Georgia Tech has the large mat used for the 1996 pole vault and still uses it today, he said. In some cases, families of athletes claimed the equipment that won their prize. But much of it went to sentimental collectors, like Selleh.
"We all are armchair athletes," Caldwell said. "We watch the Olympics and we want to have a piece of it. It's their way of being part of something very, very big."
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