Northeast Arkansas might not play host to a major professional sport’s franchise, but there is a rich and varied sporting heritage here all the same.
With a population of around 80,000, from a nation of 328 million, it is a point of great pride when one of our sons or daughters makes it on the national sporting stage. Whether it is wearing the jersey of an NFL team or achieving in singles competition in the Olympics, Jonesboro’s former residents never fail to make us proud.
With the Olympics just around the corner, we thought it would be great to look back on some of the competitors to have previously stepped out of the streets of Jonesboro and into the national, and sometimes worldwide, eye. Not only do we have a couple of medals in the city, but also a bona fide Olympic coach who might even influence the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
Earl Bell was born in Panama in 1955, but his family moved to Arkansas in 1960, with Bell attending ASU. While there, he took up pole vaulting and competed at the 1976, 1984 and 1988 Olympics. 1984 saw Los Angeles host the Games, with the US taking home three times as many medals as any other nation and only two fewer than the following four countries combined. Bell was amongst those medals, taking bronze behind teammate Mike Tully who took silver. Upon retirement, he established Bell Athletics outside of Jonesboro, where he coached Jeff Hartwig and had a community center named in his honor.
In 1996, the Olympic Games were back in the United States, and once again, the US took home more medals than anyone else. Sadly for Hartwig, alumni of ASU and a resident in Jonesboro whilst working with Bell, he didn’t make the medals 25 years ago, although he did compete. His passion for reptiles is well known locally, leading Bell to label him the modern-day Tarzan. The US could do with a Tarzan figure throwing themselves over the pole vault this summer: Arkansas might have a hand in that, too. The Olympics usually see the US top the medal rankings, and they’re clear favorites with Bwin Sports to do the same in the upcoming Games in Tokyo. Pole vaulter Sandi Morris is a former ASU student who has made the 2021 Olympic women’s team and has previously visited Earl Bell.
Whilst Bell has a bronze medal to his name, Jon Olsen has gone one better and grabbed a gold. According to Team Unify, Olsen grew up in Jonesboro and was a member of the winning US team in the men’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. That wasn’t his only gold in Spain, he was also a part of the men’s 4×100-meter medley relay winning team, and he added a bronze in the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay. In Atlanta 1996, he won two more gold medals, in the men’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay and 4×200-meter freestyle relay. He’s no longer in Jonesboro, residing in Florida Keys, but his achievements still reflect well on the northeast corner of Arkansas.