Two-dozen of America’s Olympic medals can be traced to a single act of Cold War rivalry more than five decades ago.
In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower got sick of watching U.S. sharpshooters lose to the Soviets in target competitions and ordered the creation of a military unit that would produce champion marksmen.
The U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit has sent at least one soldier to each of the Olympics since the 1960 Games, 68 in all. They’ve brought home 23 medals, 11 of them gold. This year, the unit, based at Fort Benning, Ga., will send seven shooters to London, including two who won gold in 2008.
Today the United States ranks as the all-time leader in shooting medals, with 105, barely enough to surpass the total collected by the former Soviet Union and the countries it once comprised.
“Without the Army providing the international Olympic-style shooters, we wouldn’t be competing with them at all,” said Lones Wigger, a former member of the unit who won gold medals in 1968 and 1972 and is widely considered America’s best-ever competitive rifle shooter. “We’d be like a third-world country on the sporting level.”
The unit remains, at essence, an Olympic training center, recruiting the nation’s top young shooters to enlist in the Army with the promise that they’ll be able to spend their days preparing for naitonal and international competitions on state-of-the-art firearms.
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But the unit’s work reaches far beyond the Olympics. Its 150 members train other soldiers, hold clinics for the public, and help develop weapons in a high-tech custom firearms shop. Soldiers from the unit also visit schools and civic groups to talk about self-discipline and goal-setting.
The unit also regularly deploys to war zones, where they teach troops to shoot more accurately, and from farther distances. They’ve also helped prepare the Afghan army to fill the void left by departing American forces.
“We’re taking the stuff we’re learning on the firing line and giving it to other soldiers as they go out into harm’s way. It saves their lives,” said Sgt. First Class Jason Parker, a 50m rifle shooter headed to his fourth Olympic Games. “You want to compete, of course, but you want to be a part of something bigger, and that’s why I’ve been (with the unit) for 15 years.”
Members of other military units typically make the U.S. shooting team, but nowhere near the regularity of the Marksmanship Unit. This year’s team includes two soldiers from the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which trains service members in an array of Olympic sports, including wrestling, boxing, fencing and track and field. The Air Force has a similar initiative.
Although the Cold War is long over, and the unit has fulfilled Eisenhower’s goal, America’s stiffest competition at the London Games will be the same old foes: Russia and China. But the unit’s Olympians are less concerned about their opponents than they are about making sure their individual performances represent America well.
“We know who our competition is going to be, but shooting is one of those sports where there’s no defense; it’s just us on the firing line,” Parker said. “It’s about us developing our skills as best we can, identifying what we need to do, and doing it.”