When Horace Ashenfelter III won Olympic gold 55 years ago this week, it prompted some of the most bizarre sports headlines ever: "The G-man and the Russian. . . FBI Man Runs Down Russian . . ." and comments about how he was, "the first American spy who had allowed himself to be chased by a Communist".

Ashenfelter was, indeed, a serving agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He served with them for nine years, and when he won the 3000 metres steeplechase title in Helsinki, in 1952, it was one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history.

He was the first and still the only US athlete to do so since 1904. He beat the Soviet world record-holder Vladimir Kazantsev and set new world figures of 8min 45.40sec. Britain's John Disley, co-founder of the London Marathon with the 1956 steeplechase winner Chris Brasher, was third.

"I chuckled at these headlines," said Ashenfelter when we caught up with him. "They didn't upset me. But afterwards, I got even bigger headlines when I lost."

Now 85, he still runs thrice a week, for up to 45 minutes. He plays golf, and has shot his age, and better, "though not on very tough courses," he said with disarming modesty.

When The Herald ran him to ground in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, we put the inevitable questions: "Were you really an FBI agent? What did you do?"

And with well-rehearsed delivery, Horace replied: "If I tell yuh, I'll have to kill yuh."

Well here goes. The archive risks everything to bring you the facts.

"I never shot anyone, but I'd my hand on my gun a couple of times," he said. "It's like they say, 99% treachery and 1% pure terror. I did investigations as most people do. I'd a few criminals to attend to, but a lot of it was investigating the background of people in sensitive jobs."

It was, he recalled, during the McCarthy witch-hunt era. "My personal take is that the FBI did more to vindicate people than to prosecute them . . . It was so easy to say so-and-so is a Communist.

"I'd a real interesting career, and a lot of fun. I remember running at Ibrox in Glasgow. I recall wearing a bearskin hat, and riding a bicycle round the track."

He had flown fighters and bombers during the war, but never in action. "I was an aerial gunnery instructor, and flew armoured planes that were fired on for target practice. They used frangible bullets, so unless you were hit on the ventilators, it was ok. But if the radiator was holed, you had to bring them in pretty quick."

His athletics ability surfaced when he was a student at Penn State University: "I started out as a boxer, then met a guy who could fight, and he beat the tar out of me," he recalled.

Ashenfelter won 17 US titles at various distances. He trained at night, using park benches for hurdles, and in less than a month improved his best by some 30 seconds.

He claims he was not particularly fast. "My best quarter mile was 54 seconds, but I was in real good shape in Helsinki. I'd been training two or three times a day, but had only run the event about eight times. Before I went there I weighed 140lbs (10 stone), but by the time I raced I was 128lbs. I was lucky. I was in the best shape of my life at the best possible time.

"We had two children and my wife told me in Helsinki, before I ran, that she was expecting our third."

His brother, Bill, was also in the US team for the 'chase, but didn't reach the final.

Kazantsev, who a best time 18 seconds quicker than the American, stumbled slightly at the last water jump, and Ashenfelter won by 30 yards. Then he raced some 30 rows up into the stands, to kiss his wife, Lillian.

"It was a kinda salty kiss," she recalled.

Their familes owned orch-ards within four miles of each other, and they've known one another for more than 70 years. "She's a great girl. We've been married 63 years," said Horace. They've four sons and 12 grandchildren.

A multi-sport hall at Penn State is named after him.