He was the world's fastest human. He held or shared every world track record from 40 to 220 yards. He won more national sprint championships than any athlete before or since. Yet Ralph Metcalfe never won an individual Olympic gold medal and as a consequence his name is remembered by few people other than track enthusiasts.
Writers in the 1930s marveled at Metcalfe's "surging power, smooth start and tremendous pickup" which epitomized "the beauty and symmetry of human speed." They were amazed that a man so big (5 feet 11, 180 pounds) could travel so fast. One awed columnist called Metcalfe, whose heavily boned body was molded along classic Grecian lines, "a mass of rippling and perfectly coordinated muscles."
Metcalfe had his first opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal, and immortality, in 1932 when he was a 22-year-old at Marquette University. "Ralph was, to a large extent, a natural runner," his coach, Con Jennings, recalls. "He was a real power sprinter who dug deep with his spikes. He ran with lots of arm motion, and his body leaned forward and drove vigorously. The only thing he needed when he first came to Marquette was help with his start. We experimented freely, and found Ralph did best by bunching his body to bring his feet closer together and his hips higher."
With his new starting technique, Metcalfe raced through his first college season in spectacular style, going undefeated in the Central Collegiates, Drake Relays, NCAA and AAU championships and, finally, the Olympic trials. Since Metcalfe had won the trials in the 100-meter dash by two full steps, he was favored to repeat in the actual Games.
July 23, 1961
But Coach Jennings was worried. "Ralph always had to work very hard at the start of training," he says, "though once in shape he could maintain a peak for weeks. He was in good shape when he reported for the team, but they kept working him very hard, and it probably wasn't too good for him."
Over 60,000 people jammed the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch the 100-meter finals on Aug. 1, 1932. The sky was a brilliant blue as the six finalists dug their starting holes in the springy crushed-peat track.
It took three short vicious strides for Metcalfe to get his body under way. His size generally caused him to lag slightly behind his rivals at the start of a race, but once he started moving Metcalfe usually gained steadily and pulled away near the finish.
This time, however, when Metcalfe slammed through the tape at the end of the race, he was not alone. Stubby little Eddie Tolan, himself a national champion at Michigan, had hit the finish line with him.
Many observers, waiting for the judges to examine the photos, thought Metcalfe had won, for he had caught Tolan at the 80-meter mark and seemed to be sweeping past him at the finish. Tickers at every seat in the press box clattered the news around the world that Ralph Metcalfe was an Olympic champion, while the slightly mustached sprinter himself posed graciously for photographers on the green infield.
Finally the judges announced their decision. The winner was Eddie Tolan.
Metcalfe stiffened, then slumped. Then he ran to embrace a wildly happy Tolan. The race is still argued about today, since present rules would call it a dead heat. But in 1932 the runner whose entire torso crossed the line first was the winner. Tolan, who had crossed the finish with his body erect, was chosen over Metcalfe, who was desperately leaning forward. Both had hit the string in the same 100th of a second and both were timed in 10.3 seconds.
"It was a long wait until we knew," the deep-voiced Metcalfe said recently. "I thought I had won. It was just one of those unfortunate things. Besides, there was still the 200."
Two days later Tolan and Metcalfe crouched in lanes 1 and 2 for the 200-meter finals. As the two Negroes whipped out of the top of the curve, the gum-chewing Tolan, horn-rimmed glasses held on by white adhesive tape, left knee bound in a tight white bandage to keep it warm, hammered past Metcalfe. Startled, Metcalfe chopped his stride in a frantic effort to speed up. Instead, he lost the relaxed control that brought him power, and finished third, while Tolan sped to a world-record 21.2.
Charley Paddock, America's 1920 Olympic sprint champion who was reporting the Games from the press box, sensed that something was wrong. He discovered that due to a mistake in lane measurements (the race was run from a staggered start) Metcalfe had run several feet too far.
"Ralph had always had an unusually calm temperament," says Coach Jennings. "But he just couldn't visualize Tolan whizzing past him so quickly and he became panic-stricken. That was the only time he ever tightened up."
Metcalfe adds, "I started from a relay marker. When Eddie passed me, I tensed up. If I'd realized that mistake I would have relaxed, and might have won."
Had such an accident involved runners from more than one country, an international incident would have resulted. But only Americans were involved, so no protest was made. Metcalfe has often been praised for the restraint he displayed, and he is still hesitant to discuss either incident. "I was well taught the proper attitude of sportsmanship, and I tried not to dwell on it. I just wanted another chance in the 1936 Olympics."
"Ralph was discouraged for a while," Jennings says. "It temporarily affected him. But he was willing, then anxious, to try again."
In 1933 and 1934 Metcalfe showed everyone that he was the "world's fastest human." In the 1933 NCAA meet he ran 100 yards in 9.4 seconds, to equal the world record, then tore through the 220 in 20.4, to set a new one. With double victories in both the AAU and NCAA meets in 1934, he became the only man in history to sweep both championships three times. He made an undefeated tour through Europe in 1933 and the Orient in 1934. Indoors, he answered critics who said he had a slow start by running 40 yards in 4.3 seconds, 60 yards in 6.1 and 70 yards in 7.0.
By the time he began training for the 1936 Olympics, Metcalfe had used up his college eligibility. In three years he had lost only one varsity race. Now he was hampered by two problems, one as old as himself, the other new.
The old one was money. Metcalfe had always held a job since he was 7. In grade school he had worked as an errand boy for a tailor, delivery boy for a grocer and helper on a vegetable wagon. He had to be in bed by 7:30 to be up for work at 3:30 a.m. "It was usually still light outside as I went to bed, and more than once when I heard the kids playing outside I wanted to cry."
While at Tilden Tech in Chicago, where he graduated in the regular four years despite a job clerking in a fish market three days a week, he won every interscholastic title available, including the national interscholastic 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds and the 220 in 21 flat. It was his desire to go to college, but Metcalfe felt he should get a full-time job. He did not enroll at Marquette until his mother urged him to "go get an education, and become the world champion, too."
A job as waterboy and trainer for the football, basketball and track teams at Marquette paid $40 a month toward books, transportation and a room ("I learned to economize"). In his white sweater and white ducks, and huskier than the usual waterboy, Metcalfe became a familiar figure on the campus as he trotted out to tend to the needs of the Marquette varsity teams. In spring, when he combined rubdown duties for the track squad with his own training, he was of necessity the first to arrive and the last to leave every practice.
By 1936 he was working as an attendant at a mental home. This job took 48 hours a week from the time he needed for his studies at Marquette and left him little time to train.
The new problem that hampered Metcalfe was the lack of track meets open to noncollege athletes. The two factors led to a critical delay in the start of his training. Coach Jennings pleaded with Metcalfe to quit his job, but Ralph felt he owed it to his family to help out as long as possible. The result was costly.
"I never reached my peak," Metcalfe says. "I had only an hour a day to train. It was a cold spring, and I pulled a muscle in the AAU meet."
In the U.S. Olympic trials at Randall's Island, N.Y., however, he qualified for the 100 meters by finishing second to Jesse Owens. But he missed making the Olympic team in the 220 meters when he finished fourth. Ironically, Metcalfe had won an unprecedented fifth consecutive AAU 200-meter championship only the week before.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was the setting for Jesse Owens' magnificent triple victory. It might have been spoiled had not Metcalfe been virtually eliminated at the start of the 100. "The starter held us a bit and I began to sway forward," he remembers. "Just as I swayed back to regain my balance the gun fired. I was last at the 50, but finished second to Jesse by a yard. Another 10 yards and I might have beaten him." A week later, running a world-record 10.3 at Cologne, he did.
Ralph Metcalfe's try for an Olympic gold medal was at least partially realized, though, when he teamed with Owens, Foy Draper and Frank Wycoff at Berlin to set a record in the 400-meter relay. That shared gold medal was the culmination of 16 years of dedicated training and genuine sacrifice.
Metcalfe has done well since his retirement from track. He recently began his second term as alderman of Chicago's third ward. His present success has been helped by a realization he came to as a result of his athletic experience. "My finish was my strongest feature. I sometimes depended too much on it."