World's Fastest Man
Aug. 15, 2008
By Michael Wittliff, Marquette Athletics Media Relations
The names Marquette and Olympic sprinter Ralph Metcalfe were once as synonymous as Marquette is today with NBA star and 2008 Olympian Dwyane Wade.
That was the 1930s, when the name "Marquette" struck fear in world-class sprinters across the globe. Former MU sprinter "Rabbit" Ralph Metcalfe was the foremost U.S. sprinter in the early half of the 1930s, holding the title of "World's Fastest Human" for much of that time.
Already an all-star prep sprinter at Tilden Technical High School in Chicago, Metcalfe came to Milwaukee and enrolled at Marquette in 1931. Metcalfe deemed Marquette to be the place where he could best grow academically as well as athletically. Due to freshman eligibility rules, it was not until 1932 that he put Marquette track and field on the map.
Metcalfe, as fate would have it, lost the first race he ever ran at Marquette- the 40-yard dash to teammate John Tierney. It was also the last race Metcalfe would ever lose in a Marquette uniform. Some 76 years after it was set, Metcalfe still held the school's 55- and 100-meter records.
Although he will always be remembered as perhaps Marquette's brightest track star, Metcalfe was also elected president of his graduating class, in which he graduated cum laude, hinting at greater things to come.
A four-time Olympic medalist, Metcalfe ran in some of the most talked about sprints in Olympic history. During the 1932 Olympic sprinting trials, Metcalfe swept both the 100 and 200 meters and was considered the favorite to take home a gold medal in both events. Metcalfe had established new world records that season at Marquette and was matched up with another top American, Eddie Tolan, in the 100 finals.
After getting off to a slow start, as was a regular occurrence for a man considered to be a giant in his sport, Metcalfe rallied to catch up with Tolan by the end of the race. The tape broke as the judges deliberated to determine the winner between Metcalfe and Tolan, both of whom crossed the finish line in 10.3 seconds.
When the Olympic officials came to a decision, Tolan was awarded the gold medal while Metcalfe was given the silver. Metcalfe, the ultimate teammate, put his arm around Tolan as the two midwestern sprinters took the podium. However, in a photograph published following the race, it could be seen that Metcalfe clearly had reached the tape first as his large frame allowed him to stick out his chest, thus severing the tape.
In the 200, Metcalfe encountered other problems. At the start of the race the blocks were staggered in a manner which forced Metcalfe to comparatively start two-to-three yards behind all other competitors, as he had been placed according to a relay marker. He ended up finishing third behind teammates Tolan and George Simpson. A protest could have been justified, but since three Americans swept the medals none was filed.
Writing on the 1932 Olympics and Metcalfe's apparent slights, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Braven Dyer said, "There may be better sprinters in the world, but I doubt it. There may be better sportsmen in the world, but I doubt it."
In the 1936 Berlin Olympiad, Metcalfe along with his main sprinting competition, Jesse Owens, and the U.S. Olympic squad traveled to the heart of Nazi Germany at a time when major changes were occuring in central Europe. The historical significance of the 100-meter dash in the 1936 Olympics can not be overstated, although both Metcalfe and Owens claimed that it was nothing out of the ordinary.
After Hitler came to power in the early 1930s, he set forth to propagate myths of racial superiority and of a "master" Aryan race, which Metcalfe and Owens' powerful strides appeared set to demolish.
"Ralph was my prime competitor in the '30s," Owens once told Paul G. Neimark in a 1964 article in the Daily News. "[He] was far and away the greatest competitor I ever encountered."
In the 100, Owens got out to his usual fast gliding start but Metcalfe was pounding the track, quickly gaining on the Ohio State sprinter. At the finish line Metcalfe once again took second, barely being edged out Owens.
"Ralph Metcalfe was a locomotive," Owens said. "If you were ahead of him, you had to worry every second wondering about how fast he was catching up with you. And if you were behind him, you lost."
A few days later Metcalfe captured a gold medal in the final Olympic event of his career as he won the 4x100-meter relay on a team with Owens, Foy Draper and Frank Wycoff. Winning the relay by 15 yards, they recorded a world-record time of 39.8 seconds, a mark which would stand for another 20 years.
Metcalfe's Olympic medal count for the 1932 and 1936 Olympics ended at one gold, two silvers and one bronze medal.
During his lifetime, Metcalfe broke or tied every world's sprinting record, 13 in total.
Following his days competing on the track, Metcalfe moved to New Orleans where he became a professor and track coach at Xavier University. Upon his move back to Chicago in the early-'40s, Metcalfe decided to pursue a political career to help the people in the neighborhoods in which he grew up. He eventually became the first black President Pro Tempore of the Chicago City Council in 1969 and in 1970 was elected as a U.S. Congressman to the 1st District of Illinois, where he served four terms until his death in 1978.
Ralph Metcalfe digital collection
The Marquette University Archives has developed a digital collection featuring photographs, newspaper clippings, and other printed materials about Olympic sprinter Ralph Metcalfe in 1932-1936, when the Marquette undergraduate was known as "The World's Fastest Human." The project was funded in part by a grant from The M Club.
Note: Those in Milwaukee who are interested in learning more about Metcalfe and fellow Olympians John Brennan and John Bennett can view an exhibit dedicated to Marquette Olympians in the lobby of the Raynor Memorial Libraries on Marquette's campus.
In addition to photographs and information about each of the those three Olympians, the exhibit features a four minute video produced by the Instructional Media Center on Metcalfe. The exhibit will appear in the lobby until Monday, Aug. 25.