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Unknown Black History Figures In Athletics: Sprinter Eddie Tolan: 1932 Olympic Champion

HE WAS THE FIRST AMERICAN TRACK ATHLETE to win double gold at the Olympics. He chewed gum while he ran, and held his glasses in place with tape. Meet unknown black history figure Eddie Tolan - the funky runner. By Ben Arogundade. Mar.20.2021.

FAST FORWARD: Olympic runner Eddie Tolan won double gold at the 1932 games, in the 100m and 200m, but his achievements are generally unknown within black history. Tolan was an eccentric figure who chewed gum while he ran and taped his spectacles to his face so they wouldn't fall off.

MODERN SPRINTING, as epitomised by Olympic champion Usain Bolt, is a radically different proposition from what it was in the early 20th century. Then, it was raw talent rather then technique that made champions, whereas today natural ability is augmented with science, biology, nutrition, psychology and vastly improved equipment, all designed to shave every possible microsecond off a sprinters time. While this has lead to the excitement of more world records, it has also quashed the individualism that once characterised some of the sports early craftsmen.


The 1932 double Olympic champion, African American Eddie Tolan, was a case in point. Born in Denver in 1908, he started off as a football player, until a knee-ligment injury ended his hopes and left him with a limp. After this he took up sprinting, eventually securing a scholarship to the University of Michigan, which had produced Olympic sprint champions Archie Hahn and Ralph Craig. But these were the days of American segregation, and so Tolan was one of only two black athletes on campus. Nevertheless, he rose above the harsh discriminations of the time and qualified for the 1932 Olympic games, held in Los Angeles.

Tolan cut a figure like no other sportsman of his era — he was just five-foot-four and 145 pounds, with centre-parted short Afro hair, and round spectacles that he wore taped to the sides of his head while running. He had the look of a Baptist minister. He also liked to chew gum while he sprinted, in sync with each step, which he claimed relieved stress and improved his acceleration.


Going into the Olympic games, Tolan, otherwise known as the “Midnight Express”, (sprinters had stage names in those days), was ranked number two behind fellow African American sprinter Ralph Metcalfe, who had won both sprint distances in the Olympic trials. The pair were scheduled to line up against each other in the 100m and 200m sprint finals, in what would become the most talked about rivalry of the 1932 games.

On August 1, 1932, Tolan, a compact, powerful runner with lightning reflexes and a low centre of gravity, pipped Metcalfe at the post in the 100m, taking the title in 10.3 seconds, equalling the world record. There was a nothing to separate both athletes at the line, and Metcalfe's time was also given at 10.3. Metcalfe felt aggrieved, and maintained to his dying breath that the race should have been a dead heat.

But even Metcalfe had to concede two days later, when Tolan beat him in the 200, in a new world record of 21.2 seconds. Metcalfe was magnanimous in defeat, although he claimed that he had inadvertantly dug his starting blocks into the wrong place on the track, giving Tolan an advantage of some four-feet.


Although Tolan became the only American track athlete in history to win two gold medals at the Olympic games, he was never able to exploit his success financially. Back home in Michigan he was supported by his mother. In desperation he finally accepted a job touring the Vaudeville circuit, telling stories about his Olympic career. The pay was supposed to be $1,500 a week, but the money never came, as the show closed after one week. After this he drifted through a series of mundane jobs. In 1967 he died of a heart attack at the age of 57.

Over the course of his short sprinting career Eddie Tolan won 300 races, and lost only seven — in the process paving the way for a long line of high-achieving black sprinters, the next of whom would be the great Jesse Owens. But despite his incredible achievements he remains largely unknown within black history and sporting circles, and sprinting is all the poorer without his unique brand of funky running.

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Hi there. I am a London-based author and publisher, specialising in fiction, non-fiction and online journalism. Discover more about me and my latest projects, at Ben Arogundade bio.

TOLAN TIME: Double Olympic sprint champion Eddie Tolan is one of many unknown black history figures whose achievements bear mention. Tolan is shown here wearing tape on his spectacles to stop them falling off as he ran.



The number of people worldwide who still Google Eddie Tolan’s name, each month.


The number of people worldwide who Google the phrase, “1932 Olympics”, each month.

*All figures for “Sprinter Eddie Tolan - According to Google Search”, supplied by Google. Stats include global totals for laptop and desktop computers and mobile devices.

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