UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mark Dyreson, Penn State professor of kinesiology, is an expert on the history and role of sport in the modern world. His studies of the Olympic Games and other sports events, including the Super Bowl, focuses on the role of sport in the creation of modern societies. He offers his thoughts on the past, present and future of the Olympic Games, and the role and spectacle of sport in a global society.
Since the modern Olympic Games began, they have been seen as cultural milestones that have elevated medalists in particular to celebrity status, from Jesse Owens to Sonja Henie to Michael Phelps and others in America alone. Can you point to a handful of standouts who haven't received the attention they deserved, and why?
Mark Dyreson: We might have in 2014 forgotten older Olympic heroes and heroines, from Jim Thorpe, Duke Kahanamoku and Johnny Weissmuller, to Peggy Fleming, Jean-Claude Killy and “Spider” Sabich, but they were celebrities in their era. I will point to a few who probably should have gotten more attention but did not — because they did not win enough, or in a grand enough fashion.
First, when Jesse Owens won four gold medals at Berlin in 1936, he overshadowed the sterling performances of what the Nazi press labeled America’s “black auxiliaries,” the other African-American athletes who competed in Berlin in spite of racism and segregation both abroad and at home. Owens’ fellow African-Americans — David Albritton, Cornelius Johnson, James LuValle, Ralph Metcalfe, Fritz Pollard Jr., Mack Robinson, Archie Williams and John Woodruff — won four golds, three silvers and two bronzes. In addition, they went on to stellar careers in academia, business, the military, politics and other fields after the Berlin Olympics.
One in particular among that group stands out. Ralph Metcalfe finished second by milliseconds to Owens in the 100 meters in Berlin, as he had to fellow African-American Eddie Tolan four years earlier at the Los Angeles Olympics. Had Metcalfe been just a few milliseconds faster he would have been the “world’s fastest man” in two straight Olympics — and we would remember him and not Jesse Owens as the African-American hero who challenged both Nazi and U.S. ideologies of white racial supremacy. We forget Metcalfe even though he had quite a post-athletic career, including as leader in the civil rights movement in Chicago, his victories in four elections to the U.S. Congress from Illinois, and his role in helping to lead the early incarnation of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Also in the overshadowed category was the silver medalist behind Owens in the 200 meters, Mack Robinson from Pasadena, Calif. Not only would Mack Robinson be overshadowed by Jesse Owens in Berlin but in his own family by his younger brother Jackie who would go on to fame as the man who broke the color line in baseball. A few milliseconds can make all the difference in the world. Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson were mainly ignored because they finished a close second behind an American icon.
Another silver medalist who has never gotten the attention he deserved is Bill Koch. In 1976 at Innsbruck Koch won a silver medal in the 30 kilometer Nordic race. Nordic skiing, or cross-country skiing as it’s often called in the U.S., has never been a major sport in the United States. When Koch won his medal he was the first American to ever make a splash in athletic contests that reigns as a significant national pastime in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, but is a sport Americans mainly ignore. Interestingly, over the last decade the U.S. has developed a strong Nordic ski team that won medals in Vancouver and might well again earn some medals in Sochi — but Bill Koch’s silver remains one of the biggest surprises in Olympic history.
Let me finish addressing this question with a Penn State story.
During the 1940s the best U.S. sprinter and long jumper in the world, a man who many track and field experts predicted might match Jesse Owens’ record of four gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and 4x100 meters relay, wore Nittany Lion blue and white when he competed. Norbert “Barney” Ewell was a stellar collegian at Penn State and touted as the “next Jesse Owens” as the 1940 Olympics, slated for Tokyo, approached. World War II scuttled the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, however.
Ewell left Penn State to join the U.S. Army during the war and then returned afterward to complete his degree. In 1948, running at the relatively advanced age for a sprinter of 30, Ewell finished just milliseconds from gold in the 100 meters and 200 meters — he earned silver medals in both events — before finally capturing the elusive top prize as a member of the U.S. 4x100 relay team that was initially disqualified and after a long review of the film of the race finally reinstated and declared the victor. Based on his performances at Penn State and in the military during World War II, it is quite likely that Ewell might have not only matched Owens’ feats but done it twice and earned eight golds in the two Olympics that never were.