For several years now, professional baseball has been pouring millions of dollars into developing black players. Evidently, the number of black players, at least American blacks, has been in decline. NASCAR is funding programs to develop black drivers after fielding complaints that the sport is too white. Similarly, the NHL now has a “Diversity Program” designed to put more blacks on the ice. I can only imagine the outcry if the 75-percent-black NBA funded development programs for white players. Since I ran the 100 and 220, though, I’m rooting for the “White Sprinter Project.”
Unknown to many today, whites dominated the sprints and accounted for nearly all of the world records until the 1960’s. During all those years of white-sprinting prowess, blacks were competing also, even winning American championships and gold medals in the Olympics. It was not as if blacks were prohibited from competing. Nearly everyone knows that Jesse Owens captured the 100 and 200 at Berlin in 1936, and Owens was only one of many black sprinters America produced. But America also produced white sprinters. So, too, did the nations of Europe. Whites scorched the tracks of both hemispheres. There was even an Australian, Hec Hogan, who tied the world record in the 100-yard dash in 1954 and put the Southern Hemisphere on the sprinting map. If blacks had once dominated a sport and had since nearly disappeared, every black child in America would be made aware of that fact in school, and there would be a heavily funded national effort to bring blacks back to predominance.
Jeremy Wariner stands out today, not only because he won the 400 meters at the tender age of 19 in the 2004 Olympics, but because he is white. Since then, he has been unbeatable in the 400 and is poised to break the world record. After Wariner destroyed a stellar field in the 400 at a meet in Southern California in May, a black coach said that the sport needed more like him. When questioned further, the coach said, “More white sprinters would really help track.”
When I was growing up, I never saw a track meet without fast white sprinters—and California had the finest track meets in the world: The Coliseum Relays, the Modesto Relays, the Compton Relays, and the West Coast Relays were legendary. For nearly a half-century, the world record in the 100-yard dash was owned by Southern Californians: Charley Paddock, Frank Wykoff, and Mel Patton. Paddock ran a 9.5 (seconds) in the early 1920’s; Wykoff, a 9.4 in 1930; and Patton, a 9.3 in 1948. Patton’s record stood until 1962. Patton and the others ran on dirt tracks and without the aid of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. I suspect they would have run at least two-tenths faster on the springy, rubberized-asphalt tracks of today.
“Pell-Mel” Patton led the University High Warriors to the Los Angeles city prep-track championship in 1943. After World War II, he attended Southern Cal (or simply SC—nobody called the school USC in those days). As a Trojan, the splendid sprinter—six-feet tall and 150 pounds—was smoking tracks and opponents in dash after dash. He tied Frank Wykoff’s record of 9.4 twice in 1947 and won the NCAA championship, then broke the 100 record with a 9.3 in 1948 and won both sprints in the NCAA championship.
In 1948, he was the favorite for the Olympic dashes in London, but on a cold, blustery, wet day, the half-frozen Patton, who appeared to have minus body fat, tied up badly in the 100. The World’s Fastest Human finished a shocking fifth. Devastated, he stood in front of his blocks for the 200 final two days later thinking that he would be lucky to place. More than 100,000 Wembley Stadium spectators were silent as the runners took their marks. Suddenly, someone in the crowd yelled, “Go Uni! Uni High Warriors!” Patton felt a rush of adrenaline course through his body like never before. At the report of the starter’s pistol, he exploded from the blocks and led from start to finish. He later anchored the U.S. 4x100 relay team to victory.
As a senior at SC in 1949, Patton ran a mind-boggling 9.0—some watches read 8.9—but a tailwind was fractionally above the limit. Most observers, including my older brother, who was then running the sprints as a sophomore at Uni, thought the wind was of only small advantage. Patton later broke the world record in the 220 with a blazing 20.2. He finished his collegiate career by wining both dashes at the NCAA championship and anchoring the SC 4x220 relay team to a world record.
White-sprinting dominance continued throughout the 50’s. Larry Remigino won the 100 in the 1952 Olympics, and Dave Sime and Bobby Morrow ruled the rest of the decade. After breaking Patton’s record in the 220 with a 20.0 and twice tying Patton’s 9.3 in the 100, Sime, a Duke sophomore, was expected to star in the 1956 Olympics. An injury put him on the sideline, though, and, at Melbourne, Abilene Christian sophomore Bobby Morrow won both dashes and anchored the U.S. 4x100 relay team to victory and a world record. By the time Morrow finished running, he had won 80 of 88 races, tied world records in both sprints, and anchored two world-record relays.
Recovered from injury, Dave Sime ran a 9.3 again in 1957. He graduated from Duke a year later, leaving behind nine school records—two still stand—and entered medical school. Despite little time for training, he made the Olympic team in 1960 in the 100. At Rome, a terrible start left him dead last, but he closed dramatically and hit the tape in a photo finish with Armin Hary of Germany. Hary got the nod, but both runners broke the Olympic record. With Peter Radford of Britain finishing third, white sprinters had swept the 100 again as they had at Melbourne when American Thane Baker and Aussie Hec Hogan followed Bobby Morrow to the finish line.
World records. Olympic sweeps. The World’s Fastest Human. Where is the White Sprinter Project?
Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.
This article first appeared in the August 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.