Fast Eddie Tolan claims double sprint gold
If one were asked to draw a template of an Olympic sprinter, it is unlikely that the end result would bear much – if any – resemblance to Eddie Tolan.
Just five-foot-four and weighing 145 pounds, Tolan wore round spectacles taped to the side of his head while running. All things considered, he was a world away from the finely-tuned physical specimens that have dominated the track in more recent times.
Born in Denver in 1908, Tolan’s early sporting forays came on the football field, but a knee ligament injury curtailed his chances of making the grade and after securing a scholarship to the University of Michigan he instead took up sprinting.
In 1929, he thrust himself into the spotlight after achieving a world record of 9.50 seconds in the 100-yard dash and over the next two years he beat the 100m world record twice. In an era where racial segregation remained a blight on the hopes of black men and women across every sphere, Tolan’s strength of character made his accomplishments ever the more impressive.
With his stock rising, Tolan qualified for the 1932 Olympic Games where he would come up against fellow African American sprinter Ralph Metcalfe, with whom he had a well-established rivalry. Ahead of the Games, the pair had been tussling for the number one ranking, with Metcalfe nudging himself in front after winning the Olympic trials. But with two events – the 100m and 200m sprint finals – pitting them head to head in Los Angeles, there was everything to play for.
On 1 August at the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium, two days after the start of the Games, Tolan pipped Metcalfe at the post in the 100m, equalling the world record with a time of 10.3 seconds. In the days before technology could solve such disputes, Metcalfe was convinced the race had been a dead heat and maintained as much for the rest of his life. The fact that both runners had been given exactly the same time only added to his ire.
Two days later, however, Metcalfe’s claims of parity appeared somewhat redundant, when Tolan beat him in the 200m with a new Olympic record of 21.2 seconds. In doing so he became the first American track athlete to win double gold at the Olympics.
Alas, despite his achievements in Los Angeles, Tolan’s athletics career then faltered. Just months after returning home to an official reception, he gave up his amateur status to appear in vaudeville with tapdancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson to earn some much-needed money to support his family.
Tolan did go on to triumph in 1935 at the World Professional Sprint Championships in Melbourne but was unable to build the dynasty of success that his talent foretold. Yet when he died at the age of 57, his legacy as a torchbearer for high-achieving black sprinters everywhere remained assured.