Taylor helps USA to poignant medley relay gold

Taylor’s story is touched by tragedy, but his feat has resonated across generations and will reach more: he was the first African American to win an Olympic gold medal when he helped the USA medley relay team to their victory on 25 July 1908.

Prior to the London Games, his main athletic achievements had come alongside a successful life in academia: he had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary medicine – where he was a member of the first black university fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi – the same and had, during his high school days, shown promise as a runner. In 1907, he had been recruited by the Irish-American Athletic Club, which operated a formidable production line of athletes for these Games, and thus began his journey to the top of his sport.

“In every race in which Taylor starts he is on scratch, or very close to the post of honour, because of his ability,” read the Washington Post on 15 September 1907. “And every man of the Irish contingent roots himself hoarse to see Taylor win.”First of all, he competed in the controversial 400m race that saw Wilson Halswelle ultimately win with a walkover. Taylor won his first heat by a convincing 12 yards, and his long stride ate up the group to give him to victory in his second by a five-yard margin. He came fourth out of four competitors in the first run of the final, and – in line with his two American co-runners – did not participate in the rerun.

Things were far more orthodox, and successful, in the medley event. This was being held for the first time at an Olympic Games, and would be the forerunner for the 4x400m relay. It took place over 1,600m but the athletes ran different lengths, with the first two competing over 200m apiece, the third over 400m and the fourth over 800m. Taylor ran over the 400m distance for the Americans and, along with team-mates William Hamilton, Nate Cartmell and Melvin Sheppard, did enough to see off Great Britain and Canada’s challenges in heat three of the fist round.

The final pitched the USA against Germany and Hungary. By the time Taylor joined in for his 400m run, he already had an eight-yard start on his pursuers. “His remarkable stride widened the gap very considerably, especially in the last hundred yards,” says the Official Report, and his progress meant that Sheppard began the second half of the race 15 yards in front of the Hungarians. He eventually came through 25 yards ahead, to give the Americans victory in a race that had seen them grow stronger and stronger.

Taylor had made an indelible mark in history – one that would set a standard for millions of others. But he was unable to leave any more. On 2 December, less than five months after his victorious return, he passed away at the age of only 26 after a bout of typhoid, and was buried in Philadelphia in the presence of numerous team-mates from the Irish-American Athletics Club.

Harry Porter, a fellow Irish-American Athletic Club member and acting President of the 1908 U.S. Olympic Team, summed up others’ thoughts of Taylor in a letter to his parents, written after his death. He wrote: "It is far more as the man [than the athlete] that John Taylor made his mark. Quite unostentatious, genial, kindly, the fleet-footed, far-famed athlete was beloved wherever known...As a beacon of his race, his example of achievement in athletics, scholarship and manhood will never wane.”

It is a fitting summation of a remarkable man’s special legacy.