Blast from the past: Bobby Morrow, the farmer who won the Olympic sprint treble

Melbourne, AUSTRALIA - 29 Nov 1956 : Bob Morrow (left) of the United States crosses the finish line to win the men’s 100m final during the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games.
Melbourne, AUSTRALIA - 29 Nov 1956 : Bob Morrow (left) of the United States crosses the finish line to win the men’s 100m final during the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games.

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week, we decided to pay tribute to the sprint legend Bobby Morrow, who passed away last week at the age of 84.

The background

Before his career in athletics, Bobby Morrow was working very hard with his brothers in the family ranch in San Benito, Texas, located on the banks of Rio Grande in the US. He had a stint with the local American football team before switching to athletics, given his talent for speed and one-of-a-kind running style.

People remember Morrow as someone who felt very relaxed on the tracks whilst running.

"He doesn’t appear especially to pull, push, or drive as he runs. He’s never struggling... he’s like a wheel rolling down the track," a Texas Monthly article said of him.

However, other experts from outside Texas argued that he was substantially helped by strong winds, favouring the sprinter.

He decided to answer his detractors on the track during the Olympic trial for the Melbourne 1956 Games. He took part in the 100m and 200m events, and won both races, equalling the world record for the 200m with a time of 20.6 seconds.

By the time he flew to Australia, he was the US leader of the sprint team at the age of 21.

The key moment

Before the start of the Melbourne 1956 athletics events, Morrow had the chance to meet Jesse Owens, the first athlete in Olympic history to complete the Olympic sprint treble at the Berlin 1936 Games: 100m, 200m and 4x100m.

Morrow didn’t know that he would follow in Owen's footsteps a couple of days later, despite being weakened by a virus ahead of the races.

First, was the 100m. Symbolically, there was a strong headwind on that day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) track. But he still won the final in 10.5 seconds.

He did the same for the 200m and 4x100m, with the slight difference that he equalised the world record for the 200m again (20.6 seconds - 20.75 seconds automatic) and broke the world record for the 4x100m (39.5 seconds).

He left Melbourne with three Olympic gold medals around his neck, matching what Owens did 20 years earlier in Berlin.

The outcome

With that performance, he became the second athlete ever to win the three Olympic sprint events. After Morrow, only Carl Lewis (Los Angeles 1984) and Usain Bolt (London 2012 and Rio 2016) were able to reproduce that outstanding feat.

At the Rome 1960 Olympics when he was 25, Morrow wanted to defend his titles but suffered a thigh injury during the preparation for the trials. While the Texan sprinter managed to recover before the trial, he finished fourth in the 200m, missing out on qualification by one spot.

His federation told him that he could still be selected if he showed any improvement, but learnt the final decision at the airport, when the Olympic US team was boarding for Rome. It was a flat no.

He then retired from athletics. Incidentally, the United States team did not win any of the gold medals in events which Morrow had won four years prior.

Morrow was known for his integrity and modesty. He once declared that he didn’t deserve the great honour that he received.

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce named me one of the nine Great Living Americans. Just because I went to the Olympic Games and had the natural ability that my mother probably gave me through birth, why should I be named one of the nine Great Living Americans? Just because of my legs.”

After some years in Houston, he returned to his hometown of San Benito to take over the family farm in the early 1970s, where he passed away at the age of 84 on 30 May 2020.

Bobby Morrow completes sprint treble at Melbourne 1956

Morrow, aka 'The San Benito Bullet', won the 100m at Melbourne 1956 before beating reigning Olympic 200m champion Andy Stanfield to complete the sprint double. He then anchored home the USA 4x100m relay team in a new world record to win the first men's sprint treble since Jesse Owens in 1936. Only Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt have matched the feat since.