He was the world's fastest human. He held or shared every world track record from 40 to 220 yards. He won more national sprint championships than any athlete before or since. Yet Ralph Metcalfe never won an individual Olympic gold medal and as a consequence his name is remembered by few people other than track enthusiasts.
Writers in the 1930s marveled at Metcalfe's "surging power, smooth start and tremendous pickup" which epitomized "the beauty and symmetry of human speed." They were amazed that a man so big (5 feet 11, 180 pounds) could travel so fast. One awed columnist called Metcalfe, whose heavily boned body was molded along classic Grecian lines, "a mass of rippling and perfectly coordinated muscles."
Metcalfe had his first opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal, and immortality, in 1932 when he was a 22-year-old at Marquette University. "Ralph was, to a large extent, a natural runner," his coach, Con Jennings, recalls. "He was a real power sprinter who dug deep with his spikes. He ran with lots of arm motion, and his body leaned forward and drove vigorously. The only thing he needed when he first came to Marquette was help with his start. We experimented freely, and found Ralph did best by bunching his body to bring his feet closer together and his hips higher."
With his new starting technique, Metcalfe raced through his first college season in spectacular style, going undefeated in the Central Collegiates, Drake Relays, NCAA and AAU championships and, finally, the Olympic trials. Since Metcalfe had won the trials in the 100-meter dash by two full steps, he was favored to repeat in the actual Games.
But Coach Jennings was worried. "Ralph always had to work very hard at the start of training," he says, "though once in shape he could maintain a peak for weeks. He was in good shape when he reported for the team, but they kept working him very hard, and it probably wasn't too good for him."
Over 60,000 people jammed the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch the 100-meter finals on Aug. 1, 1932. The sky was a brilliant blue as the six finalists dug their starting holes in the springy crushed-peat track.
It took three short vicious strides for Metcalfe to get his body under way. His size generally caused him to lag slightly behind his rivals at the start of a race, but once he started moving Metcalfe usually gained steadily and pulled away near the finish.
This time, however, when Metcalfe slammed through the tape at the end of the race, he was not alone. Stubby little Eddie Tolan, himself a national champion at Michigan, had hit the finish line with him.
Many observers, waiting for the judges to examine the photos, thought Metcalfe had won, for he had caught Tolan at the 80-meter mark and seemed to be sweeping past him at the finish. Tickers at every seat in the press box clattered the news around the world that Ralph Metcalfe was an Olympic champion, while the slightly mustached sprinter himself posed graciously for photographers on the green infield.