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.
Finally the judges announced their decision. The winner was Eddie Tolan.
Metcalfe stiffened, then slumped. Then he ran to embrace a wildly happy Tolan. The race is still argued about today, since present rules would call it a dead heat. But in 1932 the runner whose entire torso crossed the line first was the winner. Tolan, who had crossed the finish with his body erect, was chosen over Metcalfe, who was desperately leaning forward. Both had hit the string in the same 100th of a second and both were timed in 10.3 seconds.
"It was a long wait until we knew," the deep-voiced Metcalfe said recently. "I thought I had won. It was just one of those unfortunate things. Besides, there was still the 200."
Two days later Tolan and Metcalfe crouched in lanes 1 and 2 for the 200-meter finals. As the two Negroes whipped out of the top of the curve, the gum-chewing Tolan, horn-rimmed glasses held on by white adhesive tape, left knee bound in a tight white bandage to keep it warm, hammered past Metcalfe. Startled, Metcalfe chopped his stride in a frantic effort to speed up. Instead, he lost the relaxed control that brought him power, and finished third, while Tolan sped to a world-record 21.2.
Charley Paddock, America's 1920 Olympic sprint champion who was reporting the Games from the press box, sensed that something was wrong. He discovered that due to a mistake in lane measurements (the race was run from a staggered start) Metcalfe had run several feet too far.
"Ralph had always had an unusually calm temperament," says Coach Jennings. "But he just couldn't visualize Tolan whizzing past him so quickly and he became panic-stricken. That was the only time he ever tightened up."
Metcalfe adds, "I started from a relay marker. When Eddie passed me, I tensed up. If I'd realized that mistake I would have relaxed, and might have won anyway."
Had such an accident involved runners from more than one country, an international incident would have resulted. But only Americans were involved, so no protest was made. Metcalfe has often been praised for the restraint he displayed, and he is still hesitant to discuss either incident. "I was well taught the proper attitude of sportsmanship, and I tried not to dwell on it. I just wanted another chance in the 1936 Olympics."
"Ralph was discouraged for a while," Jennings says. "It temporarily affected him. But he was willing, then anxious, to try again."