The Forgotten Olympian: The Story of John Taylor

Kimberley Nash@sambrooklynSenior Writer IMay 9, 2009

Jesse Owens is embedded into the very fiber of history.

At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in the spectacle of what was to be Adolf Hitler's opportunity to prove the dominance of the "Aryan" race, Owens won four gold medals and walked away a hero.

That is the short and dry of it and his story hardly ends there, but that is likely the part that most are apt to remember and relay to you.

However, do you know the story of John Taylor?

Born on Nov. 3, 1882, to a successful businessman and his wife, in Washington, DC, John Taylor would eventually accomplish more than any could have thought possible during his time.

After moving from Washington to Pennsylvania, prior to the turn of the decade, Taylor would go on to attend the prestigious Central High School in Philadelphia.

Central High then, as it is now, was one of the best public high schools in the country and housed a championship track and field program.

Taylor joined the track team in his junior year at Central and would go on to be chosen as track team captain and be named the interscholastic quarter-mile (at that time this was a distance of 440 yards, or one complete lap around a quarter lap track, but is no longer a distance that is used in today's track and field) champion for two-years running.

In his senior year, he anchored the Central one-mile relay team as they participated in the prestigious Penn Relays, aiding his team in securing a fifth-place finish overall and gaining for  himself the reputation of being the best quarter-miler in the city by the time he graduated from Central in 1902.

Taylor's next stop was Brown Prep, another academically strong school with a great track and field program. 

He would star there as well, becoming the best prep quarter-miler in the nation on his way to winning the biggest track meets of the year in his league, both the Princeton Interscholastic and The Yale Interscholastic—setting a record in the latter by completing the quarter-mile in 50 3/5 seconds—the fastest time in the country that year for a prep or high-schooler.

By the time Taylor was chosen to anchor his school's relay team in 1903, he was already successful in his own right but would garner even greater attention following the relay team's win at the Penn Relays—adding a definitive cherry on the top of a stellar undefeated season by his teammates.

He entered the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1903 as a freshman at the distinguished Wharton School of Finance, and continued his authority as a quarter-miler, winning the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) championship while setting a new meet record for the quarter-mile at 49-1/5 seconds.

By the time Taylor entered his sophomore year at Penn, he had become highly-respected not only within the track and field community, but also in the African-American community.

The Sigma Pi Phi Boule was a fraternity created by prominent African-Americans, three doctors and one community leader, and was highly exclusive—to this day there are less than 5,000 members.

It was unusual at that time for an undergraduate to be invited to join the group, but Taylor proved to be such an exceptional young man, that in the spring of 1903 he was chosen to join—this is the only time this would ever happen, inviting an undergraduate into the organization, in the history of this fraternity whose members would later include, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hank Aaron, and Jack Greenberg.

By the summer of 1904, Taylor was competing in meets in Europe as well, entering competitons in both France and England, and winning a majority of the matches in which he would run.

However, he would find himself taking a brief hiatus from the sport in 1905 so that he could concentrate on his academics—he later made the decision to withdraw from Wharton and re-enter the University of Pennsylvania as a vet med student.

In 1906, a new coach would be appointed at Penn and and he would set Taylor on track for a spot at the Olympics in 1908.

Mike Murphy was regarded as one of the best track coaches in the world and under his tutelage, Taylor would run the best he ever had, setting a new quarter-mile record of 48.45 seconds in the IC4A games of the 1906 season—this despite drawing a poor starting position and being forced to run further than any of his opponents.

At the 1907 IC4A Championship Games, Taylor would be amongst one of the greatest Penn teams in history—that team would go on to win the IC4A Championship and Taylor would best his 1904 IC4A meet record by completing the quarter-mile in 48-4/5 seconds.

Taylor also competed in the AAU Indoor Championships in Norfolk, VA that year, setting an indoor record of 48.35 seconds for the quarter-mile.

It was after that victory that Taylor was given the greatest amount of respect from the southern whites in attendance as they congratulated Taylor following a controversy involving him and a fellow competitor during one particular match.

In an article later posted by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the following quote was found concerning that day in Norfolk, VA: “While running the race Taylor was deliberately fouled by one of the contestants, but he refused to fight back and after winning the race was so loudly applauded that hundreds of Southern gentlemen rushed up and shook him by the hand, an almost unheard-of thing for a white man in the South.”

Taylor had proven that he was not only an athlete and a scholar but a gentleman as well. As such, his popularity continued to ascend.

He would graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1908 with his Veterinarian Medicine degree but not before competing in the Penn Relays one last time.

Although bothered by a hernia and advised not to race, Taylor anchored the relay team at the Penn Relays in the college one-mile relay. The team ran 3:23 4/5, winning, yet another, championship.

He would later participate in his final IC4A championship, winning his third quarter-mile crown, becoming only the third runner to win three such titles in the 33-year history of the IC4A.

Taylor's strategy in most all of his races was to allow his opponents to run ahead of him, then chase them down from behind in the homestretch.

It was this strategy that made him such an effective anchor on the relay teams he competed on and it was this strategy which allowed him to make up twenty yards during the Olympic Trial—he won the 400 meter race in 49-4/5 seconds.

The win landed him a spot in the Olympic Games of 1908.

It was only the second time that a team was compiled to represent the United States in an international event.

Consequentially, Taylor would be the first African-American to represent his country in international competition and wear the American team uniform.

He competed in both the 400 meter and the 4 x 400 meter relay.

The 400-meter race proved to be controversial as it was thought that Englishman Wyndham Halswelle would win the race, due in large part to the fact that Taylor had not been as dominant in the events leading up to that day as in years past.

However, Taylor's teammate, John Carpenter, proved to be a surprise and ended up passing Halswelle in the last stretch.

The judges had been alerted to this possibility and broke the tape prior to Carpenter crossing the finish line, declaring the race as null–claiming that Carpenter had, unfairly, interfered with Halswelle.

Even though Taylor was running a distant third at the time of the race's nullification, many felt that he was simply employing his patent "come-from-behind" strategy and likely would have won the race had it not been called. However, Taylor admitted that he would have been squarely beaten either way.

What many did not know at the time was that the damp, cold conditions of the English climate were wreaking havoc on Taylor's respiratory system, and he was having trouble running under such circumstances.

The 400-meter race would be re-run the next day, but in a show of solidarity for his American teammate, John Carpenter, Taylor, along with the other American finalist, William Robbins, refused to compete in the race.

The Englishman, Halswelle, won the race as he was its only participant.

However, Taylor would have one more shot at winning a medal in the 4 x 400 relay. He would run the 400-meter section of the sprint medley and his team would walk away with the victory and a gold medal—this made Taylor the first African-American in history to win a gold medal.

After returning home to Philadelphia, Taylor never recovered from the respiratory distress that began in the damp conditions of England; he developed typhoid pneumonia and on Dec. 2, 1908, at the young age of 26, he died—a mere four months after winning Olympic gold.

Taylor's death was publicized by the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and The University's Daily Pennsylvanian.

He was mourned by thousands within the African-American and track and field communities.

He was thought by some to be "the world's greatest negro runner" (quote was published by the New York Times) and was given an honorable send-off by his fellow Philadelphians as four clergymen officiated the memorial and fifty-carriages followed his hearse to its final resting place, some four miles away–an honor never before given to an African-American in that city.

John Taylor won an Olympic gold medal in 1908, five years before Owens was born, 28-years before Owens appeared in Berlin to upstage Adolf Hitler.

A truly amazing feat that now known should never again be forgotten.

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