By Tom Morrow
A tenth of a second during one of history’s most dramatic moments kept him awake at night and often seemed like a lifetime to Ralph H. Metcalfe.
Metcalf was four-times elected Chicago alderman (city council); an eight-year serving U.S. Congressman; a Legion of Merit medal-holder as a U.S. Army 1st lieutenant during World War II, and a successful college coach. But, it was a 10.4 second space of time in his life that probably haunted Metcalf more than anything. He ran one-tenth of a second behind Jesse Owens in the 100 meter dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as Adolf Hitler looked on in shock.
He graduated from Marquette University in 1936, and after the Olympics that year, he went on for a masters degree at the University of Southern California. He taught political science and coached track at Xavier University in New Orleans before joining the Army during World War II.
In 1955, Metcalfe won the first of four elections as an alderman representing the South Side of Chicago. As an alderman, he broke ranks with Mayor Richard Daly after a series of police brutality incidents.
In 1970, he was easily elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Congress and was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971.
But, no doubt, it was that eye-blink of a second that kept him awake at night. Jesse Owens won a gold medal and equaled a world record that summer in Berlin running the 100 meter dash at 10.3 seconds. Metcalfe had equaled that time four years earlier. But, on that summer day in 1936, Metcalfe was right behind Owens for the silver medal at 10.4 seconds. Ironically, Metcalfe broke or equaled world records 16 times at various distance track events, however only five of them were ever officially ratified by the international governing body, the IAAF.
Metcalfe won four Olympic medals during the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. He was regarded as the world’s fastest human in 1934 and 1935 after running at the world record time of 10.3 seconds. Metcalfe was convinced to the end of his life that the 100 meter event in 1932 should have been awarded as a dead-heat tie between him and Eddie Tolan. In all, Metcalfe won 16 national titles in track during his athletic career.
“I have never been convinced I was defeated (during the 1932 Olympics),” Metcalfe often said. “It should have been a tie”
Film evidence and that of observers of the race seem to support Metcalfe’s verdict. The AAU (American Athletic Union) later changed their rules to have the winner being the first athlete to cross the line not merely breast the tape. It was the latter that fellow sprinter Tolan was judged to have done first. The AAU went further and awarded the 1932 race as a tie but the International Olympic Committee has never agreed to this change. Additionally, even though credited with same time as Tolan, 10.3 seconds, a time that equaled the then world record, Metcalfe’s time was never ratified as a world record.
The next year at the Berlin Olympics, Owens ran the 100 in 10.3 and Metcalfe a tenth of a second behind him. At Berlin, he ran with Owens, Foy Draper, and Frank Wykoff in the 440 meter relay winning a gold medal, Owens and Metcalfe became life-long friends.
Despite coming in second in Berlin, Metcalfe had much to be proud. He became the first man to win the NCAA 200 meter title three times consecutively.
Metcalfe died in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1978 of an apparent heart attack during a fifth-term reelection campaign to Congress. The downtown Chicago federal office building was named in his honor upon its completion in 1991.
While he focused on the dead-heat 100 he ran with Tolan, that tenth of a second loss to Owens never seemed to bother him – that is until the middle of the night as he relived those days of glory.