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July 17th, 2013
Bartee Haile: First Texan to win gold medal was world’s fastest man

This Week in Texas History:
A column

Marine Capt. Charles William Paddock, the first native Texan to win Olympic gold and the fastest thing on two feet during the Roaring Twenties, perished in an Alaska plane crash on Jul. 21, 1943.

Born in the summer of 1900 at Gainesville, Charley Paddock was a sickly child who at seven months weighed a scant seven and a half pounds.  His father, a big wheel on the railroad, moved the family to Pasadena, California in 1907 in the hope that a change of climate would improve his fragile son’s health.

The sunny weather proved to be just what the doctor ordered because eight years later Paddock was a barrel-chested 170-pounder with a pair of pistons for legs.  In high school he ran long-distance races, but his dad persuaded him to specialize in the sprints.

Paddock enlisted in the army in 1919 and went overseas as an artillery lieutenant. While in uniform, he turned heads in Europe and at home with a double victory in the 100 and 200 meter dashes, the latter in world-record time, in the Inter-Allied Games at Paris.

The speed demon and 350 other U.S. athletes crossed the Atlantic the next year in a converted military transport, which had served as a funeral ship in the recent war.  Bad food and worse quarters made for a bunch of very unhappy campers upon arrival at Antwerp, Belgium for the VII Olympiad.  When a teammate was suspended for missing curfew, a threatened boycott by 200 supporters resulted in his swift reinstatement.

Charley went through his elaborate prerace ritual prior to the 100-meter finals on Aug. 16, 1920.  He wore silk, as always, and rapped his knuckles on “a friendly piece of wood.”  Summoned to his mark, he placed his palms on the track well past the starting line and began slowly pulling them back.

The assistant starter ordered Paddock in French to put his hands where they belonged a moment before the starter barked the French version of “get set.”  Loren Murchison, one of four American contestants, thought everyone had been told to stand up and in his confusion gave the competition a huge head start.

Paddock ran neck and neck with Morris Kirskey from Stanford.  “I saw the thin white string stretched to the breaking point in front of me.  I drove my spikes into the soft cinders and felt my foot give way as I sprang forward in a final jump for the tape.

“My eyes closed as my chest hit the string and when I opened them, my feet were on the ground again and I was yards ahead of the field.  I did not know if I had been in front when the string was broken.  I dared not ask.”

As Paddock soon learned, he was first by a foot.  The gold medal was his. A jack-rabbit start gave the transplanted Texan a comfortable lead in the 200-meter race, but an American alternate caught him in the home stretch.  Just as the favorite launched into his famous flying finish, the underdog slipped past him for the gold, and the front-runner had to settle for second place and silver.

On an amazing afternoon in March 1921, Paddock proved beyond the shadow of a doubt he was the “fastest human” alive by setting world records in four different events.

He shaved a fifth of a second off the nine year old mark in the 100 meters, bettered by two-fifths the 200-meter time which had stood for 17 years, ran the swiftest 300 yards in a quarter century and knocked two full seconds off the 300-meter record.

Charlie Paddock at USC

Charlie Paddock at USC

Two months later, the University of Southern California phenomenon burned up
110 yards of track in a blazing 10.2 seconds.  Dumbfounded timekeepers double-checked their stopwatches before confirming an incredible fact.  The terrific Trojan had covered 100.58 meters two-tenths of a second faster than his recent 100 meters!

In 1921 Paddock also equaled the 9.6-second record for 100 yards, the standard by which all American sprinters were measured.  By the end of the amazing year, he did it not once, not twice but on four separate occasions.

The handsome crowd-pleaser put track and field on the map in the United States. But not everyone jumped on the Paddock bandwagon, least of all the Amateur Athletic Union which challenged his times and even attempted to ban him from the 1928 Olympics.

At the heart of the bitter dispute were Charley’s cockiness and the entrenched eastern bias of the AAU.  The “aw shucks” modesty expected of athletes in those days was alien to Paddock, who liked nothing better than tooting his own horn.  He was a shameless self-promoter, who rubbed shoulders with movie stars and reveled in the role of sports celebrity.

Although Paddock competed until 1929, Olympic gold eluded him.  At Paris in 1924, he finished a disappointing fifth in the 100 meters behind Harold Abrahams, the hero of the film “Chariots of Fire,” and lost by a nose in the 200.  Four years later at Amsterdam, he failed to qualify for the finals in both events.

But life after track was good for Charley Paddock. While holding down an executive position in his father-in-law’s newspaper chain, he wrote many magazine articles and two books and lectured extensively on the benefits of sports.  At his death in World War II, the former “fastest human” still owned three world records.

Ten different column collections are available at the “General Store” on Bartee’s new web site or you may request a list at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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