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The Olympic Athlete Who Became a Powerful Chicago Politician

Daniel Hautzinger
Photo of US Olympic team sprinters (from left) Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and Frank Wykoff on the deck of the S.S. Manhattan before they sailed for Germany to compete in the 1936 Olympics. Photo: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons
The 1936 U.S. Olympic team sprinters (from left) Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe, and Frank Wykoff on board the S.S. Manhattan before sailing to Germany. Photo: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

Ralph Metcalfe had been called “the world’s fastest human” just the year before, but at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin he was meant to lose in his races, thus demonstrating the superiority of Nazi Germany’s Aryan athletes. That was Hitler’s idea, at least. Jews were not to take part; Black Americans like Metcalfe and Jesse Owens were portrayed as inferior by the Germans. Calls had been made to boycott the Olympics, given the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews, but the president of the U.S. Olympic Association, Chicagoan Avery Brundage, pressed for them to go ahead.

Eighteen Black Americans ended up participating in the games, and between them took home eight gold medals. Four of those went to Owens, who beat Metcalfe and relegated him to silver in the 100-meter dash. Metcalfe and Owens shared a gold and a world record in the 400-meter relay after being assigned to run in it at the last minute. Two Jewish members of the U.S. team, Marty Glickmann and Sam Stoller, were supposed to run the relay but were replaced by Metcalfe and Owens, possibly on Brundage’s behest, seemingly to placate Hitler.

As a Black American born in Atlanta in 1910, Metcalfe was distressingly familiar with such discrimination. As he told the Chicago Tribune late in life, while a promising young athlete, “I was told by my coach that as a black person I’d have to put daylight between me and my nearest competitor. I forced myself to train harder so I could put that daylight behind me.”

His hard work paid off. While at Marquette University he was the 100-meter and 200-meter champion. He won a bronze medal in the 200-meter at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles and a silver in the 100-meter, where he just barely lost out to his fellow American Eddie Tolan—they were credited with the same time, but judges decided that Tolan had won based on the rules at the time.

In between that Olympic showing and his appearance in Berlin four years later, Metcalfe held the world record time for the 100-meter dash, at 10.3 seconds, giving him that “world’s fastest human” title. (The current world record for men is 9.58 seconds, set by Usain Bolt, while the women’s is 10.49 seconds, set by Florence Griffith-Joyner.) Metcalfe went on to coach and teach at Xavier University, then serve in the Army during World War II.

With his athletic career behind him, Metcalfe then came to Chicago and moved on to politics. He became a protégé of William Dawson, who held sway over a South Side district as a U.S. Representative elected in 1942. (Dawson was the only African American in Congress when elected, and became the first Black congressional committee chair in 1949.) Metcalfe would later pass the torch and mentor Harold Washington, who eventually took Dawson’s, and Metcalfe’s, seat in Congress before becoming mayor.

In 1952, Metcalfe was first elected third ward Democratic committeeman, an important job in the peak days of the powerful Chicago Democratic machine. Three years later, when Richard J. Daley won the mayoralty, Metcalfe was elected alderman. Metcalfe was an ally of Daley, helping the mayor garner Black support. He played a major role in lobbying for and organizing Chicago’s last-minute hosting of the 1959 Pan-American Games, an Olympics-style international sporting event.

In 1970, Metcalfe ran to replace Dawson in Congress and won. He co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus the following year, and began to speak out against police harassment of African Americans. One close friend died in police custody after being held for six hours on a drunk driving charge, while another friend also alleged police violence around the same time. Metcalfe’s campaign against police brutality led to a split with Daley, who refused to discuss or address the issue.

“Beginning about 1970, I realized that [Daley] didn’t care about blacks, that he courted our votes, got them, then turned his back on us,” he said, calling the mayor “the only enemy I’ve ever had in politics.” In 1975, Metcalfe supported Daley’s opponent in the Democratic mayoral primary. Daley won anyway, and returned the favor by removing the powerful Democratic organization’s support of Metcalfe in his 1976 re-election campaign. Metcalfe still won, despite his warnings about vote tampering and reprisals against his supporters. “There are shackles on us,” he said. “We are living under a dictatorship.” Daley died at the end of that year.

Metcalfe was now Chicago’s “leading black politician,” according to Mike Royko. With Daley gone, he made peace with the Democratic machine and won their support back for his 1978 election. He died in October of that year of an apparent heart attack, before the election was held. His Olympics teammate Jesse Owens told the Chicago Tribune that Metcalfe “was like the Rock of Gibraltar. He was one of my favorite people.”

Metcalfe always valued his time racing with Owens, calling the Olympics “the greatest vehicles through which nations gain international prestige in friendly spirit.” Among his many accomplishments in multiple fields, Metcalfe said that “One of the greatest moments of my life was when I was told that I had finally made the U.S. Olympic team.”