What Makes an Athlete?

westbrook Pegler

Evansville Press/July 14, 1935

Impossible To Explain

Basis of Race Heritage Alone

It was a southern athletic coach, coddling a prohibition highball in Mr. Bert Bell’s quarters in the Ritz Hotel in Philadelphia one night, who found some comfort for the white race in the spectacle of Negroes leading their pallid opponents to the wire in many of the races in the Penn Relays that day. 

The colored runners had won some of the most important events on the long program. Not only that, but in the minor hikes which had filled the intervals between the starred performances it had seemed that always some colored lad was showing the way home to the white boys. 

“Well, in a sort of way,” the southern coach sighed, rolling his glass between his palms, “it was a pleasant sight to see — those white boys chasing these Negro boys that way. It was like down home.” 

The assembled character builders, representing many colleges and great experience in athletics, both as participants in their time and as instructors in more recent years, were unable to agree on the reason. 

Certain Negro athletes in the large field that day had been faster than the white kids in the same program, but it was impossible to make a convincing case for the apparent racial knack of the Negro winners. They were not just natural runners but, like the white boys, had had the benefit of expert instruction. No mere natural runner, whatever his color, could peel off his coat and trousers and win a race against athletes in good condition who had been taught the tricks of starting, pace and timing. 

Moreover, when Paavo Nurmi had been wiping out records in the distance runs night after night on his great American tour just after the war, the greatest campaign ever waged by any foot-racer, nobody had attempted to read into this achievement some curious superiority of the white hoofers over the red, black or yellow. 

He was just an individual, and his marvelous ability on the track was easily accounted for. Nurmi came from Finland, where distance-running had been a fad for some years, and he individually was a morose, determined youth with only one interest in the world. He had concentrated on running, and, thanks to his singleness of purpose and a fine equipment of lungs and legs, had become such a master as this generation is not likely to see the equal of. 

Doubtful Compliment to Collegiate

There had been Charlie Paddock, too, who had run 100 yards in nine and four-tenths. If he had been a Negro his mastery of the field in his time would have provoked suggestions having to do with the reflexes of the colored man. 

Such suggestions usually are put forward when a Negro becomes a champion. 

It is so now as to Eulace Peacock and Jesse Owens; it was so as to Eddie Tolan, the solemn Olympic athlete from Detroit who wore spectacles on the track and looked like a deacon out of an old Zimmerman cartoon, and Joe Gans was said to have inherited his sense of timing and his eye for distance from his jungle forebears. 

But all these Negro athletes came from sophisticated surroundings, and there is nothing to support the notion that they received some special advantage from a proximity to nature in the raw. 

It is a doubtful compliment to a Negro athlete who is qualified to attend college to attempt to account for his proficiency on the field by suggesting that he is still so close to the primitive that whenever he runs a foot race in a formal meet between schools his civilization vanishes and he becomes again for the moment an African savage in breechcloth and nose-ring legging it through the jungle to keep ahead of a charging rhino. 

It would be as logical to any that a Jewish runner when he struts his speed is fleeing the Cossack’s bayonet or that the Irishman is bog-jumping just a stride ahead of the British tax collector.

What the Harvard Coach Had To Say

The character builders assembled at Mr. Bell’s rooms in the Ritz, for years the social headquarters of the coaches when large events are going on in Philadelphia, fell to discussing their preferences in athletes. 

There were those who favored big, mighty country lumps without too much imagination but with hard muscles and great endurance. There were some who indorsed the high school graduate raised and taught in the big cities. This kind generally knew what it was all about. If it came to strength he was just as good a man as the farmer’s son or the coal miner’s kid, because he had been training and playing for several years by way of preparation for his varsity career, always with a wide-eyed ambition to make the team and write his name on the roster of the great.

About this point the Harvard coach put in to say that if he had his choice he would take the New England aristocrat, for he had found this kind to be the gamest of them all under the hardest conditions, the best sportsman and as good an athlete as the next man.

“For my team,” said the Harvard coach, “give me a lot of kids who can trace their names back in the blue books. I will take them and the sissy tradition and lick all your millhands and hay-shakers on courage alone. I have seen all kinds, but the aristocrat, with his pink fuzzy cheeks, will keep on fighting as long as he can keep on getting up. You have to cut them to pieces to stop them.” 

This was from a Harvard coach who was no aristocrat himself but one of those rugged South Boston Irish who were brought in years ago to lift the Crimson out of the mud where the aristocracy had been dragging it for quite some time. 

The southern coach had offered his glass for a refill. He was still thinking of the afternoon’s spectacle at Franklin Field. 

“Yes,” he said. “it would have looked real bad if those Negro had been chasing those while boys out there today.”


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