African-American track and field athlete Barney Ewell (1918–1996) was one of the fastest U.S. sprinters of the World War II era, earning three medals in the 1948 Olympics at the age of 30. It is widely considered likely that if Ewell had been able to compete in the 1940 and 1944 games—which were canceled because of World War II—he would have added many medals to his total.
Barney Ewell was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 25, 1918, to Edward W. and Mossie F. Ewell. Although his birth name is recorded differently in various sources, his gravestone reads Henry N. Ewell. He received the nickname Barney as a child because he liked to sing the 1923 hit “Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes).” Ewell's family moved to the nearby small city of Lancaster, where he grew up and, when old enough, contributed to the family's meager income by shining shoes. Despite the difficult circumstances in which he was raised, Ewell was noted for his wide smile and genial personality.
In 1938 Ewell enrolled at Penn State University and was winning track championships by the end of his sophomore year. Between 1940 and 1943 he won 12 gold medals in college track meets and 11 more in national events under the auspices of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). In 1940 and 1941 he won back-to-back championships at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) meet in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes. Ewell was one of the few black students at Penn State at the time, and there he earned the nickname “The Lancaster Flash.”
Although he was scheduled to graduate the following year, Ewell left college in 1941 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Asked what military branch he wanted to join, he reportedly answered that he would avoid only the cavalry because the horses might not be fast enough to get out of his way. Ewell was able to compete in several meets during his military service, winning AAU long jump titles in 1945. After leaving the army with the rank of corporal, he returned to Penn State and completed his B.S. degree in 1947.
Both the 1940 Summer Olympics (slated for Tokyo, Japan) and the 1944 games (slated for London) were canceled due to wartime conditions. Sprinters often reach their peak speed during their early and mid-20s, and Ewell missed what many considered his best chances for an Olympic medal due to these cancellations. Working at an iron foundry in Lancaster, he instead cultivated dreams of becoming a soft-shoe dancer. As the 1948 games approached, however, he resolved to enter the competition, even though he was newly married to Duella Massey and was father to a 15-month-old son. Ewell was in top shape: he ran in the evenings after a hard day of factory work, and he sometimes hitchhiked to Philadelphia, 68 miles away, to participate in track meets. The foundry was supportive of his efforts and granted him a leave of absence so that he could prepare for the Olympic trials.
The 1948 AAU championships served as the Olympic trials that year, and the first indication of Ewell's continuing strength came when he got out to a strong start (Ewell was a notoriously slow starter but finished sprints at a blistering pace) and tied the world 100-meter dash record of 10.2 seconds on his way to winning the AAU title over fabled University of Southern California sprinter Mel Patton. After he crossed the finish line, he rushed back to aid fellow sprinter Bill Mathis, who had collapsed on the track. Ewell's record time here would not be broken until 1951, an unusually long interval between record performances. He also held U.S. records in the 50- and 60-yard dashes. In the summer of 1948, Ewell headed for London, England, one of the athletes representing the United States in the “Austerity Games,” so called because resources in postwar London were still scarce.
The 100-meter dash at the 1948 Olympics lived up to the event's reputation for dramatic finishes. Ewell and another rival, Harrison Dillard, crossed the finish line in what seemed to be a dead heat. Ewell believed that he had won and he raised his arms and jumped into the air, a reaction that, at the time, was considered a breach of Olympic etiquette. Officials refused to declare a winner until they studied the film of the race, the first time a photo-finish was used by Olympic judges. Although Dillard was pronounced the winner, Ewell retained the crowd's good graces. “Barney was all class,” teammate Curt Stone recalled (as quoted by Joseph Durso in the New York Times). “He promptly turned, went over to Dillard, and congratulated him warmly.”
The 200-meter race also ended in a dead heat when Ewell and Mel Patton scored identical 21.1-second times. Patton was awarded the win, and Ewell settled for his second silver medal. The controversy over the 400-meter relay was longer lasting. Ewell ran the first leg, passing the baton to Lorenzo Wright. Although the U.S. team won by more than five meters, officials ruled that Ewell had transferred the baton to Wright outside the regulation passing zone, and a British foursome was declared the winner.
The U.S. delegation appealed the decision on the 400-meter relay and this review of the race film took three days. Finally a jury of appeal reversed the officials’ decision and awarded the gold medal to the Americans. The 30-year-old Ewell finally had his Olympic gold medal. He had not even been scheduled to participate in the relay, but he replaced the ailing Ed Conwell at the last minute.
Ewell returned home to a hero's welcome in Lancaster, which honored him with a house and a car. That, in the eyes of U.S. track and field authorities, constituted payment, and in those days only amateur athletes were permitted to participate in the Olympics. Ewell was therefore banned from competing in the 1952 Olympics, which in any event would surely have been his last.
Embracing the new opportunities opened to him by his professional athlete status, Ewell entered paying competitions in Scotland, Australia, and New Zealand. In July of 1950 he won the Jed Border Games sprint in Scotland, and he earned several titles in Australia. In a race in Wangaratta, Australia, he ran 130 yards in 12.1 seconds, still a pace on a par with the world's best.
During Ewell's marriage to Massey, they raised three sons and a daughter. In later years he worked as an electrician in Lancaster. Suffering increasingly from poor circulation in his legs and feet, he was forced to use crutches and then a wheelchair for mobility. He was finally confined to a nursing home. A Penn State teammate, Herman Goffberg, organized a fundraiser to defray Ewell's expenses when he had to have the lower parts of both his legs amputated. The $16,000 raised by Goffberg allowed the aging athlete to live as comfortably as possible, but he died in Lancaster on April 4, 1996, due to complications from the amputations.
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), April 9, 1996, p. 75.
New York Times, August 5, 1996.
Southern Reporter (Selkirk, Scotland), July 8, 2012.
Times (London, England), April 8, 1996, p. 17.