In just over two months, the 2012 Summer Olympics will capture the World’s attention. Some 5 billion people will watch at least part of the action, more people than will tune in to anything else all year long. Dreams will come true, legends will form, names will be etched into the ethereal pantheon of Olympic lore, to mingle with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan.
But, unfortunately, whatever names rise up in London this summer, they won’t mingle with that of John Baxter Taylor — no matter how much they should, seeing as he is the first black American to win gold, and in London no less. That’s because the name of this sensational quarter-miler is largely forgotten.
Taylor was, by all accounts, smart and thoughtful, gentle and elegant. With a desire to take care of animals, he managed to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s cutting-edge veterinary school, earning the praise of teachers and students alike. And, my word, could he run. In 1903 the tall and lanky Taylor, with his astounding 8-foot, 6-inch stride, set the world record in the 400 meters. In 1907, he won the national indoor championship in the 600.
He made his name running for two amateur outfits; the dominant Irish American Athletic Club (IAAC) out of Queens, New York, and the University of Pennsylvania, whose nickname, the Quakers, seems to have fit Taylor’s personality well. But not necessarily his running style.
When racing Taylor was more like a tiger. He liked to lay low, to let the pack get out ahead of him. This allowed him size up his competitors. About halfway through the race, as if stalking prey, he would uncork the true force of his explosive speed. In a blink, it seemed, he would gain tremendous ground and in another he would be out in front, creating evermore separation, as if, as one newspaper described it, his opponents “were standing still.” He did this time and again. And in the buildup to the 1908 Games folks reckoned he’d do the same in London.
But, alas, shortly before racing, either onboard a cramped vessel en route to the Games or in London, Taylor contracted Typhoid. In hindsight, people would wonder if London’s cool and wet weather was to blame. Perhaps, folks speculated, if the Games had taken place in Rome, as they were scheduled to do until Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, causing over 100 deaths, destroying much of Naples, and forcing Italy to give up its dream of hosting the 1908 Games, Taylor wouldn’t have gotten sick. Typhoid, however, usually arises from contact with infected water or food. It could be caught most anywhere in the early 20th century.
While Taylor’s strain didn’t seem too debilitating, seeing as it did not prevent him from running in London, it did cause his signature finishes to lack their usual pop. Still, he managed to survive the qualifying rounds and reach the final heat, where he would race two other Americans and the man who had turned in the best Olympic time to that point, Great Britain's Wyndham Halswelle, who circled the track in an Olympic record 48.4 seconds.
Thus the stage was set for a final heat that remains one of the most peculiar races in Olympic track and field history. Among the oddities was the lack of running lanes. In addition, the Brits enforced more conservative rules when it came to jostling than the Americans. Both of these things would contribute to the ensuing controversy.
The race got off to an ominous start in the first 50 meters, when American William Robbins appeared to bump Halswelle. The partisan British crowd, eager for a Halswelle win, was not impressed by the bump. But no foul was called. Things really went awry, though, as the runners neared the back-stretch — the part of the race during which Taylor and Halswelle were known to thrive.
At this point, Robbins was in first, slightly ahead of the American John Carpenter, who started to run wide and in the process he began to squeeze Halswelle, who’d also made a move on the outside. Soon, Halswelle was within a foot-and-a-half of the track’s edge and Carpenter was using his right elbow, reports claimed, to keep Halswelle from moving ahead of him. At the sight of this, an umpire shouted “Foul!” prompting the tape to be broken and the race to be called.
After conferring, officials announced that a do-over involving three runners, Halswelle, Taylor, and Robbins, would decide things. Carpenter, however, was disqualified, which did not sit well with the American runners. Ultimately, both Robbins and Taylor, in a show of support for Carpenter, refused to re-run the race. Taylor’s University of Pennsylvania’s motto is Leges sine moribus vanae, which translates to English as “Laws without morals are in vain.” Perhaps Taylor meant to say as much by deciding not to run again.
This left Halswelle. He could walk away, too, or he could run on an otherwise empty track. Reluctantly, he chose to run and in doing so won the only “walkover” gold in Olympic history.
The hullabaloo over the odd race led to major changes. All future Olympic 400-meter races would have lanes, and the race highlighted the need for uniform codes in the governing of international sport, a need that led to the formation of the International Association of Athletics Federations in 1912.
Happily, all was not lost for Taylor on the medal front. Despite his sickness, he ran the third leg on America’s world record-setting 1,600-meter relay team, winning gold in the process.
Tragically, though, by year’s end the infection he caught in London would develop into typhoid pneumonia and take his life. The timing for Taylor was just plain bad. Doctors at this time were just beginning to get ahead of Typhoid. The following year, in fact, U.S. Army physician Frederick F. Russell would develop an American Typhoid vaccine.
As fate had it, Taylor’s British rival in London, Halswelle, would die tragically young, too. In March, 1915, during World War I, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France, a sniper’s bullet took his life. This left two of the early 20th century’s fastest men dead before they could reach life’s back-stretch. Considering how well both finished, it’d have been something had the world been able to see them close.