percy williams olympic gold medal 1928


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Samuel Hawley is a writer of narrative nonfiction and fiction. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.


You never know what you're going to find when you do research for a book....

In the course of writing I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World's Fastest Human, I read everything I could find about Charley Paddock, Percy's predecessor as "World's Fastest Human" and an athlete Percy very much looked up to. My efforts included tracking down a copy of Charley's 1932 book The Fastest Human. It's not an easy book to find these days, but I eventually got to read it thanks to the inter-library loan service at Queen's University here in Kingston, Ontario. The copy that arrived came from a university library in the States.

In reading Paddock's book I learned about the overcrowded, rat-infested conditions that he and his fellow American Olympic athletes had to endure aboard the ship Princess Matoika en route to the Antwerp Games in 1920. The conditions awaiting them in Antwerp were no better: cots crammed together in a schoolhouse, and a diet of canned food. It prompted Paddock and his teammates to draft a protest to the US Olympic Committee which everyone signed. Paddock saved this document and included it twelve years later in The Fastest Human in a fold-out following page 72. Here it is:

1920 Olympics usa athletes petition

After looking at the document for a while, one of the signatures on the left upper half struck me as odd. Can you spot it in the enlargement below?

1920 antwerp olympics usa athletes revolt

What was Wes Santee's name doing here? He was an athlete all right, a famous middle-distance runner, but from a later era. It was Wes Santee who, with Englishman Roger Bannister and John Landy of Australia, vied to become the first to break the four-minute-mile in the early 1950s.

On closer examination, I saw the impression of the pen: Santee's signature had been hand-signed. This little discovery gave me a thrill. I realized that Wes Santee himself had borrowed this very book as a student in the early 1950s and had expressed solidarity with Paddock -- like Paddock, he had more than his share of run-ins with the AAU -- by adding his signature to the protest.

samuel hawley I JUST RAN percy williams worlds fastest human

copyright   2011 Samuel Hawley