Eddie Tolan was not the prototypical physical specimen one would expect a world-class sprinter to be, but he was a force nonetheless. The “Midnight Express” was not only the first Black athlete to win two Olympic gold medals, he is also the first Black person dubbed the “World’s Fastest Human.”
Thomas Edward Tolan was born September 29, 1908 in Denver, Colo. After moving to Detroit with his family, Tolan became both a track athlete and football player at Cass Technical High School but the gridiron was his first love. The University of Michigan recruited him to play football but Tolan never suited up, some say due to racism as Michigan hadn’t had a Black football players since the 1890’s. Other accounts say he was injured but eventually he was moved to the track program where he dominated as a Big 10 track and world sprint champion, breaking records in the 100-meter and 100-yard dash events.
Listed at 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, Tolan also wore large glasses that he taped to the side of his head during his races, standing out on the track. Tolan also had a habit of chewing gum, first to combat stress, but he later claimed the gum helped his stride so that he could run faster.
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During the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, Tolan won gold in the 100 and 200-meter events. The 100 meter race finished in a dead heat, with he and sprinter Ralph Metcalfe. But new camera technology allowed Tolan to claim the victory as his torso was first over the line. Metcalfe, who later became a U.S. Congressman, believed that the race should have been declared a tie. Media coverage of Tolan described him disparagingly or in downright racist terms, referring to him as a “dusky little thunderbolt,” a “stubby colored boy” and a chunky Detroit Negro.”
After returning to the states and falling upon hard times, trying to support himself and his unemployed parents, Tolan became a professional sprinter, winning 300 races and only losing seven, according to accounts. He retired from racing, working a few odd jobs before settling on becoming a teacher in Detroit. He never married.
Tolan passed from heart failure in 1967, two years after his kidneys failed him. He was 58. Olympic legend Jesse Owens honored him in Jet magazine, stating that Tolan and fellow racer and U.S. Congressman Ralph Metcalfe were his idols.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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