Eddie Tolan did not look like your typical Olympic athlete. Standing 5 feet 7 and weighing a scant 145 pounds, Tolan wore glasses that were taped to his head and used chewing gum to maintain his pace.
Looks can be deceiving though and for a period of several years, Tolan – who was born in Denver and grew up in Detroit — was the fastest person in the world.
Tolan, using his compact frame, became the first Black athlete to win two Olympic gold medals, besting rival Ralph Metcalfe in both the 100 and 200 meters at the Los Angeles 1932 Olympic Games. Tolan set a world-record of 10.3 seconds in the 100 and an Olympic record of 21.2 seconds in the 200.
It was quite an accomplishment for an athlete who had planned to play football at the University of Michigan before a knee injury cut short his career in that sport. Undeterred, Tolan turned to sprinting instead, and in 1929 he set a world record of 9.50 seconds in the 100-yard dash.
These achievements earned Tolan the nickname “Midnight Express.” According to Tolan, he originally began chewing gum to combat stress, but soon found that the habit helped him measure his stride and, consequently, increase his speed.
“When I was in high school, Eddie and Ralph were my idols,” the legendary Jesse Owens said. “Eddie and I later became close friends. I used to live in Detroit, and every time I’d go back Eddie was one of the first ones I’d look up.”
Following the Olympics, he appeared in vaudeville shows alongside tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to financially support his family. He passed away at age 58 on January 30, 1967 and was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1982.