The Fastest Man on Earth: Barney Ewell and the Story of Two Missed Olympiads

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Barney Ewell on the track at Penn State. At the moment of his graduation, Ewell shared the Penn State record of 9.6 seconds for the 100-yard dash with two former sprinters, J.L. “Hy” Henry, who set the mark in 1907, and Dick Bartholomew, who matched it in 1928. Used with permission from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries

Barney Ewell on the track at Penn State. At the moment of his graduation, Ewell shared the Penn State record of 9.6 seconds for the 100-yard dash with two former sprinters, J.L. “Hy” Henry, who set the mark in 1907, and Dick Bartholomew, who matched it in 1928.
Used with permission from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries

Who is the fastest sprinter of all time? Usain Bolt won eight Olympic gold medals between 2008 and 2016. He also secured 11 World Championships, and his world records in the 100 metres and 200 metres have yet to be broken. Before Bolt was Carl Lewis, winner of nine Olympic golds and 10 World Championships in the 1980s and 1990s. A generation earlier was Tommie Smith and Bob Hayes. Before Smith and Hayes was Jesse Owens (1913–80).

Owens, the All-American sprinter and broad jumper from Ohio State University, owns an immutable story that entails seizing the spotlight from Adolf Hitler at the 1936 summer games in Berlin. With an unprecedented four gold medals at the 11th Olympic Games, the Buckeye Bullet, as sportswriters affectionately called Owens, bewildered the führer, looked the bigger man, and stamped his name into the annals of sports history. He has remained there as one of the sport’s greatest runners, despite never having run in another Olympic event.

Owens lost his amateur status shortly after the Berlin Games once it was discovered he accepted remuneration from the Ohio General Assembly for services as an honorary page in the legislature and other endorsement deals. If his amateur status were reinstated, would he have won another Olympic gold medal? His chances to repeat in the 100 metres, 200 metres, broad jump, and 400-metres would have been interrupted by World War II, which led to the inescapable cancelations of the games in 1940 and 1944. That would have put him at 35 years old during the 1948 Olympic Games.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that authoritarian aggression in Europe and the Pacific hadn’t engulfed the world in conflict. In 1940 Owens’ chances for another gold would have encountered another hurdle. His name was Barney Ewell (1918–96).

Henry Norwood “Barney” Ewell was born on February 25, 1918, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One of four children (two sisters and a younger brother) born to Edward and Masses Ewell, he came from a family that had traveled north from Thoroughfare, Virginia, during the earliest years of the Great Migration. The Ewells later settled into a house on 446 South Christian Street in Lancaster when Barney was still a toddler.

Family legend claims that Edward, a former boxing instructor who became a custodian at the Lancaster city police station, could run backward faster than most people could sprint forward. With Edward as his private coach, Barney first received attention in 1931 for his track exploits as a 13-year-old student at Green Street Elementary School. His performance in a 60-yard dash in a citywide track meet at the end of the school year caught the attention of the Lancaster High School coach Richard C. Madison, because the time was nothing like upper-level elementary students had ever run. Two years later, as a 141-pound, 5½-foot seventh grader at East Junior High (now Hazel I. Jackson Middle School), Ewell helped his school win the city championship by taking first place in five events (high jump, broad jump, 100-yard dash, 220-yard dash, and the 400 relay). In 1934 he repeated the performance, placing first in the 100, 220, shot put, broad jump, and high jump.

In spring 1935 Ewell set two Pennsylvania records as a freshman at Lancaster High School (soon to be renamed J.P. McCaskey High School) when he ran the 220 in 21.9 seconds and broad jumped 22 feet, 9 inches. His track exploits at this point had reached national level.

A member of the Silent Generation, Ewell encountered many societal misfortunes that now define his generation. His father worked multiple jobs to keep the family afloat during the Great Depression of the 1930s. And while staying silent on matters of race, sportswriters in many ways solidified early-20th-century theories about desirable and undesirable genetic traits used to differentiate racial groupings of the human population.

In 1935 Ewell’s hometown sports editor Jack Martin posited in the Intelligencer Journal, “Why are colored athletes ‘tops’ these days in sprint events?” To provide an answer, Martin cited the teenage Ewell, an eminent Olympic talent, as evidence of racialized genetic supremacy among sprinters. “Certain muscles in the heels of colored men’s feet give them a better spring and a chance to get a much better start,” he wrote before invoking the local track celebrity. “We shall hear more from this chap Norwood ‘Barney’ Ewell, the ebony enigma.”

The reasons upholding racist science were not isolated to Ewell’s takeover of the cinder tracks in Lancaster. When Jesse Owens won his Olympic medals in Berlin, Robert Morrison wrote a column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asserting, “Anthropometrically speaking, the legs of Owens and of most Negroid peoples have relatively short gastrocnemius muscles, a similar soleus muscle, longer Achilles tendon, longer legs and longer feet.” He argued that Black men, supposing all Black men are built the same, have a “sprint kick like a mule.”


Ewell crosses the finish line about to break the tape in a sprint race for Penn State. Used with permission from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries

Ewell crosses the finish line about to break the tape in a sprint race for Penn State.
Used with permission from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries

Anthropologists and eugenicists across the United States buoyed such ideas during the 1930s despite one study released by anatomist W. Montague Cobb. The Howard University anatomy associate professor ascertained there was nothing genetically that people of African descent had over those of European descent. “There is not a single physical characteristic which all the Negro stars in question have in common which would definitely stamp them as Negro,” Cobb concluded after studying the lower limbs and X-ray photographs of heel bones of men of both races. “Jesse Owens . . . does not have what is considered the Negro type of calf, foot, and heel bone,” Cobb wrote. He insisted that researchers look to fields outside of anthropology to reason why Black athletes had come to dominate track and field events by the 1930s.

Called “the Negro flash,” “the ebony speed king,” and “the Brown Bullet,” among other racialized nicknames in the press, Ewell could never escape this kind of characterization by white sportswriters. Neither could Jesse Owens.

Despite an age disparity, Ewell and Owens were destined to meet on the track. While Ewell was still in high school, it was at the Penn Relays at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on April 25, 1936, where he first encountered the Ohio State sprint champion who shattered the event’s 100-meter dash record with a sprint of 10.5 seconds. “I got his autograph,” Ewell recalled in the Lancaster New Era years later. “He was my idol then because he was the outstanding sprinter of that time.”

A few months later, Ewell ran against Owens at the July 4 Olympic Trials held at Princeton University’s Palmer Stadium. At the time, Ewell was a rising junior in high school but already 18 years old. He was fresh off his Pennsylvania state track and field championships in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes and a second-place finish in the broad jump. As the state’s interscholastic 100-yard dash (9.8 seconds) and broad jump (23 feet, 8.375 inches) record holder, Ewell was the only high school track and field athlete competing in the trials that day.

Ewell would finish fourth in the race’s second heat, trailing behind Owens, Sam Stoller of the University of Michigan, and Southern California’s Foy Draper. Ewell finished ahead of New York University’s Eddie Seigel and Perrin Walker from Georgia Tech. “I was really scared,” Ewell told the New Era in 1980. “I was kind of watching him run and I couldn’t run myself. I couldn’t relax running against a man of his stature. . . . I was . . . not serious competition for him.”

Harrisburg columnist Dave Abramson noted the fact that Ewell was the only high school athlete to run with world-class sprinters as “one of those rare distinctions in the world of sports.” With Ewell not yet in the prime of his career, the Olympic qualifying meet created a buzz around the prospect that he would prove himself to be the fastest sprinter on earth at the 1940 games.

Ewell advanced his acumen at the 1937 Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Track and Field Championships held in State College on May 29 with times of 9.7 seconds in the 100-yard dash (a tenth slower than his record-breaking 9.6 in the District-3 Championships in Harrisburg the week prior), 21.8 seconds in the 220-yard dash, and then leaped 22 feet, 5.5 inches to capture three first-place trophies.

He could not compete on an interscholastic level during the spring 1938 track and field season because, according to PIAA rules, his age, now 20, disqualified him from high school competition. He nevertheless spent the high school season traveling with the Lancaster team, cheering on his teammates to a PIAA District 3 title.

After committing to Pennsylvania State College, Ewell wasted no time in establishing his mark as a track and field star at the college ranks. As a freshman in 1939, he broke a 23-year-old world’s indoor record by running a 50-yard dash at 5.1 seconds at the Penn Athletic Club Invitational meet. A year later, he broke his own 50-yard dash world record with a sprint in 5 seconds flat. He also won the National Amateur Athletic Union 100-yard and 220-yard dashes and set the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) broad jump record before the start of his sophomore season in the spring of 1940.


Ewell, right, takes the lead in a race with Ohio. Used with permission from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries

Ewell, right, takes the lead in a race with Ohio.
Used with permission from the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries

Ewell’s success as a yearling at Penn State naturally roused more Olympic buzz among the nation’s sportswriters. His dominance in the 50-yard dash — not a standard event but popular at indoor competitions — gave him a reputation for having the “fastest getaway from his blocks of any sprinter in the country,” wrote Jerry Brondfield in the lead up to the 1940 Olympic Trials, with the games scheduled for Helsinki, Finland.

Plentiful were the comparisons to Jesse Owens, who was not a contender for the Helsinki games. On April 20, 1940, Brondfield wrote of Ewell in the Muncie Evening Press, “He’s not a Jesse Owens when it comes to form, because the Ohio State phenomenon had flawless rhythm of movement. But the Penn Stater moves easily, without pulling or straining. . . . Like Owens, Ewell also is a corking broad-jumper.”

Unfortunately for Ewell and the sports world, World War II would bring about the cancellation of the next two summer Olympic Games. The war stripped Ewell of what could have been a decorated Olympic track and field career, placing him above the more acclaimed Jesse Owens on the list of the world’s greatest sprinters. Upon Ewell’s death in 1996, Bill Lyon, sportswriter and six-time Pulitzer Prize nominee from the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote that the sprinter, “probably would have been the most decorated Olympian in the history of the games.”

On April 29, Eric Frankel of the Finnish Olympic Committee, with the backdrop of partially completed Olympic grounds, stadia and arenas, erected at an aggregate cost of $8 million, officially declared Helsinki would not host the 1940 games.

The announcement came as no surprise. But still, Ewell and his supporters kept hoping that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could find a host for the games. Japan’s ongoing war in China, followed by Great Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in September 1939, stirred debate among IOC officials over whether the Olympics would be limited to neutral countries or canceled altogether. The annulment of the November 1939 V Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, moved the IOC closer to suspending the Olympics. The Soviet Union invasion of Finland, also in November 1939, made it all but inevitable there would be no summer Olympics in 1940. Alas, as the Germans advanced toward France, the IOC followed Frankel’s April 29 announcement stating Helsinki would not host the games with a May 6 declaration that “the XII Olympiad will not be celebrated.”

Instead of having the opportunity to prove he was the world’s fastest human on sports’ largest global stage, Ewell had no choice but to continue his dominance in the college arena. At the IC4A Championships, held at Harvard University over Memorial Day weekend in 1940, Ewell took first place in the 100, 220 and broad jump. He became the second person in the history of the championship games to repeat triple-crown victories. Columbia University’s Ben Johnson was the first to achieve the feat in 1937.

A few months later, in December, it was reported that the MS Pilsudski, the ship that was to carry Ewell and the American Olympic team to Helsinki, had been sunk, either by a German mine or torpedo, and lay at the bottom of the Atlantic off the east coast of northern England.

During his junior collegiate season in spring 1941, officials clocked Ewell at 9.6 seconds in the 100-yard dash on four different occasions. He also retained his crown as the national champion in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes after winning those events at the NCAA Championships held at Stanford that June.

Although the United States maintained its neutrality in the war, the newly instituted Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 required men of ages 21 to 45 to register for the draft. This forced the 22-year-old Ewell to appear before the local draft board for a physical examination and possible induction into the United States Armed Services. “I’m ready to do my duty,” he told reporters weeks before receiving his draft status. “If folks think our country is in danger, I’m ready to do my duty. I guess that’s more important than athletics.”

When asked about the possibility that Ewell would have to forgo his senior track season, Penn State track and field coach Chick Werner said, “Barney is the greatest competitor I have ever seen in track. With one more year of competition, I honestly believe Ewell would establish himself as the ‘world’s fastest human.’”

In the month before his September draft physical, Lancaster-based Penn State alumni honored Ewell with a banquet at the Elks Club, which included remarks by club president George Arisman, Penn State boxing coach Leo Houck, and Carl P. Schott, head of the school of physical education and athletics. The city also hosted Barney Ewell Night at the famed Lancaster County recreational area Rocky Springs Park on the evening of August 11. Advertised as the special guest performer that evening was Louis Armstrong and his orchestra.

On September 15, Ewell’s draft rating was altered from 1-A to 2-B by his local draft board, allowing him to finish his senior year at Penn State by deferring his call to duty for six months. The deferment meant that Ewell would not have to report to the Army until June 1942.

The gold medal and one of the two silvers Ewell won at the 1948 Olympics. LNP | LancasterOnline

The gold medal and one of the two silvers Ewell won at the 1948 Olympics.
LNP | LancasterOnline

As a senior in 1942, Ewell led Penn State to its first IC4A team national championship by accounting for 15 of the Nittany Lions’ 25.5 points at the tournament held in Triborough Stadium on Randall’s Island in New York. He also accomplished what no other athlete in the history of IC4A track and field could do: Ewell earned a threepeat, or “triple-triple,” in his three signature events. In doing so, he broke the 100-yard record in 9.5 seconds and the 220 in 20.5 seconds (both later disallowed because of a slight wind). His broad jump measured 24 feet, 6.5 inches. During his senior year, though not at the national championship event, Ewell broke the 200-yard dash record with a time of 18.9 seconds. Ewell finished his collegiate career undefeated in intercollegiate competition. His only setbacks during his college tenure, incidentally, were two defeats in the 100-yard dash, occurring at a Penn Relay competition and a National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meet.

During the summer and fall of 1942, Private Ewell spent six months away from a track as he underwent combat training at Camp Lee in Virginia. But as the war effort on the home front looked more to sports to prepare soldiers for the throes of combat, Ewell ended up running competitive indoor and outdoor track and field, first as a member of Camp Lee’s service team and then after a transfer to a new camp in 1944, a representative of the Camp Kilmer service team in New Jersey.

Before the war’s end, Ewell, now a corporal, would be transferred one final time to Camp Pickett in Virginia, where he attended Officers’ Training School. In July 1944, he married his college sweetheart, Duella Massey of North Carolina, in a small ceremony held in Delaware during his 14-day furlough.

The fact that the war continued through 1944 meant he would miss out on another Olympic opportunity. David Lardner, correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune who later died covering a war-related story in Aachen, Germany, wrote of Ewell, “If the Olympics aren’t held after the war, we won’t be able to send Barney Ewell, the colored man from Penn State, against whatever is left of the super race in Europe, to poke the definite hole in the theory of blond superiority. Somebody ought to be getting on with the project that Jesse Owens began in 1936 and Ewell seems to be the man for the job.”

Two summer Olympic Games had been canceled. If Lardner’s words are any indication, the public knew that 12 prime years had been lost from Ewell’s career. When the corporal mustered out of the Army on January 25, 1946, he was less than a month from his 28th birthday. Despite his advanced age, coaches clocked him at 9.6 seconds in the 100-yard dash while training at Penn State that summer. At the Penn Relays in June, Ewell ran a 220-yard dash at 21.1 seconds (judges claimed the wind aided his time), which bested the world record held by former Olympian Ralph Metcalfe. Ewell held firm that he was, in his words, “just as fast as ever!”

Another 18 months would pass before Ewell finally got a shot for gold in the next Olympic Games. After graduating from Penn State in the Class of 1947 with a degree in physical education, he spent that time competing as a member of the Shanahan Catholic Club in AAU events, including the annual Middle Atlantic championship, where he ran a 100-yard dash at 9.6 seconds and a sprint in the 300-yard event at 30.5 seconds. He was ready for the Olympics, this time slated for London.

At the 1948 Olympic Trials, held at Dyche Stadium in Evanston, Illinois, that July, the 30-year-old Ewell was able to win the 100-metre dash in record-breaking style over 22-year-old sprint sensation from the University of Southern California Mel “Pell Mell” Patton and 25-year-old Harrison “Bones” Dillard of Baldwin-Wallace College. Sportswriters called Ewell’s victory “a surprising upset” and were equally shocked when it was announced that the time was 10.2 seconds, which equaled the world record held by Jesse Owens and Hal Davis. He then placed second in a photo finish to Patton in the 200 metres, both having received the same time at 20.7 seconds. Ewell also qualified as a member of the 400-metre relay team.

As fate would have it, the Olympic gold medal was not easy to come by inside London’s Wembley Stadium. Wearing number 70, Ewell was one of three Americans and six total competitors in the 100 metres final. There was no favorite for the race, as experts said Ewell held no advantage over Dillard or Patton, and Panama’s Lloyd LaBeach had an equal chance for gold. It would be Dillard, in lane six, to Ewell’s extreme right, and out of eyesight, who nipped the Lancaster sprinter at the tape by “a foot or half yard,” according to New York Herald Tribune track expert Jesse Abramson. But thinking he had won the race, Ewell gave an impulsive victory dance upon crossing the finish line. He embraced fellow U.S. sprinter Patton during his celebration. When the official winner was announced, U.S. teammate Dillard received the nod at 10.3 seconds. Ewell’s time was 10.4.


In a welcome home parade after the 1948 Olympics, Ewell rides through the streets of Lancaster with Mayor Dale Cary. Courtesy of LancasterHistory, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

In a welcome home parade after the 1948 Olympics, Ewell rides through the streets of Lancaster with Mayor Dale Cary.
Courtesy of LancasterHistory, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

“I thought I had won it because I had beaten LaBeach and Patton, my two greatest competitors,” Ewell later admitted.

More heartache for Ewell occurred three days later when he lost again by an eyelash to another teammate, Mel Patton, in the 200 metres. They ran the race in 21.1 and 21.2 seconds, respectively. A second silver medal for Ewell.

Ewell had one more chance to win Olympic gold as the front leg of the 400-metre relay team that included Lorenzo Wright, Mel Patton and Harrison Dillard. After breezing through preliminary races, the foursome eased to a first-place finish in the finals, a full 10 yards ahead of the second-place team, Great Britain. Ewell was elated as his long-awaited gold-medal ceremony was just moments away; however, a few minutes after the conclusion of the race, the judges disqualified Ewell and his teammates on the ground that the first exchange of the baton was not made within the 20-metre zone. That meant the error was Ewell’s doing. He sank into the arms of Patton when the announcement came. One sportswriter said, “His face crumpled into the picture of woe as he realized that he and Wright had caused the incident.” It seemingly was also the first loss by the U.S. relay team since 1920.

“It wasn’t a fast pass,” protested Ewell. “We wanted to play safe and stay inside that zone.” With support from his teammates, Ewell asserted that the official who called the foul was looking at the wrong line. He said the pictures of the handoff will prove that he completed the relay of the baton before either of them crossed the line marking the end of the 20-metre change-over zone.

The American team spent the next 48 hours protesting the judges’ ruling. The appeal, as imagined, was blasted in the British press as “Poor Sportsmanship.” The local press charged the American protest as “cut[ting] across the spirit of the Olympiad.”

Video footage of the race indeed proved that Ewell and Wright began the exchange at 12 metres from the foul line, and that the baton had been relayed from one racer to the other over two strides before either man crossed the line. Avery Brundage, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and member of the jury of appeal, issued the following statement: “It was quite clear we exchanged the baton two or three yards inside the marker. The official had apparently judged by the middle line and not by the outside line just as the boys had told me last Saturday. It was quite plain although we had to run the film through several times in order to convince everyone.”

Three days after the race, Olympic officials named the United States team the winner of the 400-metre relay. The decision helped the United States win the overall team track and field title. At last, Barney Ewell had his first Olympic gold medal. The fact that the judges had to track him down in the mess hall to deliver the hardware did little to jettison the feeling of having accomplished his life dream. He was, at the time, the oldest sprinter ever to win gold.

In later years, Ewell admitted this to the Lancaster New Era: “I wish I would have been able to compete in the 1940 games. It was my peak year. But, we are going to have wars as long as men are here on earth. Taking everything into consideration I am extremely fortunate and lucky enough to have been able to compete on the ’48 team.”

Ewell, circa 1950, with track and field star Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games. Courtesy of LancasterHistory, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Ewell, circa 1950, with track and field star Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games.
Courtesy of LancasterHistory, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Along with his Olympic gold and two silvers, Ewell won 12 NCAA first place races, eight AAU titles, and 11 IC4A titles, and he attained world records in several sprint categories at Penn State. In 1986 he was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.

Ewell has been honored in his hometown of Lancaster throughout the years, both before and after his death in 1996. In 1988 the football stadium and track at J.P. McCaskey High School was named Barney Ewell Sports Complex by the School District of Lancaster. In 1994 the Lancaster County Sports Hall of Fame recognized Ewell for excellence and success on the course with the J. Freeland Chryst Award. In 2018 the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission installed a Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Ewell on the grounds of McCaskey High. That same year, plans commenced to construct the Barney Ewell Plaza near Lancaster Square, north of the famous Lancaster Central Farmers Market. Completion of the project, which will include the Lancaster Public Library, retail shops and art galleries, is planned for 2022.

In 1957 the Lancaster Sportswriters and Sportscasters Associated bestowed its Headliner Award upon Ewell as a community member who made a significant contribution to sports. Jesse Owens was the keynote speaker at the banquet. That evening was one of the highlights of Ewell’s life. Two of the fastest men on earth shared stories as they talked into the night.


Todd M. Mealy, Ph.D., resides in Lancaster County and is a public school educator and adjunct instructor in history at Dickinson College. He is the author of eight books and is a frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. His previous articles include “Without Fear and Without Reproach: Octavius V. Catto and the Early Civil Rights Movement in Pennsylvania” (Winter 2021), “Fighter’s Heaven: Muhammad Ali’s Training Camp in the Pennsylvania Wilderness” (Fall 2020), and “Indomitable: Ora Washington, Philadelphia’s Ultimate Sports Trailblazer” (Winter 2020).