How the first Black individual Olympic champion came off crutches to win gold

How the first Black individual Olympic champion came off crutches to win gold

DeHart Hubbard was intent on making history. That he did so while injured made his achievements even more remarkable



DeHart Hubbard knew about the jinx waiting for him.

Hubbard was a student at the University of Michigan and regarded as one of the best long jumpers in the world. Heading into the 1924 Paris Olympics, he was America’s best hope for gold in the long jump and favored to become the first Black athlete to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

Hubbard started writing.

Dear Mother: At last I am ready to depart for Europe. It has taken years of hard work to get this far, but I am nearing my ultimate goal.

He had to hurry. The boat was about to leave for France. He turned the page and his words ran and jumped across the page, leaving no doubt.

I’m going to do my best to be the FIRST COLORED OLYMPIC CHAMPION.

He underlined the last four words, but made sure to underline “COLORED” twice. His impending victory would be for his people.


At Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Hubbard discovered his innate talent. Word got out about the kid with springs for legs. Under the tutelage of Hunter Johnson, a pioneering Black trainer in Pittsburgh, Hubbard tried to make the 1920 Olympic team. He was 16 and eager, but “trained too hard” and his body broke down. Back home, he started thinking about breaking the long jump world record. It became an obsession.

The University of Michigan’s head track coach, Steve Farrell, was widely respected. He had been a circus performer and professional runner during the 1890s and he understood the demands of competing at an elite level. When Hubbard arrived at Michigan in 1921, Farrell promptly barred him from other sports and had him focus only on jumping events. Hubbard started jumping past 25 feet, flirting with the world record, which stood at 25 ft 23⁄4in (7.69 m) in 1921, and he qualified for the Paris Games in the long jump and triple jump.


On 16 June 1924, the SS America departed from Hoboken, New Jersey, with more than 350 athletes, coaches, trainers, and officials aboard. Foghorns blared and fireboats sprayed water high in the sky, the sunlight glinting in the mist. On the dark hull, AMERICAN OLYMPIC TEAMS was painted in enormous white letters, easily visible from a distance. The steamship glided past the Statue of Liberty on the way to Cherbourg, France.

During the long voyage – the coaches thought too long – Hubbard and his fellow athletes jostled for space to train. Swimmers swayed in the tiny canvas pool, water slopping over the sides. Runners navigated tight curves on the deck. Javelins and shots ended up in the ocean. When they arrived on 25 June, fellow track teammate William Neufeld remembered the young male athletes couldn’t wait for the “beautiful French girls” who would “greet us with flowers” and a “kiss on each cheek,” but it was raining and they were welcomed by a “bunch of bearded men” instead.

After reaching Paris, Hubbard and most of the squad ended up at a chateau in Rocquencourt, near Versailles. It belonged to the fifth Prince Murat, whose ancestor had married Napoleon’s sister. Majestic chestnut and yew trees hugged winding paths. Sphinx sculptures guarded the gorgeous rose gardens. It was wonderful – and the team hated it.

They lived in slapdash barracks, 11 in all, made out of flimsy pressboard. The army cots were hard, the food “indifferent.” Peddlers roamed the grounds, trying to sell jewellery to athletes in the middle of workouts. In order to reach the Olympic stadium in Colombes, they were forced to ride “busses with hard tires” into thick Paris congestion, banging and rattling over rough cobblestone roads while covered in dust. The journey took a hour, sometimes longer, and was miserable.


During training at the Olympic stadium, some runners complained about the soft track surface and the “cupping” that was created by their feet sinking down too much. At the long jump pit, Hubbard noticed something odd. The takeoff board was backwards. The worn, curved edge was facing the pit and the crisp edge was now pointed at the athletes.

Observers watched Hubbard work through his paces, practicing height, not distance. One reporter wrote he was “the centre of attraction for a number of French enthusiasts.” Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks, a noted track nut, was on hand as well.

They were impressed by Hubbard’s blazing quick start and chiseled calves. The US team’s head track coach, Lawson Robertson, said he had “that zip and pep of the nervous champion” and was “the perfect athlete.” Another remarked that Hubbard flew over the track so quietly, “you couldn’t hear him. Pit, pit, pit, pit, pit. Not a thumping sound, but quick, quiet steps.”


The night before the long jump competition, Hubbard was staying at the Olympic Village in Colombes, working on a picture puzzle to relax when two men burst into the hall with shocking news. While competing in the pentathlon, fellow American Robert LeGendre had just broken the long jump world record with a leap of 25ft 6in (7.76m).

Hubbard was stunned. The world record was his obsession and everyone knew it. He later wrote that he “tried to appear unconcerned, but made a poor job of it.” Coach Robertson wasn’t fooled and said “his color turned white.” LeGendre had dealt Hubbard a psychological blow. Sleep was impossible and he wasn’t “in the best of shape the next day as a result.”


Tuesday 8 July was a beautiful afternoon. Hardly any wind. Low 70s fahrenheit. The stands were full of American fans cheering their boys. On the field, more than 30 long jumpers gathered, representing 21 countries.

For his first jump, Hubbard didn’t want to simply qualify for the finals, he wanted to erase LeGendre, who only competed in the pentathlon in Paris, from his mind. He stood at the start of the runway, wearing thin sprinter spikes with “sponge rubber in the heel” instead of jumping shoes that he felt were too bulky and stiff.

But he didn’t know there was a problem. The soft cinder surface had developed a small hollow, perhaps a “quarter of an inch or half inch” in front of the takeoff board. With the crowd watching, he charged down the track, the record in sight. His right heel slammed against the exposed hard edge of the board at full speed.

The jump was a foul and he could barely walk. He thought “of the jinx that had always trailed Negroes in the Olympics.” Over the years so many before him had come close to glory before suffering an injury. In the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, fellow American long jumper Sol Butler was favored but suffered a pulled leg muscle and had to be carried off the field. Now Hubbard “was fearful it was about to happen to me.”

His second jump was a disaster. He fell backwards upon landing “for the first time in my career, losing more than a foot.” He couldn’t make any more attempts to qualify for the final and was carried inside. The pain was becoming worse. While the trainers worked on his injured heel and wrapped it, he discovered he had somehow squeaked through to the finals in fourth place.

Before the final, Hubbard was “hobbling around” the field with crutches. Robertson was on the verge of taking him off the team, but he “begged for a chance … I didn’t have the heart to keep him out.” Since Hubbard couldn’t put pressure on his heel, he would have to jump using only his toes.

For his final jump, Hubbard envisioned “all my race looking at me to make good” and he let his emotions build into a powerful tailwind. He shot down the cinder runway, kicked through the air and landed perfectly. He cleared 24ft 6in (7.47m) – nowhere close to LeGendre or his own standard, but good enough to win (John Taylor, another Black American athlete, had won team gold at the 1908 Olympics in the medley relay).

Robertson was shocked by Hubbard’s victory and felt it wasn’t possible to jump so far without pushing off the heel: “I thought that some mistake was made in the distance … I went up to the judges and asked them if the jump was right.”

As the band played The Star-Spangled Banner and the American flag rose up the pole, Hubbard realized it was “the first time a colored American had put one there. I didn’t break the record, but I was pretty happy that night.”

He spent the rest of the Olympics on crutches and withdrew from the triple jump. The injury lingered for another year.


Back home in Cincinnati, a local reporter met with Hubbard’s wife Marion and their infant daughter. She expressed her happiness but asked for “some tolerance, some kindliness, some justice” for Black people instead of “parades and brass bands and feasts.”

After the Olympics, Hubbard entered his athletic prime. He tied multiple world records in sprint events. In his last meet for the University of Michigan in 1925, he finally achieved his ultimate goal with a new world record in the long jump by jumping 25ft 107/8in (7.89m). It marked the 10th time Hubbard had jumped over 25ft. No other athlete had done it more than once.

In 1927, he became the first man to jump over 26ft, but the AAU controversially refused to certify it because the meet referee estimated the sand was perhaps an inch too low. That jump wouldn’t be surpassed until Jesse Owens leapt out to 26ft 8in (8.13m) in 1935.

Some months later, Hubbard severely injured his ankle in a volleyball match, which ended his chances of repeating at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. He would never have another chance at an Olympic medal.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Hubbard worked for the Cincinnati recreation department and also founded the Cincinnati Tigers Negro baseball team and starred in other sports. Harlem Globetrotters visionary Abe Saperstein once said “If DeHart had gone into basketball, he would have been one of the five best of his time. If he had gone into baseball, he would have been one of the five best.” Hubbard later joined the Federal Housing Administration in Cleveland and worked with Jesse Owens and other former elite Black athletes. They often talked about the old days of gold medals and laurel wreaths.



(Originally published by The Guardian and edited by Tom Lutz.)

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