“Sport’s Answer to the Three-Ring Circus”: Indoor Track and American Identity in the 1950s

By Cat Ariail

“Indoor track, sport’s answer to the three-ring circus, springs full-grown from the winter much as Athena sprang fully-armed from the head of Zeus,” asserted Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule in 1958.[1] In a subsequent article, Maule suggested the sport “takes on a carnival air when the lineal descendants of the fleet cave man test themselves against one another. The tight, banked board track nestles practically in the laps of the front-row spectators and the balconies hang low overhead, freighted with excitement and noise.”[2]

With the contemporary winter sport calendar dominated by the seemingly-endless NFL playoffs, the slog of the NBA and NHL seasons, and conference play in college basketball, Maule’s effusions certainly reveal their age.  But his statements also indicate the need critically to explore indoor track.  Why did the sport represent a prime winter attraction during the postwar sporting moment? As Maule further insisted, “There are few spectacles in the world of sport to compare with an indoor track meet for color and movement and excitement.”[3] Contextualizing Maule’s estimations of the sport with the broader conditions of the 1950s U.S. reveals that the interest in indoor track derived from more than on-track action. The sport inspired such excitement because of the ways in which it dramatized the anxieties of the historical moment.

Foremost, with the Cold War encouraging increased emotional investment in the Olympic Games, the indoor circuit allowed potential Olympic contenders to introduce themselves to the sporting public.  Domestic political and social developments, however, gave the sport more meaning. Throughout the 1950s, the boundaries of American identity were contested. Most notably, African Americans sought to claim their citizenship, engaging in demonstrations in order to force the nation to live up to its proclaimed ideals.  The gendered boundaries of American identity also were under negotiation, with the supposed threats of communism, homosexuality, and other manifestations of delinquency demanding adherence to traditional gender values. Indoor track made visible these contested boundaries.  In the claustrophobic space of the track, black and white athletes, wearing little more than singlets and shorts, symbolically enacted political and social developments and controversies.  The visceral intensity and frenetic pace of the sport gave it affective power. In striving for victory, athletes embodied the broader efforts to determine the boundaries of Americanness.

The 1956 indoor track season illuminates the symbolic significance of the sport.  The year coincides the intensification of the civil rights movement as black activists, disappointed by the slow progress since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, undertook more visible direct action protests, beginning with the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955.  Because the sport long had been integrated, track offered an unimpeded space in which black athletes could prove African Americans’ fitness for citizenship.  While victories over white athletes assumed symbolic importance, the sport also provided illustrations of interracial  cooperation.  Black sportswriters equally celebrated both circumstances. White sportswriters, however, often exposed their continued investment in the whiteness of American athleticism.  Victorious white athletes were granted “white hope” status.  Their successes over increasingly dominant black athletes were viewed as implicit confirmations of the nation’s existing racial and gender hierarchy.

The 1956 Olympic Games, to be held that December in Melbourne,  increased the sport’s symbolic significance.  Because the Games were expected to offer a Cold War showdown, with democracy and communism battling for global supremacy through the bodies of athletes, the identities of the athletes who would represent the U.S.  assumed additional importance.  By earning an Olympic berth, black track athletes could define American identity through blackness, making a claim to the national inclusion still-denied to them in political and social contexts.  In contrast, white male track Olympians symbolically reasserted traditional racialized gender norms, presenting American identity as moral, masculine, and white.  The 1956 indoor track season unfolded in this larger context, with the thrills and chills inspired by athletes racing around the boards deriving from more than the momentary contests.  The Philadelphia Inquirer Games, Washington Evening Star Games, and Millrose Games provide a perspective of indoor track’s ideological intensity.

Philadelphia Inquirer Games

Held on January 20th in Convention Hall, the Inquirer Games served as the season’s first noteworthy meet.  It also inaugurated a changing of the guard within the sport.  In the 50-yard high hurdles, Harrison Dillard, the long-standing African American hurdling champion who won gold at the 1952 Olympic Games, was upset by Lee Calhoun, a little-known athlete from all-black North Carolina Central College.  Calhoun piqued the interest of the more the 10,000 in attendance as he equaled the meet and world records of 6 seconds in route to victory.  The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s leading black newspaper, described the drama: “With the final hurdle cleared, Dillard, sensing defeat, made a gallant bid to overtake the fleet-footed Calhoun and almost fell flat on his face in the effort. But Calhoun had that extra something that it takes to beat a champion and used it to breeze in ahead of the internationally known sports figure.”[4]

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Lee Calhoun (far left) sails of a hurdle ahead of the New York Pioneer Club’s Charley Pratt and Duke University’s Joel Shankle at a 1956 indoor track meet. (Photo courtesy of media.gettyimages.com)

Calhoun’s victory not only announced his status as an Olympic contender, but his win also secured black athletes’ claim to the hurdles.  Since the resumption of the sport following World War II, Dillard had dominated the event, denying promising white hurdlers, such as Southern Cal’s Jack Davis, from establishing themselves as the nation’s premier timber-topper. The fact that Calhoun attended a black college led the black sportswriters to take particular pride in him, as he symbolically represented the capacity and quality of black individuals and institutions.

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Charlie Jenkins and Arnie Sowell celebrate after a 1956 indoor track meet. (Photo courtesy of media.getttyimages.com)

With his win over an impressive 600-yard field, Charlie Jenkins, a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts who attended Villanova, likewise proved himself a black Olympic contender. Jenkins defeated two-time defending 800-meter Olympic champion Mal Whitfield, 400-meter world record holder and 1955 Pan American Games 400-meter champion Lou Jones, and Reggie Pearman, a four-time Inquirer Games champ and veteran indoor talent.  But Arnie Sowell, a black middle distance maven from the University of Pittsburgh, stole the show at Philly.  Sowell, noted for his smooth, seemingly effortless running style, captured the 1,000-yard race before, approximately seventy minutes later, anchoring Pitt’s meet-record two-mile relay win.  The Tribune celebrated the “mastery” Sowell displayed as he “glided easily around the track” in performances that “caught the fancy of the crowd.”[5]

The paper captures the affective quality of Sowell’s athleticism, with his ostensibly preternatural ability stirring the emotions of black and white fans and, in turn, demonstrating black subjectivity. In the postwar era, the Inquirer Games had served as a space that had accommodated black athleticism.  Most notably, the 1,000-yard race officially was called the Borican 1,000, named for the black middle distance talent, John Borican, who dominated the boards in the late 1930s and early 1940s before a mysterious form of anemia ended his life in 1943. The 1956 Inquirer Games continued and consolidated this trend, as the next generation of black track athletes made their claims as black and American athletic icons.

Washington Evening Star Games

The following night, Dave Sime, a white sprinter from Duke University, tore up the D.C. track, capturing the Washington Evening Star Games’s coveted Sprint Series by winning the 70-, 80-, and 100-yard dashes.  Sime’s sprint sweep certified his status as a “white hope.” Due to the AAU’s ongoing battle with popular white miler Wes Santee, who would be suspended by the organization in early February for taking excess expense money, the “white hope” mantle was vacant.  The fact that black sprinters had never been shut out of the sprint series in the history of the Evening Star Games, which were founded in 1948, rendered Sime’s triumph more impressive.  Thus, the white sport press excitedly responded to Sime’s unexpected sweep.  For instance, Sport Illustrated’s Roy Terrell would later enthuse, “All agree that Dave Sime is a marvelous young physiological specimen with superbly functioning muscles and sinews and bones. Even more fascinating to mere mortals is the trail of determination and denial required to produce such a superman in spikes.”[6]

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Dave Sime trains at Duke University. (Photo courtesy of media.gettyimages.com)

As indicated by Terrell’s proclamation, Sime’s physical being, in combination with his personal character, positioned him as the epitome of admirable white American athleticism; a figure who seemingly embodied prevailing and preferred racial and gender norms.  But, with the exception of Sime’s sprint sweep, black athletes dominated the D.C. track. The Baltimore Afro-American celebrated the seven individual titles won by black athletes, as well as their seven second places and six thirds.[7]  Most notably, Lee Calhoun again showed his quality, proving his victory over Dillard was no fluke by winning the 70-yard high hurdles in meet record time.  Likewise, Arnie Sowell anchored Pitt to another victory in the two-mile relay.  Although not one of the indoor circuit’s more anticipated meets, the Evening Star Games powerfully illustrate how, in a historical moment where the priorities of the Cold War and civil rights movement placed countervailing demands on American identity, the performances of black and white indoor track stars, and the responses they inspired, presented alternative visions of Americanness.

Millrose Games

The Millrose Games, however, represented one the indoor season’s prime affairs.  The February 4th event attracted the nation’s top track talents, setting the conditions for the meet to dramatize tensions surrounding race, gender, and national identity.  The talented trio of Calhoun, Jenkins, and Sowell scored triumphs on the boards of Madison Square Garden (MSG).  With Dillard absent due to injury, Calhoun captured his “fourth straight hurdling win in a ‘no contest’ affair,” as described by the New York Amsterdam News.[8]  Jenkins denied Mal Whitfield’s quest for a fourth straight Millrose 600 crown, finishing nine yards clear of the defending champion.  The New York Times noted, “Villanova’s peerless Jenkins made a show of his three celebrated rivals in the Sheppard 600.”[9]  While not entering an individual event, Sowell once again anchored Pitt’s two-mile relay squad, closing a 15-yard deficit to secure victory for the Panthers.

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Arnie Sowell, Mal Whitfield, and Tom Courtney (L to R) contest the 800-meters at the 1956 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.  Courtney would win the race, as well as the Olympic 800-meter title. (Photo courtesy of media.gettyimages.com)

Sowell’s absence in the 880-yard race allowed his rival, Tom Courtney, to take the event.  During the 1955 indoor season, Sowell repeatedly defeated Courtney, a tall, lumbering white runner from Fordham University.   Although no animosity existed between the two, they enacted a racial drama when they toed the line against each other.  While sprint races were the perceived province of black athletes and distance races were considered the property of white athletes, the middle-distances remained racially undefined.  This belief, shared by both black and white track cultures, invested the middle distances with larger symbolism.  The Sowell-Courtney contests appeared as efforts to assert black or white authority over the middle distances.  The physical and stylistic contrast between the two gave their rivalry additional affective power.  Yet, the nearly 14,000 fans who packed MSG were denied the opportunity to witness this emotive rivalry, with Sowell’s demurral allowing Courtney an easy victory.  Courtney’s potential “white hope” status, however, was usurped by Dave Sime.

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Sime and Bobby Morrow, another “white hope,” grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in the summer of 1956. (Photo courtesy of media.gettyimages.com)

Sime won the 60-yard dash, with his performance also earning him the Rodman Wannamaker Trophy as the meet’s most outstanding athlete.  The New York Times’s Joseph Sheehan celebrated Sime.  “For style, strength and sheer speed, few sprinters seen in the Eight Avenue Arena [meaning MSG] come up to the Fair Lawn, NJ youngster,” he wrote.  Sheehan also reported that “Garden railbirds [meaning track fans] reacted enthusiastically to Sime’s smashing triumph.”[10] In contrast, the black sport press situated Sime within the genealogy of black track stars who previously had made their mark at the Millrose Games, such as Tom Carey, Ed Conwell, and Barney Ewell, implicitly suggesting that Sime was no more exceptional than these prior champions.

As at 1956’s previous meets, no visible racial tensions emerged at the Millrose Games.  In fact, the action in MSG exemplified interracial cooperation as black and white athletes competed as equals, striving for victory regardless of the identity of their competitors.  Yet, this vision existed in tension with the racialized readings of the sport promoted by white and black track commentators.  For black sportswriters, each victory by a black star held importance, further evincing the capacity of black athletes and, by extension, black Americans.  In contrast, white sportswriters, while not expressing racist sentiments, revealed their continued belief in white athletic superiority, ever-buoyed by the prospect of white champions leading the nation in the upcoming Olympic Games.  The context of Cold War and civil rights motivated these perspectives, with these broader national developments coloring commentators’ interpretations and fans’ understandings of the sport.  With victory, track stars did not just claim a Millrose title but made a claim on American identity.

**********

The snapshots of the above three meets do not capture the totality of the 1956 indoor track season, as the New York Athletic Club Games, AAU Indoor National Championship, Chicago Daily News Relays, and others offered additional thrills.  But the action and reactions at the Philadelphia Inquirer Games, Washington Evening Star Games, and Millrose Games explain Tex Maule’s intense descriptions of the sport. The cramped, smoke-filled, and screeching arenas that hosted indoor track meets may seem like spaces separate from the outside world, temporary athletic carnivals meant solely to entertain sport fans during the depths of winter. Yet, the opposite was true.  Rather than providing a respite from political and social concerns, these spaces of sport illuminated and heightened national anxieties.

As they jostled around the boards, navigating the tight spaces of the track, black and white track stars symbolically answered the questions raised about race, manhood, and American identity by the Cold War and civil rights movement.  With the prospect of an Olympic berth on the horizon,  an athlete’s victory not only served as an assertion of his individual right to represent the nation but also communicated the broader right of the priorities of black or white America to define the nation.  And while American sport fans no longer pack the arenas of the east coast for indoor track meets, the winter sports we do watch serve a similar purpose, with our estimations of Aaron Rodgers, Grayson Allen, Derrick Rose, or any other athlete who inspires adulation or recrimination reflecting various visions of American identity.

Cat Ariail is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the University of Miami. She researches gender, race, and nationalism in mid-twentieth track and field. You can contact her at cat.m.ariail@gmail.com.

Notes

[1] Tex Maule, “They’re Off!,” Sports illustrated (27 January 1958).

[2] Tex Maule, “Racing the Tigers in the Garden,” Sports Illustrated (28 February 1958).

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘Knew I Could Beat Dillard,’ Negro College Ace Tells Tribune,” Philadelphia Tribune, 24 January 1956, 11.

[5] “Overbook Hi Quartert Shares Honors with Sowell, Jenkins,” Philadelphia Tribune, 24 January 1956, 11.

[6] Roy Terrell, “Superman in Spikes,” Sports Illustrated (4 June 1956).

[7] “Tan athletes scored heavily in Star track, field games,” Baltimore Afro-American, 4 February 1956, 15.

[8] “Plenty of Action at Millrose Games,” New York Amsterdam News, 11 February 1956, 28.

[9] Joseph Sheehan, “Race Run in 4:09.5,” New York Times, 5 February 1956, 193.

[10] Ibid.

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